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.