In 1999 paying for sexual services was prohibited in Sweden.
Since only the clients are criminalized, while prostitution itself remains legal, this law is a unique experiment internationally. What were the reasons for this law, and what is the outcome so far?
While those politicians who created the law claim that it has been successful, the truth is different. Criticism is growing; bad side effects are showing. And the prostitutes themselves are still very much against it.
HOW THE LAW CAME TO EXIST
Sweden has never had much prostitution, compared to most other countries. According to an investigation made by the government in the mid-nineties, Sweden had about 2500 prostitutes, 650 of whom were street prostitutes; half of the latter were on drugs. Sweden has a population of nearly 9 millions.
Prostitutes were being helped by special groups of social workers, and by the extensive social welfare system. In the last years even clients with sex addiction were offered help, and the programs reported good success. This work was stopped when the new law came, instead clients were to be seen as criminals and all the money was given to the police.
Considering the very small extent of prostitution in Sweden, and the vast social programs existing, why was prostitution considered to be such a big problem that this new law was "necessary"? Why was the law designed so to only forbid the buying but not the selling of sex? To understand this, an explanation of the ideological climate in Sweden is needed.
A radical feminist movement with strong puritan strains has grown strong in Sweden in later years, and it has affected all political parties as well as the public debate very much. According to these ideas all women are subordinate to men, in such an extent that you cannot talk about women having a free will. Women are victims of the "patriarchy", and should therefore be protected by the state from doing "wrong" things - even against their own will.
Prostitution is not seen as a social problem, but rather as a symptom of the inequality between the sexes. "Prostitution is the strongest expression of men's oppression and abuse of women. It is violence against women." According to this view, no woman can possibly choose to sell sexual services. Consent doesn't count. She is always a victim. Therefore the sex clients are made criminals, but not the prostitutes. The law is formally gender neutral, but in the proceeding debate the prostitutes were always called "the women", and the clients "the men". By making prohibition a feminist question, judicial and social objections became unimportant. The important thing was to punish "the men".
To this should be added the long Swedish tradition of social engineering, and state paternalism. One of the main arguments for the law was that it was necessary to "mark that 'we' don't accept prostitution in 'our' society". That way, they idealistically believe that their own Utopia will be made real eventually. Even if some of them might realise that the law would not put an end to "the world's oldest profession", they still wanted their symbol-law just for it's own sake.
After a long time of lobbying by certain extreme radical feminist groups the Social Democrats' party congress 1998 decided that sex purchase should be prohibited. There was still no majority among the members of Parliament, but the law was pushed through with the so-called "party-whip" - everybody had to vote according to the party's line. From January 1st, 1999, it is illegal to buy or try to buy sexual services in Sweden. But legal to offer and sell sex.
OBJECTIONS TO THE LAW
When the criminalization was suggested, many important people and organisations were against it. Amongst others were the government's highest judicial experts, Lagrådet, the Minister of Justice, many social workers, and the prostitutes themselves. All were simply run over by the prohibitionists. They didn't bother about any objections based on facts, they didn't look at international experiences. Their ideology was all that counted not the reality.
The objections to prohibition were mainly the following:
1. Prohibition is harmful for the prostitutes
Prostitution belongs to a certain group of phenomena, where a prohibition causes more evil than good (compare with abortions).
The prostitutes' rights organisations, which exist in many countries, are all against a criminalization of all these reasons. But nobody has asked the Swedish prostitutes. They have until now been unorganised, socially rejected and despised, and therefore powerless, without self-confidence. Easy victims for the politicians' ambitions. Now that the law already is a fact, some Swedish prostitutes at last seem to be working on a union. The prohibition and its bad effects have made a union so necessary that the former inhibitions have been able to overcome.
2. The criminalization is judicially wrong
The highest governmental judicial expertise, Lagrådet, spoke against the law, because it is judicially questionable and might diminish the public respect for laws. Now, also many other significant instances within the police and courts protest against the law.
RESULTS SO FAR
The proponents for the law claim that it has been successful, an example to the rest of the world. They have to defend their actions. But are they truthful? True is that street prostitution has decreased some, but has prostitution decreased? And how have the sex workers situation developed? Is the law effective, does it do well or harm?
Here are some actual news:
1. More violent sex trade
Rikskriminalen (the State Criminal Department) warns in a report to the government that the sex trade can be more violent. The prohibition has made it more difficult to reveal prostitution, they conclude. Because of the prohibition clients are unwilling to testify in procuring cases. Especially worrying is the trade with foreign women, who often get completely in the hands of pimps. The authorities demand an evaluation of how the new law affects the hidden prostitution; when the law was introduced street prostitution went down, but instead prostitution has increased on hotels and restaurants as well as on the Internet.
