When Swedish public radio stations posted fake ads for sexual services on websites in May, they were swamped with almost a thousand inquiries.
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.
"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."
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."