Sweden’s Prostitution Solution: Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?
by Marie De Santis
In the fog of clichés despairing that “prostitution will always be with us”, one country’s success stands out as a beacon lighting the way. In just five years Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of women in prostitution. In the capital city of Stockholm, the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of “johns” has been reduced by 80%. There are other major Swedish cities where street prostitution has all but disappeared. Gone too, for the most part, are the infamous Swedish brothels and massage parlors which proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century, when prostitution in Sweden was legal.
In addition, the number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex work is almost nil. The Swedish government estimates that in the last few years only 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually sex trafficked into Sweden, a figure that’s negligible compared to the 15,000 to 17,000 females yearly sex trafficked into neighboring Finland. No other country, nor any other social experiment, has come anywhere near Sweden’s promising results.
By what complex formula has Sweden managed this feat? Amazingly, Sweden’s strategy isn’t complex at all. Its tenets, in fact, seem so simple and so firmly anchored in common sense as to immediately spark the question, “Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?”
Sweden’s Groundbreaking 1999 Legislation
In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the selling of sex. The novel rationale behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law:
“In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell, and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”
In addition to the two-pronged legal strategy, a third and essential element of Sweden’s prostitution legislation provides for ample and comprehensive social service funds aimed at helping any prostitute who wants to get out, and additional funds to educate the public. As such, Sweden’s unique strategy treats prostitution as a form of violence against women in which the men who exploit by buying sex are criminalized, the mostly female prostitutes are treated as victims who need help, and the public is educated in order to counteract the historical male bias that has long stultified thinking on prostitution. To securely anchor their view in firm legal ground, Sweden’s prostitution legislation was passed as part and parcel of the country’s 1999 omnibus violence against women legislation.
An Early Obstacle
Interestingly, despite the country’s extensive planning prior to passing the legislation, during the first few years of this novel project — nothing much happened at all. Police made very few arrests of johns, and prostitution in Sweden, which had previously been legalized, went on pretty much as it had gone on before. Naysayers the world over responded to the much-publicized failure with raucous heckling, “See? Prostitution always has been, and it always will be.”
But eminently secure in the thinking behind their plan, the Swedes paid no heed. They quickly identified, then solved the problem. The hang-up, the place where their best efforts had snagged, was that law enforcement wasn’t doing its part. The police themselves, it was determined, needed in-depth training and orientation to what the Swedish legislature already understood profoundly. Prostitution is a form of male violence against women. The exploiter/buyers need to be punished, and the victim/prostitutes need to be helped. The Swedish government appropriated the funds for the country’s police and prosecutors, from the top ranks down to the officer on the beat, to be given intensive training and a clear message that the country meant business. It was then that the country quickly began to see unequaled results.
Today, not only do the Swedish people continue to overwhelmingly support their country’s approach to prostitution (80% of people in favor according to national opinion polls), but the country’s police and prosecutors have also come around. They are now among the legislation’s staunchest supporters. Sweden’s law enforcement community has found that the prostitution legislation benefits them in dealing with all sex crimes, particularly in enabling them to virtually wipe out the element of organized crime that plagues other countries where prostitution has been legalized or regulated.
The Failure of Legalization and/or Regulation Strategies
This Swedish experiment is the only example, in a significant-sized population, of a prostitution policy that works. In 2003, the Scottish government in looking to revamp its own approach to prostitution, enlisted the University of London to do a comprehensive analysis of outcomes of prostitution policies in other countries. In addition to reviewing Sweden’s program, the researchers chose Australia, Ireland, and the Netherlands to represent various strategies of legalizing and/or regulating prostitution.
The researchers did not review the situation where prostitution is criminalized across the board as it is in the US. The outcome of that approach is already well known. The futility of the revolving door of arresting and re-arresting prostitutes is familiar the world over.
In the states under review that had legalized or regulated prostitution, the University of London study found, the negative consequences were just as discouraging or even more discouraging than the traditional all-around criminalization. In each case the results were dramatically negative.
According to the study, legalization and/or regulation of prostitution led to:
- A dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry;
- A dramatic increase in the involvement of organized crime in the sex industry;
- A dramatic increase in child prostitution;
- An explosion in the number of foreign women and girls trafficked into the region, and;
- Indications of an increase in violence against women.