The police report that fighting forced prostitution and international trafficing has gotten more difficult. The pimps threaten the girls by saying that prostitution is illegal, and the sex clients are not willing to testify because it would be to confess guilty of a crime. Foreign prostitutes are mostly sent out of the country before the trial, and even if they still are present they are often scared by the pimps to be silent. With no witnesses available, the police and prosecutors have big problems to prove a case.
2. The law is condemned by the legal system
Since the new law was introduced in January '99, only 59 clients have been reported suspected of buying occasional sex. But only two (2) have been convicted, and they had confessed and plead guilty!
The prostitute is almost always unwilling to witness against the client, as she or he doesn't se herself or himself as a crime victim - and is not obliged to witness either, since nobody has to do that according to the law if it could be considered "disgracing". How it can be a crime anyway, without a victim, is another question. Anyway, it has shown to be impossible to convict anybody against his denial.
3. Prostitution moves abroad
Denmark has been "invaded" by Swedish men buying sexual services there. According to the papers Danish and Swedish prostitutes have worked overtime to take care of all clients from southern Sweden. In the town Helsingör fifteen women have opened a new brothel together, especially for Swedes.
Denmark has no intentions to follow the Swedish example; they are too sensible for that. Instead, prostitution has been decriminalised even more. Danish papers make fun of the Swedish prohibition. Ekstrabladet writes: "The Swedes are, as usual, out of their mind. Prostitution is allowed, but not the clients. How does that go together?"
The German paper Der Spiegel writes "Love for sell may not be bought in Sweden", and has the same difficulties as Ekstrabladet to make sense of it. "Prostitution is legal, but not to make use of it. What sounds somewhat confusing, is by the "red-stockings" in Swedish politics held to be epoch-making progress." The paper then continues with describing how difficult the evidence situation is for the police, that prostitution instead of taking place on the streets has moved indoors, and describes the hauss for Danish prostitutes.
4. Prostitution in Sweden finds new ways.
Prostitution has gone underground. Street prostitution is halved but, according to the police, prostitution still remains in the same extent - out of society's observation, control and aid possibilities.
It is known that trade with sexual services now are arranged via mobile telephones, informal contacts, on hotels and night-clubs, and via ads on the Internet. The number of home brothels has increased, and the power and possibilities of pimps is growing.
5. The law worsens the prostitutes' situation
Criticism is growing against the government's way of dealing with prostitution. Kommunförbundet (Alliance of Counties) say that resources for social work are too scarce, all the money has gone to the police.
Prostitution has found new ways. But the minority who prostitute themselves to finance drug abuse are in most cases so bad off that they lack these other possibilities, and they are desperate today. A criminal inspector says: "These women have a terrible life now"
A prostitute in the article says: "Take the junkie girls for example. The law is killing them! They don't manage anything else then stealing or selling sex on the street, and now their customers disappear. Then they'll kill themselves!
6. The Social Minister says the law will be evaluated
After the massive criticism, Social Minister Anders Engqvist says that the law will be evaluated next year. That is good. The question is, however, if not too much prestige is involved in the matter, to hope for an objective evaluation that would abolish the law.
7. Prostitutes unite
A former prostitute, Rosinha Sambo, is said to be spokeswoman for a new, countrywide union for prostituted women, called PKR (prostituted women's rights), which they want to form in Sweden. They will fight to improve the prostitutes' situation and status, make prostitution an accepted profession, and abolish the law against sex clients.
Such an organisation has been missing in Sweden until now, unlike most other countries. If it had existed earlier, the prostitutes would have had a way to make their voices heard, and tell that they are against criminalisation. Then those who advocated for the law would not have been able to lie about their standing on the prostitutes' side. Probably, it would then have been more difficult to get their law through the Parliament.
Now, it is likely that the law cannot be abolished within the nearest future. The pro-criminalization politicians don't care about the prostitutes will, and not about their well being either. The prohibition has become a symbol-law, with powerful ideological overtones. Then the results mean nothing. But reality cannot be neglected in the long run.
This homepage wishes the new Union good luck and progress in its work!
Until now, the law against buying sexual services in Sweden has lead to:
An article about the criminalization in Sweden, in English, by Petra Östergren. A more thorough explanation of the ideological background to the law than here.
Last updated 1999-11-13