AS far as the authorities in Sweden are concerned, all prostitution constitutes human trafficking and, by extension, all prostitutes are victims of human trafficking.
It is with that as its basis that the government there has decriminalised the women offering sex for sale and criminalised the users of their services and focused a large amount of money and resources on tracking down the women’s pimps.
Users now face a fine or up to six months in prison if caught. Four people have received the maximum sentence because the authorities determined it would have been obvious to them that the woman they were with was trafficked.
“Some people think selling should be illegal as well, but we see the prostitute as a victim,” said the head of surveillance at the Stockholm police department, Detective Inspector Jonas Trolle. “There is never a question of free will from our point of view. It is not an agreement between two equal people.
“It is one person’s demand for buying another person’s need for money. Money that the prostitute will later have to pay to the criminal.”
The decriminalisation has had a dramatic effect. Since the ban on purchasing sex was introduced in 1999, street prostitution has halved.
Irish observers might point out that in Dublin, Ireland’s main stomping ground for street-prostitutes, the numbers have also decreased rapidly. However, here the decline in street prostitution has been accompanied by an explosion in those working in apartments, houses and hotels, advertising their services on the internet.
That is not the case in Sweden. The development of technology has meant there has been an increase in prostitution advertised on the internet there but authorities say, in total between street and internet prostitutes, the number is still significantly less than in 1999.
Social surveys in the Scandinavian country also point to a massive decrease in the numbers of men who are availing of the services of the women.
The confidential surveys found in 1999 one in every eight Swedish men confirmed they had bought sex from a prostitute. By 2008, that had fallen to one in 14.
A similar study was carried out in 1996 and repeated in 2008 asking the Swedish public generally whether they supported the new law. In 1996, 33% were in favour of criminalisation. In 2008, 71% were in favour of criminalisation.
The strength of support was also evident in July 2010 with the publication of a report, Prohibition of the Purchase of a Sexual Service: an Evaluation 1999-2008.
The report’s conclusion was that the legislation criminalising those who pay for or attempt to pay for sex had been overwhelmingly positive for all except the pimps, traffickers and punters.
“The inquiry concluded that prostitution in Sweden, unlike in comparable countries, has not in any case increased since the introduction of the ban,” the Swedish Department of Justice declared proudly.
“The ban on the purchase of sexual services has also counteracted the establishment of organised crime in Sweden.
“Hence criminalisation has contributed to combating prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.”
One recommendation which emerged from the inquiry was that the maximum penalty for the purchase of sexual services be raised from imprisonment for six months to imprisonment for one year.
According to the authorities, the stigma against the buyers of sex is now a huge deterrent.
“There is now a realisation that ‘I am destroying the prostitute’s life, my own life and my family’s lives. I will end up with a lot of problems’,” said Jonas Trolle.
Sweden’s rapporteur on human trafficking, Detective Inspector Kajsa Wahlberg, agrees.
“The least resource-heavy way to handle prostitution and human trafficking is for men to change their behaviour and stop buying sex,” she said.
“Prostitution is a form of exploitation of women and children and a serious societal problem that damages both the individuals who are exploited and society in general.”
The effect of the law has also been stark on the numbers who see Sweden as a location to sell trafficked women.
“Before the law came into force, traffickers and pimps could easily send the foreign women out in street prostitution in order to recruit buyers themselves,” said Ms Wahlberg.
“This was very handy and efficient for the traffickers and pimps. Today they have to be more busy themselves in order to recruit buyers and escort the women. Victims of trafficking, have several times told the police that traffickers and pimps talk about Sweden as a bad market for trafficking.
“We have also wire tapped severe criminal organisations and I especially notice how they look upon Sweden as a bad market for these activities.
“They say they have to build up an organisation in order to run these businesses. They have to advertise, make arrangements and have problems because the buyers are very much afraid of getting caught. When they speak about running these activities they often plan to do it in other countries than Sweden, where women can be sent out in street prostitution.”
It is clear that Sweden’s brave decision to outlaw the user has been vindicated to a large degree. Nonetheless there was a time when the country could have been forgiven for giving up on the pioneering move.
“We have been viewed like idiots (internationally),” said Ms Wahlberg. “It has been difficult to go to international meetings, particularly within Europe, and discuss this issue. It has been difficult to take part in discussions within Europe reaching out with this message.”
Even within the police force Detective Inspector Jonas Trolle met with scepticism.
“A few years ago a police officer working in the drug squad said ‘you still find people buying sex even though there is the legislation since 1999. It hasn’t worked’. I said to him, ‘You are working with narcotics yet last year we had 50,000 cases involving people just taking drugs for themselves.’ He became very quiet.”
Ms Wahlberg said international perception has changed dramatically as the success of the law has become clear.
“People ask us how we have done it. Now we have Iceland, Norway, Finland and Britain which criminalises the user. The sex industry is shaking now.”
Nonetheless there is no doubt that Sweden, like so many other countries, is still very far from eradicating the problem of prostitution and human trafficking.
Walk along the Malmskillinsgatan in Stockholm late at night and in the space of just 100 metres, one will meet up to 10 prostitutes.
In one night last November, there were five prostitutes who appeared to be from Nigeria and two eastern Europeans.
Unlike the women who hide themselves away on the streets of Dublin trying to make eye contact with potential punters, the women in Sweden — because they know they are committing no crime — will openly proposition every man who walks past. On that particular night in November, the eastern European women spoke in Swedish as they approached the potential punter. The Nigerian women accosted the men while speaking English.
Jonas Trolle admits that currently in Stockholm there are 130 prostitutes, 20-30 on the streets and 100 on the internet.
“That is in an area with 1.5m people. There is the same population in Barcelona and there are 15,000 prostitutes.”
However, the other major issue for the Swedish government is that only a portion of the population appears to have bought into the spirit of the legislation, making Stockholm almost the exception to the norm.
In the north of the country in particular, prosecutions for human trafficking are much more rare.
That has a knock-on effect with prostitutes who come to Sweden automatically heading for these areas.
For example in Gothenburg, there are 30 Nigerian women alone working on the streets alongside a variety of other nationalities.
The other major criticism of the Swedish law is that, when users of prostitutes admit to an offence, the prosecutor does not generally bring legal proceedings. Instead the individual is slapped with a “day fine”, a fine based on that person’s income. The average fine would be less that €2,000.
The lack of criminal proceedings is seen by critics as a major shortcoming.
The appearance of a perpetrator in court, the resultant shame when the person is named in the media, acts as a major deterrent to any repeat of the offence and to those considering visiting a prostitute,
With the day fine, the person can, with a bit of creative accounting, ensure that his family will never find out.