(Article by Stephanie Lord and Wendy Lyon)
There has been much debate recently around the introduction of the Swedish model of legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex. Championed by a group of well-meaning NGOs, and some with questionable origins, considerable column inches have been devoted to discussion of the benefits of criminalising the purchasers of sex workers’ services. For those who believe in women’s equality and oppose trafficking, it appears to be a safe enough endeavour to support. We are told by the “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign that all prostitution, regardless of consent, is a form of violence against women; that if demand for paid sex is eradicated, prostitution will end; that this is the best thing for women; that it has decreased prostitution in Sweden; that it reduces the numbers of women and girls trafficked and so on. It is unsurprising that people support this. Everybody is against trafficking, right?
But does it actually work? In short – no. In this debate, where you stand on the morality of a person commodifying their sexual services is irrelevant. If the goal of the Swedish legislative model is to eradicate prostitution and end the exploitation of women – it doesn’t work. To date, no evidence has been produced that the Swedish model has reduced the amount of prostitution. Not a single independent review has found this to be the case. Yes, the Swedish are correct when they say that street prostitution has decreased – but street prostitution in Sweden, as in every other country, is only a tiny percentage of total prostitution. As the Swedish Government’s 2010 Submission to UNAIDS stated, “Estimates of the number of people involved in commercial sex in Sweden vary widely and are very hard to estimate since it is mostly hidden and initiated primarily through the Internet or telephone. Although street prostitution does occur it is assumed to be only a fraction of total prostitution.”
This is really not surprising, as criminalisation has never been successful in deterring prostitution in any country. Further to this, it hasn’t reduced trafficking to Sweden either. Consistent Swedish annual police reports confirm that sex trafficking is there and is even increasing. The law is seen as hindering traffickers from establishing operations in Sweden – but they are still easily able to operate from outside Sweden’s borders, which the police say makes it more difficult to apprehend traffickers. It has also been reported that clients are now less likely to report suspected trafficking cases since it may result in them being charged.
Proponents of the law believe that this model will work because many of them have looked to the Swedish government’s own evaluation of the law – a bizarre approach, considering that most would never take it for granted that an Irish government evaluation of one of its own initiatives painted an accurate picture of reality. The Swedish government’s evaluation of the law has been widely criticised by many commentators – including Sweden’s Discrimination Ombudsman, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, and the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare – for its bias, lack of research, unsupported conclusions, unclear methodology and exclusion of sex workers’ own voices. The evaluation said that police had no evidence of increases in off-street prostitution. However, it acknowledged that police do not normally investigate off-street prostitution unless it is linked to trafficking – so how do they know the extent of it?
We do know that in 2010 the number of prostitution reports increased five-fold over the previous year, but Swedish police say this was not due to an increase in prostitution but merely to greater resources being applied to tackle the issue. This is absolute proof that there is a significant amount of sex work going on below the police radar.
More importantly, Swedish sex workers have reported significant adverse consequences as a result of the law – including that it has deterred some of the “ordinary” clients who only want regular sex, but has not deterred the dangerous ones. In short, criminalising the purchase of sex in Sweden has meant for Swedish sex workers that the odds of any particular client turning out to be dangerous are much higher. According to the sex workers – as opposed to their self-appointed spokespersons – since the clients are more nervous about being caught, the decision about whether to accept them has to be made much more quickly and without adequate time to assess whether they are dangerous. For them, the loss of “ordinary” clients now means they have to accept clients they would not otherwise accept, including those who demand sex without a condom. By making direct contact between buyer and seller more difficult, the law is also said to have increased the power of intermediaries (or in common language, pimps).
It has been widely recognised in the HIV/AIDS sector that sex workers who are not able to control their working conditions, most importantly condom negotiation, are at a higher risk of infection. This is the reason why virtually the entire global health sector supports the decriminalisation of sex work and granting sex workers occupational health and safety rights. The World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the UN Secretary General, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health – all of these have called for the removal of laws criminalising commercial sex between consenting adults, primarily because criminalisation is a recognised risk factor for HIV/AIDS.
It is a mistake to assume that criminalising only the clients removes this risk factor. In Sweden’s UNAIDS Submission, only 18.5% of sex workers reported using a condom with their most recent client. The health and safety complaints raised by Swedish sex workers since implementation of the law are virtually identical to those raised by sex workers in jurisdictions where sex-sellers can also be prosecuted.
The Swedish evaluation acknowledged that sex workers feel stigmatised, hunted and stripped of capacity under the new law – but said this was a good thing since the aim of the law is to combat prostitution.  To sell this to the Irish public as something that will stop exploitation of women is a lie. It is, in fact, comparable to saying that drug addicts should have to use dirty needles because it might stop them injecting! Although, while we’re on the subject, this is similar to the approach Sweden takes to drug addiction – it has largely rejected harm reduction in favour of penalisation and abstinence-based treatment – which doesn’t work.
Sex workers have been consistently denied a voice in the Swedish debate. So far, they have also been denied a voice in the Irish debate. Last year, the Irish Department of Justice went to Sweden to learn about its policies and did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation. It is a major violation of their human rights to adopt a law that affects their lives without giving them a primary role in shaping the debate.
It is important to understand that the alternative to the Swedish or Irish models is not “legalisation” as found in places like the Netherlands, Nevada, and parts of Australia. Those schemes are aimed at controlling the public order aspects of prostitution, rather than safeguarding sex workers’ rights. A truly rights-based approach would look more like the model in New Zealand, in which most sex work is not “legalised” but decriminalised. New Zealand sex workers made a significant contribution to the scheme’s design, and while the law that was ultimately passed is not perfect, it does give sex workers more rights than any other jurisdiction in the world – including an absolute right to refuse a client or service, protection under occupational health and safety legislation, and the important safety mechanism of being allowed to work together, in pairs or small groups. It is hardly surprising that New Zealand sex workers overwhelmingly respond positively to questions about their rights under the law. The same cannot be said about the Swedish law. Not even the Swedish government makes such a claim.
Everybody wants to see an end to forced prostitution and trafficking. Sex workers themselves are very well placed to assist in this campaign, and their contribution should be welcomed and encouraged. The Swedish law does the opposite: it encourages them to avoid police and social services rather than engage with them. Coercion and abuse can never be addressed by making an industry more hidden and denying labour rights to the people working in it. Just as they would in any other sector, it is the exploiters who benefit when we decide that the sex trade is “different” and so basic standards of labour law should not apply.
 National Criminal Police of Sweden, ‘Trafficking of Human Beings for Sexual and Other Purposes: Situation Report 9’ (2006) p.18
 Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway, ‘Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands: Legal Regulation and Experiences’ (2004) p.19
 Ministry of Justice of Sweden, ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008’
 Discrimination Ombudsman of Sweden, ‘Opinion on the Report ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008’’
 Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008’
 National Board of Health and Welfare of Sweden, ‘The Board’s Opinion on the Report ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008’’
 Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway (n3), p.13
 The Lancet, ‘Call for Decriminalisation of Prostitution in Asia’ (2001)
 Government of Sweden (n1) p.25
 Ministry of Justice of Sweden, ‘Selected extracts of the Swedish government report SOU 2010:49’ p.34
 Freedom of Information request obtained from Department of Justice (2011).
 Christchurch School of Medicine, ‘The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers: Report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee’ (2007) p.139