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Britain eyes Swedish law on sex workers

Government minister Vernon Coaker arrives Thursday in Stockholm, where the number of street prostitutes has declined by one-third since 1999.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Karin RivesContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2008


Britain is seriously considering adopting a controversial approach to prostitution pioneered in Sweden that targets the customer instead of the sex worker, making it a crime to buy – but not to sell – sex.

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A government minister, Vernon Coaker, is heading to Stockholm Thursday to discuss the impact of the Swedish reform. Officials in Stockholm claim the 1999 law has dramatically reduced the street trade and spared Sweden the attention of traffickers who ship unfortunate, vulnerable women around Europe in the thousands.

But sex workers argue that the law has made life more dangerous and precarious for them. Swedish prostitutes say that rather than reducing prostitution it has merely driven it underground; their British counterparts say importing the law would be disastrous.

"The [Swedish] government claims that prostitution has been cut, but where have the women gone?" asks Sarah Walker of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "Everything has been driven underground."

Ana Lopez, founder of the International Union of Sex Workers, says the move would force the trade into the shadows.

"It may seem like a good idea because it shifts the blame from the sex worker onto the client, but it still creates a lot of trouble," says Ms. Lopez, adding that clients nervous of breaking the law will be more capricious, more hasty, giving the sex workers less time to assess the danger level. "What we have been learning from Sweden is that sex workers are not better off with this model.... Whether you criminalize the client or the sex worker, it's the same result."

Mr. Coaker is expected to meet government officials and assess whether the Swedish experience would improve the situation in Britain. The plight of British prostitutes was given added urgency a year ago when five women were murdered in short succession near Ipswich, England.

With an estimated 80,000 people involved in prostitution in Britain, many of them caught up in the wretched industry of trafficking, the government has consistently said it wants to get a grip on the trade.

Measures tackling "supply" that would use carrots and sticks to get women off the streets are currently going through Parliament, so now ministers are interested in targeting demand. A recent survey in Britain found that 4.3 percent of men have paid for sex in the past 10 years. "Looking at the demand issue is something we want to focus on," says a spokeswoman for Coaker.

Stockholm streets: one-third fewer workers

Sweden is the only nation in the European Union that has criminalized prostitution, and the only country in the world to make it illegal to buy – but not sell – sex services.

The law reflects a commonly held belief among Swedish feminist groups and government officials that prostitution victimizes women and that tackling the demand for sex is more effective that criminalizing people who sell their bodies.

To date, about 1,000 sex customers have been arrested. Of those, about 260 were formally charged and fined up to 40 days of their salary, according to the Stockholm city government's prostitution unit.