In the state of Victoria, Australia, where a system of legalized, regulated brothels was established, there was such an explosion in the number of brothels that it immediately overwhelmed the system’s ability to regulate them, and just as quickly these brothels became mired in organized crime, corruption, and related crimes. In addition, surveys of the prostitutes working under systems of legalization and regulation find that the prostitutes themselves continue to feel coerced, forced, and unsafe in the business.
A survey of legal prostitutes working under the conditions of the Netherlands legalization policy finds that 79% say they want to get out of the sex business. And though each of the legalization/regulation programs promised help for prostitutes who want to leave prostitution, that help never materialized to any meaningful degree. In contrast, in Sweden, the government followed through with ample social service funds to help those prostitutes who wanted to get out. Sixty percent of the prostitutes in Sweden took advantage of the well-funded programs and succeeded in exiting prostitution.*
So Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?
With Sweden’s success so clearly lighting the way, why aren’t others quickly adopting the plan? Both Finland and Norway are on the verge of making the move. If Scotland takes the advice of its own study, it will go in that direction, too. But the answer to the question of why other countries aren’t jumping to adopt Sweden’s plan is probably the same as the answer to the question of why governments haven’t tried Sweden’s solution before.
In order to see prostitutes as victims of male coercion and violence it requires that a government first switch from seeing prostitution from the male point of view to the female point of view. And virtually all countries of the world still see prostitution, and every other issue, from a predominantly male point of view.
Sweden, in contrast, has led the way in promoting equality for women for a very long time. For example Sweden criminalized rape in marriage in 1965. Even in the 1980’s there were states in the United States that still hadn’t made that fundamental recognition of a woman’s right to control her own body. The Swedish government also stands out in having the highest proportion of women at all levels of government. In 1999, when Sweden passed its groundbreaking prostitution legislation, the Swedish Parliament was composed of nearly 50% women.
Sweden’s prostitution policy was first designed and lobbied for by Sweden’s organization of women’s shelters and was then fostered and fought for by a bipartisan effort of Sweden’s uniquely powerful and numerous female parliamentarians. In 2002, Sweden passed additional legislation bolstering the original prostitution legislation. The 2002 Act Prohibiting Human Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation closed some of the loopholes in the earlier legislation and further strengthened the government’s ability to go after the network of persons that surround and support prostitution, such as the recruiters, the transporters, and the hosts.
And Why Can’t We Copy Sweden’s Success Here?
While it’s probably true that we and other countries are still much more steeped in patriarchy than Sweden, there’s no reason we can’t push now for the policy changes that Sweden has made. The beauty of it is that since the ground has been broken and the proof of success has been established, it should be ever much easier to convince others to follow.
* The full Scottish government report on prostitution policies can be seen at scottish.parliament.uk.
Feel free to reproduce and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact. Copyright © Marie De Santis, Women’s Justice Center.
The Guardian, “Ending a trade in misery”
Not only have the Swedes decriminalised the selling of sex; the Swedish government has also made significant resources available to help women leave prostitution. Beside this radical legislation is a public education campaign to debunk the myths and lies about prostitution – for example, that it is a career choice, and an equal exchange between buyer and seller…
The Guardian, “Eradicate the oldest profession”
But why should we take away the livelihoods of women in prostitution? I hear this time and again from those who hand out condoms and clean needles to women on the street and put little effort into helping them escape. Many women support the Swedish law, because it has given them an incentive to ask for support to get out of the sex industry. If the UK, like Sweden, provided readily available drug and alcohol rehabilitation, safe housing and protection from pimps then most women would leave prostitution…
Those hoping to see the government support decriminalisation of brothels will be disappointed by the Home Office review, as will those advocating tolerance zones. Where such zones have been tried they have failed. One zone in Melbourne resulted in street prostitution increasing fourfold. In Amsterdam drug dealing, trafficking and violence towards the women and customers in the zone led to it being closed in 2003…
Prostitution: Factsheet on Human Rights Violations
The average age of entry into prostitution is 13 years (M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes”, Victimology: An International Journal, 7: 122-133) or 14 years (D. Kelly Weisberg, 1985, “Children of the Night: A Study of Adolescent Prostitution”, Lexington, Mass, Toronto). Most of these 13 or 14 year old girls were recruited or coerced into prostitution. Others were “traditional wives” without job skills who escaped from or were abandoned by abusive husbands and went into prostitution to support themselves and their children. (Denise Gamache and Evelina Giobbe, Prostitution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation, National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1990)…
Estimates of the prevalence of incest among prostitutes range from 65% to 90%. The Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Portland, Oregon Annual Report in 1991 stated that: 85% of prostitute/clients reported history of sexual abuse in childhood; 70% reported incest. The higher percentages (80%-90%) of reports of incest and childhood sexual assaults of prostitutes come from anecdotal reports and from clinicians working with prostitutes…
Pimps target girls or women who seem naive, lonely, homeless, and rebellious. At first, the attention and feigned affection from the pimp convinces her to “be his woman.” Pimps ultimately keep prostituted women in virtual captivity by verbal abuse–making a woman feel that she is utterly worthless: a toilet, a piece of trash; and by physical coercion–beatings and the threat of torture. 80% to 95% of all prostitution is pimp-controlled. (Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, 1995, New York, New York University Press)…
“About 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape. It’s hard to talk about this because..the experience of prostitution is just like rape. Prostitutes are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year. They are the most raped class of women in the history of our planet.
