Sweden revisits prostitution law
Its tough stance is upheld as a model. But does it work?
When Swedish public radio stations posted fake ads for sexual services on websites in May, they were swamped with almost a thousand inquiries.Skip to next paragraph
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The stunt would hardly have raised an eyebrow in most European countries, but in Sweden, where an antiprostitution law that targets clients has been in force for a decade, it prompted an uproar, as well as calls for stricter penalties for those who patronize prostitutes.
The country's pioneering "sex purchase" law – promoted internationally as a model for reducing human trafficking and prostitution – is under review this year. Although lawmakers and police want harsher sentences to deter clients, some sex workers' organizations and analysts claim the law is unworkable and fails to protect prostitutes.
"It has made Sweden a less attractive destination for traffickers, but the penalties are so low that the police have not prioritized the crime," says Johan Linander, a Center Party member of parliament.
Mr. Linander's party, part of Sweden's governing center-right coalition, wants stricter sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders and those who frequent prostitutes controlled by pimps or human traffickers.
In Sweden, it's not illegal to be a prostitute. But it is illegal to hire one. The law considers prostitution a form of violence against women. Visiting a prostitute is currently punishable with a six-month jail sentence. However, despite about 2,000 arrests, no one has been jailed and convictions have only led to minor fines – due mainly to difficulties with finding evidence and the low maximum penalty on the statute books.
"We need the real possibility of jail terms for the law to become more of a deterrent," says Detective Inspector Ewa Carlenfors, chief of Stockholm's antitrafficking group, which has successfully closed several East European prostitution rings.
"At the moment, the penalty is the same as for petty theft. But buying a person's body and pinching a tube of toothpaste is hardly the same thing."
WHEN THE LAW CAME INTO FORCE in 1999, street prostitution virtually vanished here, but in recent years it returned, prompting calls for a crackdown.
Nonetheless, compared with other European capitals, Stockholm's red-light district – a nondescript street perched on a hill above the commercial center – hardly deserves the name. Most prostitution in Sweden is mobile, and some estimates suggest less than 10 percent is operated from the streets.
"It's much easier to sell sexual services via the Internet and cellphones. The hidden part of prostitution is far bigger," explains Anna Jutterdal, a spokesperson for Stockholm city's prostitution unit, which offers healthcare and advice to about 200 women per week. The prostitution unit's official role is to reduce prostitution, and having a law – however ineffective – that targets clients, plays an important part in that effort, says Ms. Jutterdal.