The movement behind the Swedish model of criminalizing the demand-side of prostitution

(The following text highlights points laid out in Arthur Gould’s manuscript entitled: The Criminalisation of Buying Sex: the Politics of Prostitution in Sweden, Jnl Soc Pol 30 (3): 437-456)

A Commission to investigate the sex trade in Sweden was proposed by the Minister of Equality in 1993, with the rationale that prostitution had changed its character and therefore could no longer be examined at the national level. The investigation of this Commission led to the following findings:

  • The damage prostitution incurred affects not only the prostituted individuals but society at large
  • Those most likely involved in prostitution were sexually abused
  • The view that John’s not only thought they were entitled to sex services, but also disregarded a woman’s right to human and decent treatment
  • Prostitutes often abused drugs or alcohol
  • Sweden’s superior welfare system, greater gender equality and effective social work programs contributed to the country’s low numbers of prostitutes
  • With the increase in technological development overseas, the potential for sex tourism, pornography, trafficking of women and the sexual exploitation of children would increase
  • Visits to Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallin, Brussels and Amsterdam for insight trafficking of Eastern European women to fuel prostitution shocked the members of the Commission. The Commission was appalled at the liberal views these countries had regarding prostitution. The Commission argued the liberal view was “clearly wrong-headed and dangerous” and dismissed the liberal view in its entirety


What is the liberal view towards prostitution that shocked the Swedish Commission?

It is a view that there is a distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution and that people have the right to sell their bodies if they wished to do so.

From the investigation, the Commission recommended to:

  • Criminalize prostitutes and those purchasing their services

The rationale for the recommendation:

  • Prostitution is in conflict with equality between men and women
  • In other countries were a liberal view of prostitution is accepted, it has increased
  • The social costs of prostitution are damaging


How was the Commission’s report received?

Very few organizations supported the report and recommendation. Instead, individuals found themselves either:

  • Supporting full criminalization of prostitutes and purchasers
  • Supporting only the criminalization of the purchasers, or
  • Supporting no change in current legislation

Those who supported the criminalization of the purchasers argued that punishing prostitutes was old-fashioned moralism and represented the hypocritical morality of a patriarchal society. Professor Sven-Axel Mansson & colleagues played a large role in endorsing the criminalization of purchasers. He argued that if Sweden took the approach of criminalizing prostitutes it would align itself with some offensive regimes. However, by focusing on criminalizing the purchasers, Sweden would have a unique approach to addressing prostitution. Mansson and many others insisted that criminalizing the purchasers would make Sweden unique and that other countries would likely emulate the Swedish model.

Ultimately, the most powerful and compelling argument for criminalizing the purchasers was the insistence that prostitution degrades women and is a form of violence against women. Something that cannot be tolerated in a society that promotes equality between men and women.

In addition to the appeal of enacting unique legislation and the equality and violence arguments regarding prostitution, there was also an element of  “fearing the foreign” that came into play. The Commission found that there was a growing number of Eastern European prostitutes entering Western Europe and the notion that this influx of foreign prostitutes into Sweden may increase the risk of infection also entered into the public debate. But it was not only the notion of increased risk of infection that entered people’s minds. Sweden was regarded as a social and economic success at the time and therefore Swedes felt a justifiable sense of “national pride and superiority”. Not only did Swedes enjoy a high standard of living, security and health, women in Sweden had also achieved a higher degree of equality than anywhere else in the world. Therefore, the potential of foreign threat and influence on Swedish national identity and values (no matter how irrational and exaggerated) were not something to be taken lightly.

Interestingly, the liberal view that prostitution was a voluntary choice and was not a form of violence and oppression was disregarded. Although this view was quite prevalent in many Western European countries, there was no support for liberal arguments and practices from the political parties at the time.