” (Susan Kay Hunter and K.C. Reed, July, 1990 “Taking the side of bought and sold rape”, speech at National Coalition against Sexual Assault, Washington, D.C.)…
83% of prostitutes are victims of assault with a weapon. (National Coalition Against Sexual Assault)…
A Canadian Report on Prostitution and Pornography concluded that girls and women in prostitution have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the national average. (Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, 1985, Pornography and Prostitution in Canada 350)…
One woman (in another study) said about her health: “I’ve had three broken arms, nose broken twice, [and] I’m partially deaf in one ear. I have a small fragment of a bone floating in my head that gives me migraines. I’ve had a fractured skull. My legs ain’t worth shit no more; my toes have been broken. My feet, bottom of my feet, have been burned; they’ve been whopped with a hot iron and clothes hanger–the hair on my pussy had been burned off at one time. I have scars. I’ve been cut with a knife, beat with guns, two by fours. There hasn’t been a place on my body that hasn’t been bruised somehow, some way, some big, some small.” (Giobbe, E. (1992) “Juvenile Prostitution: Profile of Recruitment” in Ann W. Burgess (ed.) Child Trauma: Issues & Research. Garland Publishing Inc, New York, page 126).
In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted suicide. Prostituted women comprised 15% of all completed suicides reported by hospitals. (Letter from Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Jan 6, 1993, cited by Phyllis Chesler in “A Woman’s Right to Self-Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuornos”, in Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, 1994, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine)…
Pornography Trains and Indoctrinates Prostitutes
In a study of 475 people in prostitution (including women, men, and the transgendered) from five countries (South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia)…92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately…
Prostitution Research & Education: How Prostitution Works
Real sexual relationships are not hard to find. There are plenty of adults of both sexes who are willing to have sex if someone treats them well, and asks. But there lies the problem. Some people do not want an equal, sharing relationship. They do not want to be nice. They do not want to ask. They like the power involved in buying a human being who can be made to do almost anything…
A Thought Experiment for Those Who Want to Legalize Prostitution
Record: How many vaginal tears? Level of soreness? How many tears in the anus? Level of soreness? Do you have an infection? Colorful bruising? Sore jaws? Sores in the mouth? Unwanted pregnancy? Did you get an STD even though you used a condom? (condoms break, guys refuse to use condoms, guys pretend to use condoms, or condoms fall off inside the orifice during course of intercourse). Did you need drugs or alcohol to dissociate from the work? Do you feel psychologically liberated? Or, psychologically devastated? How so? Anyone stalking you? If so, fear level? Were you pressured to perform an act that you didn’t want to, but consented to anyway?
Gloria Steinem at Smith: Cooperation, Not Domination
…there are more slaves in proportion to the world’s population–more people held by force or coercion without benefit from their work–more now than there were in the 1800s. Sex trafficking, labor trafficking, children and adults forced into armies: they all add up to a global human-trafficking industry that is more profitable than the arms trade, and second only to the drug trade. The big difference now from the 1800s is that the United Nations estimates that 80% of those who are enslaved are women and children…