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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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