Sweden revisits prostitution law
Its tough stance is upheld as a model. But does it work?
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"Prostitutes are already a stigmatized group and this law says we don't want to stigmatize them further," she says. "There is evidence that shows the sex-purchase law has changed attitudes. Young men are far more negative about prostitution here than in countries where it is legal to visit a prostitute."Skip to next paragraph
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ALTHOUGH OPINION POLLS INDICATE that a majority of Swedes support tough antiprostitution measures, only a fifth of those surveyed believe the law has reduced demand, leading some to challenge what analysts and sex workers' organizations say is a particularly Swedish sacred cow.
Last month, the youth sections of several center-right political parties proposed a softer approach. A few months earlier, a controversial academic study titled "Is Sex Work?" attracted a flood of media coverage and irate criticism.
"The sex-purchase law is seen as a symbol of equality in Sweden – prostitutes are portrayed as victims of men's violence who need to be rescued. That makes the issue more hotly debated here than in other countries," says Susanne Dodillet, author of the study, adding that the law is a legacy of Sweden's influential feminist movement and old left-wing views of prostitution as capitalist exploitation.
"Since it came into force, nothing has been done to improve the situation for women in prostitution," says Ms. Dodillet. "The same feminists who lobbied for the law argued against any measures that could make things easier for those in prostitution."
Dodillet compares Sweden to Germany, which legalized prostitution in 2002 and introduced harm-reduction measures to reduce the dangers associated with sex work. "It's not that the authorities there are in favor of prostitution," she explains. "They just see legalization as the best way to reduce the risks to prostitutes, by integrating them into the welfare system and giving them healthcare, unemployment insurance, and pension benefits."
Pye Jakobson leads the National Alliance for Sex and Erotic Workers, which has lobbied for sex workers' rights and campaigned internationally against the Swedish model recently adopted by Norway and Iceland. She says the Swedish approach puts prostitutes in danger and pushes them further toward the margins of society.
Antipimping provisions make it illegal for prostitutes to share apartments, which would increase their safety, Ms. Jakobson says. Compared with other European countries, there is also a marked absence of other harm-reduction measures, such as distributing condoms and deploying outreach workers in red-light areas.
"The whole attitude is that harm reduction would mean recognizing prostitution," she says. "But this law violates sex workers' human rights – their right to earn a living and to safe, healthy working conditions. We're not doing anything illegal, so we should have those rights."