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.
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"The law has helped," says Agneta Borg, who has headed the unit since 1996. "We know that street prostitution is down, and we have no evidence that it's increased elsewhere." In Stockholm, the number of street workers has fallen from around 300 in 1999 to around 200 today, she says.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Borg also points to statistics showing that illegal trafficking of prostitutes, many of whom are young Eastern Europeans, is now less of a problem here than in other Nordic countries. Sweden receives an estimated 400 to 500 such women a year. By comparison, up to 15,000 travel to Finland every year and 6,000 to Norway and Denmark, Borg says.
"Police tell us that they've learned from wire-taps and other detective work that many of these trafficking gangs now try to avoid Sweden because we've focused so much on this issue – not just by passing the law, but because we've kept it high on our political agenda," she says.
Borg will meet Coaker on Thursday and plans to tell the minister that Sweden's model works.
Still, there is no evidence that the 1999 law has reduced prostitution in Sweden as a whole. A recent report by the country's National Board of Health and Welfare acknowledged that there is no hard data backing up claims that fewer men buy sex – only that the venue for prostitution has changed.
Prostitutes say law makes their job riskier
Swedish Sexworkers and Allies Network, a trade organization with 50 members, estimates that only 10 percent of sex workers walk the streets today. The rest make contact with their customers at clubs, bars, casinos, underground brothels and, above all, in cyberspace.
"I have many customers who would never dare to contact me on the street," says Isabella Lund, a sex worker based in the southern university city of Lund. "But on a whole, our industry has exploded after the Internet came – just like in every other country."
Ms. Lund, who uses a fictitious name to protect her two teenage children, argues that criminalizing the trade has made it more dangerous for workers. Customers are now much more reluctant to reveal personal information, which makes it tougher to sort "good guys" from "bad."
Lopez adds that it has also made clients far less likely to report nefarious situations in which they detect the shadowy presence of traffickers. "Many police [investigating] trafficking start with clients calling in; but if they are doing something against the law the last thing will be to call the police."
British prostitutes would rather their government cast the net a little wider in the search for foreign models from which to borrow. They scoff at the legal brothels in parts of Europe which they say amount to slave labor, and call instead for more attention to be paid to New Zealand, which decriminalized prostitution four years ago.
But Borg argues that Sweden's approach will build a national intolerance to prostitution, and it and its problems will start to wither. When the law was passed, most Swedes opposed it. Today, she said, 80 percent are in favor. "So perhaps, when we're at 95 percent, there won't be so many men willing to buy sex," Borg said.