Sex for sale: Why Sweden punishes buyers
To combat prostitution and sex trafficking, Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services in 1999. Its record since then stands out amid the failures of legalized prostitution elsewhere in Europe.
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Netherlands’s experiment with legalization has been equally grim. Two reports in 2007 and 2008 heralded official disenchantment with the results of a 2000 law that made prostitution and the sex industry legal.Skip to next paragraph
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The government-commissioned 2007 Daalder report found that the majority of women in the window brothels are still subject to pimp control, and their “emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects.”
A 2008 Dutch National Police report states it more strongly: “The idea that a clean, normal business sector has emerged is an illusion…” Like the Germans, the Dutch are now proposing an amendment that would penalize the buyers, but only those who purchase unlicensed persons in prostitution. Still, it’s an oblique indication that the concept of penalizing buyers is gaining ground.
The Nordic model
The failed policy of legalization of prostitution in Europe helped the Swedish model to become the Nordic model in 2009 when Norway outlawed the purchase of women and children for sexual activities. Results were immediate and dramatic one year after the Norwegian law came into force.
A Bergen municipality survey estimated that the number of women in street prostitution had decreased by 20 percent with indoor prostitution also down by 16 percent. Bergen police maintain that advertisements for sexual activities have dropped 60 percent. Effective monitoring of the telephone numbers of buyers who respond to such ads not only enables police to identify and charge buyers but also exposes a wider network of criminal groups involved in child prostitution, pornography, and drug trafficking. In Oslo, the police also report that there are many fewer buyers on the street.
The same year as Norway, Iceland passed a strong law criminalizing the purchase of sexual services. Earlier in 2004, Finland approved an anemic version of the Nordic model. This left Denmark as the outlier with no legislation targeting the demand for prostitution.
Criminalizing demand works. Police report that it becomes less profitable for pimps and traffickers to set up shop in countries where their customers fear the loss of their anonymity. Less profit means less prostitution and less violence against women.
Not only in Europe but also in the Philippines and Korea, the prostitution policy tide is turning from legalization to addressing the demand for prostitution. The United Nations has prohibited their peacekeepers and related personnel from buying women for sexual activities in prostitution, even if prostitution is legal in the jurisdiction in which they serve.
Countries that want to fight sexual exploitation cannot sanction pimps as legitimate sexual entrepreneurs and must take legal action against the buyers.
Janice G. Raymond is professor emerita of women’s studies and medical ethics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the board of directors of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. An earlier version of this piece originally appeared at www.portside.org