In a centuries-deep sea of clichés despairing that ‘prostitution will always be with us,’ one country’s success stands out as a solitary beacon lighting the way. Since the introduction of a revolutionary prostitution law in 1999, Sweden dramatically reduced the number of its women in prostitution. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of women in street prostitution was halved.1 In many major Swedish cities, street prostitution has all but disappeared. Gone too, for the most part, are the renowned Swedish brothels and massage parlors that proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century when prostitution in Sweden was legal.
In addition, the number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex is nil. In 2013, the Swedish authorities reported only 41 suspected victims of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, a figure that’s negligible compared to the 15,000 to 17,000 females yearly sex-trafficked into neighboring Finland.2 No other country, nor any other social experiment, has come anywhere near Sweden’s promising results.
By what complex formula has Sweden managed this feat? Amazingly, Sweden’s strategy isn’t complex at all. Its tenets, in fact, seem so simple and so firmly anchored in common sense as to immediately spark the question, “Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?”
Sweden’s Groundbreaking 1999 Legislation
In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the selling of sex. The novel rationale behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law:
“In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem…gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”3
In addition to the two-pronged legal strategy, a third and essential element of Sweden’s prostitution legislation provides for ample and comprehensive social service funds aimed at helping any prostitute who wants to get out of the sex industry, and additional funds to educate the public. As such, Sweden’s unique strategy treats prostitution as a form of violence against women in which the men who exploit by buying sex are criminalized, the mostly female prostitutes are treated as victims who need help, and the public is educated in order to counteract the historical male bias that has long stultified thinking on prostitution. To securely anchor their view in firm legal ground, Sweden’s prostitution legislation was passed as part and parcel of the country’s 1999 omnibus violence against women legislation.
An Early Obstacle in the Path
Interestingly, despite the country’s extensive planning prior to passing the legislation, in the first couple of years into this novel project, nothing much happened at all. Police made very few arrests of johns, and prostitution in Sweden, which had previously been legalized, went on pretty much as it had before. Naysayers the world over responded to the much publicized failure with raucous heckling, “See? Prostitution always has been, and it always will be.”
But eminently secure in the thinking behind their plan, the Swedes paid no heed. They quickly identified, then solved the problem. The hang-up, the place where their best efforts had snagged, was that law enforcement wasn’t doing its part. The police themselves, it was determined, needed in-depth training and orientation to what the Swedish public and legislature already understood profoundly: that prostitution is a form of male violence against women. The exploiters/buyers need to be punished, and the victims/prostitutes need to be helped. The Swedish government put up extensive funds and the country’s police and prosecutors, from the top ranks down to the officers on the beat, were given intensive training and a clear message that the country meant business. It was then that the country quickly began to see the unequaled results.
Today, not only do the Swedish people continue to overwhelmingly support their country’s approach to prostitution (with 72% of people in favor according to a recent national opinion poll),4 but the country’s police and prosecutors have also come around to be among the legislation’s staunchest supporters. Sweden’s law enforcement has found that the prostitution legislation benefits them in dealing with all sex crimes, particularly in enabling them to virtually wipe out the organized crime element that plagues other countries where prostitution has been legalized or regulated.
The Failure of Legalization and/or Regulation Strategies
In 2003, the Scottish government, in looking to revamp its own approach to prostitution, enlisted the University of London to do a comprehensive analysis of outcomes of prostitution policies in other countries.5 In addition to reviewing Sweden’s program, the researchers chose Australia, Ireland, and the Netherlands to represent various strategies of legalizing and/or regulating prostitution. The researchers did not review the situation where prostitution is criminalized across the board as it is in the United States. The outcome of that approach is already well known. The failures and futility of the revolving door of arresting and re-arresting prostitutes is all too familiar the world over.
But the study revealed that outcomes in the states under review that had legalized or regulated prostitution were found to be just as discouraging, or even more discouraging, than all-around criminalization. In each case the results were dramatically negative.
Legalization and/or regulation of prostitution, according to the study, led to the following:
- a dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry,
- a dramatic increase in the involvement of organized crime in the sex industry,
- a dramatic increase in child prostitution,
- an explosion in the number of foreign women and girls trafficked into the region, and
- indications of an increase in violence against women.
- In the state of Victoria, Australia, where a system of legalized, regulated brothels was established, there was such an explosion in the number of brothels that it immediately overwhelmed the system’s ability to regulate them, and just as quickly these brothels became a mire of organized crime, corruption, and related crimes.
- In addition, surveys of the prostitutes working under systems of legalization and regulation find that the prostitutes themselves continue to feel coerced, forced, and unsafe in the business.
A survey of legal prostitutes under the showcase Netherlands legalization policy found that 79 percent say they want to get out of the sex business.5 And though each of the legalization/regulation programs promised help for prostitutes who want to leave prostitution, that help never materialized to any meaningful degree. In contrast, in Sweden the government followed through with ample social services funds to help those prostitutes who wanted to get out. Programs are available to assist sex-trade workers in finding other lines of work. For migrant women who were trafficked into Sweden, pathways are available to allow for their return home.6
So Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?
Why, then, with Sweden’s success so clearly lighting the way, aren’t others quickly adopting the plan? Well, some are. Both Iceland and Norway passed similar legislation in 2009. Canada and France have also attempted similar laws, sparking greater societal interest in the legalization versus criminalization debate. More recently, in early 2014, the European Parliament approved a resolution by British MEP Mary Honeyball calling for the Swedish model to be adopted throughout the continent.7
But, the answer to the question of why other countries aren’t jumping to adopt Sweden’s plan is probably the same as the answer to the question of why governments haven’t tried Sweden’s solution before.
In order to see prostitutes as victims of male coercion and violence, it requires that a government first switch from seeing prostitution from the male point of view to the female point of view. And most, if not virtually all, countries of the world still see prostitution and every other issue from a predominantly male point of view.
Sweden, in contrast, has led the way in promoting equality for women for a very long time. In 1965, for example, Sweden criminalized rape in marriage. Even by the 1980s there were states in the United States that still hadn’t made that fundamental recognition of women’s right to control her own body. The Swedish government also stands out in having the highest proportion of women at all levels of government. In 1999, when Sweden passed its groundbreaking prostitution legislation, the Swedish Parliament was composed of nearly 50 percent women.
Sweden’s prostitution policy was first designed and lobbied for by Sweden’s organization of women’s shelters and was then fostered and fought for by a bipartisan effort of Sweden’s uniquely powerful and numerous female parliamentarians. Nor has Sweden stopped there. In 2002, Sweden passed additional legislation bolstering the original prostitution legislation. The 2002 Act Prohibiting Human Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation closed some of the loopholes in the earlier legislation and further strengthened the government’s ability to go after the network of persons that surround and support prostitution, such as the recruiters, the transporters, and the hosts.
And Why Can’t We Copy Sweden’s Success Here?
While it’s probably true that the United States and other countries are still much more steeped in patriarchal darkness than Sweden, there’s no reason we can’t push now for the policy changes that Sweden has made. The beauty of it is that once the ground has been broken and the proof of success has been established, it should be ever much easier to convince others to go down that path.