Commuters heading into Hötorget metro station on Stockholm’s Malmskillnadsgatan could easily fail to notice that they are walking through the middle of the city’s main red light district. The sex shops and strip clubs are notable by their absence, the small number of mainly middle-aged women hanging out on the anonymous urban street do not draw attention to themselves and there are rarely more than a few cars at the kerbside.
Until 1999 it was legal both to buy and sell sex in Sweden, although brothels were banned, as were profiting from the sexual labour of others and advertising sexual services.
These restrictions remain in place today, but they were joined in 1999 by a new law which criminalized men who pay for sex. Casting prostitutes as the victims of the sex trade, the idea of the law is that it shifts the blame onto men who pay for sex. This is now being held up in Britain and elsewhere as a good example of how to reduce prostitution.
Supporters of the law, which leads to about 50 convictions per year, say it is all about handling supply and demand.
Off the street, onto the net?
“If you don’t have customers who want to buy other human beings’ bodies you won’t have the supply. This is one way, at least, to control demand,” says Jenny Sonesson, secretary of the Liberal Party’s women’s movement.
The law is widely credited with a fall in the number of street prostitutes. Official estimates put the number in Stockholm at 200 in 2006, compared with 300 before the ban. The number was even lower immediately after the ban, but has since crept back up. In Malmö there are estimated to be 67 street sex workers, compared to 200 before.
Opponents, including many prostitutes themselves, say the fall is not what it seems – they say the trade has merely gone underground and online, putting sex workers in greater danger.
There is little doubt that many prostitutes in Sweden, as elsewhere, have simply migrated onto the internet. A 2005 study put the number of prostitutes advertising online as 327 in Stockholm and 65 in the Malmö area.
Isabella Lund, 46, a spokeswoman for the Sex-workers and Allies Network in Sweden (SANS), began working as an escort four years ago after quitting her job as a nurse. She believes there is more prostitution now than in 1999.
Lund – not her real name – says the law, combined with the stigma attached to prostitution, makes it impossible to put accurate figures on the number of people in the sex trade:
“Sex workers try to avoid discovery because they are oppressed here. And since it’s very easy to have steady clients, prostitutes have no real need to advertise their services,” she says.
Feminist author Petra Östergren is also sceptical to claims of a fall in prostitution:
“We have no data that indicates that prostitution overall has decreased, even if some data showed an initial fall in street prostitution”. She is backed up by a new report from the National Board of Health and Welfare, which admits that it can’t say whether the law has reduced the number of prostitutes:
“It is impossible to show any simple causal links between…legislation and changes in prostitution,” the report states.
‘Men are ashamed of buying sex’
In theory, the Swedish law protects women and punishes men. But for Lund, punishing clients is tantamount to punishing prostitutes themselves and serves to push women further underground. Prostitutes are hardly likely to cooperate with authorities when to do so could result in their clients’ being arrested, she says.
“Our business demands that we stay away from the police because our clients have been criminalized,” Lund argues.
Östergren thinks that prohibition has also harmed services such as distribution of condoms to prostitutes.
“It is similar to the way we deal with the drug issue – we don’t have needle exchanges. We don’t mind sacrificing some prostitutes or drug users if it helps us create the perfect society,” she says.
But supporters remain convinced that the law, while imperfect, has been worthwhile. Sonesson says that the main effect has been to reinforce social stigmas about buying sex, making men think twice before visiting prostitutes.
“Swedish men are now ashamed about buying sex – it’s just not socially accepted,” she says, arguing that decriminalizing the purchase of sex would simply further stimulate demand. She cites experiences from Germany and Australia, where the illegal trade has flourished in the shadow of licensed prostitution:
“Of course the prostitutes in the legal brothels might be better off, but you will have more illegal prostitution and more victims of trafficking.”
‘We need a law with teeth’
A phrase often used in the Swedish debate, particularly on the left, defines prostitution as an example of “men’s violence against women”. All prostitutes, whether apparently willing or not, are victims, this argument runs. Sonesson, like other liberals, rejects the notion that men can collectively be held accountable for the sex trade. She also admits that women such as Isabella Lund exist, but says that they only represent a tiny fraction of prostitutes.
“I don’t question the choice of women such as Isabella Lund, but they have to see the connection between their lives and forced prostitution – not just trafficked women, but also other women who are forced into it for financial reasons.”
“Some of the customers who go to Isabella learn that it is OK to buy sex. Maybe next time they will go to a trafficked woman.”
For Sonesson the main problem with the law is the low conviction rate, with fewer than 500 men found guilty since 1999. Another issue is the fact that no men have so far been jailed. The Liberals, Christian Democrats and Centre Party, all members of the governing coalition, want more severe punishments, particularly for men who buy sex from trafficked women.
“What we need is a law with teeth,” Sonesson says.
Gothenburg prosecutor Thomas Ahlstrand also favours a tougher approach. Although he says that the law has been “a useful instrument in opening up investigations into trafficking” he favours sentences of up to two years for men who have sex with trafficked women.
If police estimates are correct, then Sweden has indeed been comparatively successful in tackling trafficking. Current research indicates that the number of trafficked women in Sweden is about 1,000, compared to 15,000 in Finland, although the hidden nature of trafficking means that it is impossible to give an accurate figure.
Indeed, the Finnish figure is based on a police report which said that 15,000 foreign prostitutes ‘visit Finland’ every year, including from neighbouring Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Quite how many are trafficked against their will is hard to quantify.
Petra Östergren rejects the argument that a ban on buying sex helps prevent trafficking. “You would never argue that the best way to tackle trafficking into domestic work would be to ban domestic work,” she points out.
For Östergren, prostitution laws will only work if the sex workers themselves are consulted:
“If we’re worried about the harm caused by prostitution, then policy-makers have to work together with sex workers – we need to listen to the people involved.”
James Savage & Paul O’Mahony