The outcome

In the end, a government proposal to criminalize purchasers of sexual services was incorporated into a package of measures dealing with violence against women (Kvinnofrid ­– Women’s Peace – Regerings proposition, 1997/1998). Following a National Legislative Assembly (Riksdag) debate, which outlined many of the points outlined above, there was a 2:1 in favour of the government’s proposal.

Although the strength and solidarity of Swedish feminists played a critical role in the passing of criminalizing the demand legislation, it is important to note that the feminist movement had its roots in a culture that was decidedly anti-liberal. This was (and is) in stark contrast with feminists in the UK, other Western European countries and North America. Sweden’s sense of national pride and cultural identity as a leader in social, economic, gender equality and health care policies, in addition to an underlying fear of foreign threat and influence of liberal ideologies, also played a crucial role in the passing of criminalizing the demand legislation.

As such, Swedish continues to be a leader in gender equality policies, where it is accepted that gender equality will remain unattainable as long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them. Moreover, it is also accepted that if men did not regard it as their self-evident right to buy and sexually exploit women and children, prostitution and trafficking in human being for sexual purposes would not exist. Therefore, countries around the world will continue to look to Sweden for policies on how to effectively address gender equality, prostitution, human trafficking, and violence against women and children.

Is there a link between human trafficking and prostitution?

A recent paper published by SY Cho, A Dreher and E Neumayer in the journal of World Development addresses the question of: Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?

This study was based out of the London School of Economics in an attempt to understand the impact domestic policies have on aspects of globalization. To address this, the authors focused in on determining how a domestic policy, such as legalizing prostitution, can impact the incidence of human trafficking inflow.

According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 79% of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation through prostitution, where the majority of those who are being sexually exploited are women and children.

Although the qualitative literature makes the case that legalizing prostitution increases human trafficking, systematic, rigorous research is lacking. As such, Cho et al, applied economic principals to extensive data collected by the UNODC, which involved cross-country information on the reported incidence of human trafficking in 161 countries. Through various regression analyses on the data provided by the UNODC, it was determined that countries where prostitution is legal experience a larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows.

To validate the conclusion from their empirical analyses, three country case studies were analyzed. These three countries were: Sweden, Germany and Denmark.

Sweden criminalized the purchase of prostitution in 1999. Germany further legalized prostitution by allowing brothels to operate in 2002. Denmark decriminalized prostitution in 1999, where self-employed prostitution is legal, however brothel operation is illegal (the approach Sweden had in place prior to 1999).

Due to the lack of human trafficking data prior to 1999 in Sweden, it is difficult to definitively determine whether or not human trafficking inflows were reduced in Sweden after new prostitution legislation took effect in 1999. However, a study by Ekberg in 2004 estimated that the number of prostitutes in Sweden decreased from 2500 (in 1999) to 1500 (in 2002), with street prostitution decreasing 30-50% after the law of criminalizing the purchase of sex came into effect.

A comparison between Sweden and Denmark revealed that decriminalizing prostitution did not decrease human trafficking in Denmark. In 2004, it was reported that in Denmark there were 2,250 trafficked victims compared to 500 in Sweden. It is also important to note that the population of Sweden is 40% larger than Denmark and the number of prostitutes in Denmark are ~3-4 more than that in Sweden.

In Germany, prostitution is recognized as a profession, where ~150,000 people work as prostitutes. Germany has one of the largest prostitution markets in Europe. In 2004, it was estimated that there are ~32,800 victims of human trafficking in Germany. It was further demonstrated in a study by Di Nicola in 2005, that the number of human trafficking victims increased from a min-max estimate of 9,870 –19740 in 2001 to 11,080 – 22,160 in 2003 and 12,350 – 24,700 in 2004. These data support the results obtained by Cho et al’s empirical analyses.

Therefore, the recent study by Cho et al demonstrates that on average, legalizing prostitution gives rise to a larger degree of reported human trafficking inflows. This is further corroborated with statistical evidence from three country case studies involving Sweden, Denmark and Germany.