Sweden’s sex work laws: Too good to be true?

The process of regulating prostitution should be inclusive of sex workers, writes Louise Persson

SEX work is a hugely complex issue, and loaded with moral and ethical controversy. Ireland is currently reviewing its prostitution laws, and those complexities and controversies are all on show. In the middle is what is known as the “Swedish model”.

In the late 1990s, Sweden criminalised the purchase of sex and has claimed huge successes with the measure. The Swedish government and anti-prostitution organisations, including those in Ireland, have since advocated strongly for the model. But when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The difference with the Swedish model is that it claims not to punish women, but the men buying sex. So, it may be seen as progressive. It is important to note, however, that Sweden’s model consists of three main laws: A law against pandering (benefiting from a person’s engagement in prostitution), one against the use of rental apartments for prostitution (in practice a ban on brothels or using one’s apartment for sex work), and the much-lauded sex purchase ban (the criminalisation of clients).

There have been several attempts to survey and evaluate Swedish policy, but the most influential and supportive is the official government evaluation of 2010, known as the Skarhed report. The conclusions were striking. Street prostitution was halved, it was claimed, while Sweden had been transformed into a country undesirable for human traffickers. The law had also inspired changes in social attitudes, it said, and had a deterrent effect on clients.

The icing on the cake was no negative consequences for sex workers were uncovered. It is understandable to be attracted to a law that claims to have had such success. But what if the law — or all three laws combined — in fact have damaging and harmful effects on the wellbeing and safety of sex workers? What if the claims made could not be verified?

The Skarhed report has been criticised in Sweden for being biased and riddled with bad research and speculative conclusions. The criticisms should give serious pause for thought to anyone considering the Swedish model on the basis of this evaluation.

The successes claimed cannot be backed up with hard facts. There is a huge problem with data on sex work. It is widely acknowledged that despite our best efforts, our picture of the situation is full of gaps. But still the Skarhed report came to its conclusion about halving street prostitution. To be able to draw this conclusion one must obviously be able to assess prevalence before and after. It is unclear how this was done, or could have been. Oddly, a lack of information of the situation on the ground was admitted even as the claim was made.

The claim that Sweden is now less desirable for those involved in trafficking for sex is based on the premise that if street prostitution declines, trafficking must have declined in parallel.

The Sex Purchase Act is marketed as a tool that has “made it difficult” for traffickers by wrecking sustainable demand.

Fighting human trafficking is a laudable goal, of course, but the claim is unsupportable. Was Sweden ever a desirable country for traffickers? Is the connection between street prostitution and trafficking justifiable? There is too much of guess work at play. An often quoted figure is that an estimated of 400 to 600 women every year are victims of trafficking in Sweden. But this figure is no longer supported and since 2007, this kind of reporting has stopped. Again we have an absence of facts to back up the Government’s claims.

No serious effort was made to find out how prostitution had changed — something that would have been verifiable. It is possible that street prostitution has decreased, but that does not amount to less people at risk. It has been observed that since the 70s there has been a downward trend in street prostitution unrelated to the Sex Purchase Act, (a correlation rather than a causal relationship) but a much more dangerous situation may have been created by the act for those that remain.

Potential negatives, however, were not probed Rather than decreasing, sex work may be less visible, with sex workers moving away from prying eyes, from outdoors to indoors. But keeping a brothel is also illegal, so the relative safety of being indoors with others is diminished.

Looking at the Swedish model as a whole, we see the following:

* Sex workers cannot work together and help each other as they would be in breach of two of the relevant laws. This means they are more often alone, something we work very hard to avoid to reduce violence and rape;

* Cohabitants are put at greater risk, and sex workers risk eviction from their home if reported;

* Harm reduction efforts (eg, condom distribution) to reduce the harms of the sex work have proven difficult to carry out.

And as the Swedish sex workers organisation the Rose Alliance points out, there are now higher risks of encountering dangerous clients. This is the opposite of what we want.

It did in fact arise in the Skarhed report but was spun as a positive effect given that an aim of the law was to deter prostitution. This has been criticised by the Swedish equality ombudsman as it contradicts another aim of reducing stigma against sex workers.

If our laws relating to sex work are intended to make people safer then evaluations of those laws must be able to demonstrate this. Spinning figures and fudging facts is not helpful.

Ireland should certainly look at the Swedish model as one among a range of options for regulating sex work. However, it should do so critically, objectively, and inclusive of those most affected — sex workers.

The last thing Ireland needs is a law that entrenches a moral position against prostitution that is difficult to defend when the facts don’t add up.

* Louise Persson is an author, social scientist, and research co-ordinator at Swedish Drug Users Union.

* Read more here

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