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Sweden Treating Prostitution as Violence Against Women

20 décembre 2004

par Marie De Santis

Sweden’s Prostitution Solution : Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before ?

In a centuries deep sea of clichés despairing that ’prostitution will always
be with us’, one country’s success stands out as a solitary beacon lighting
the way. In just five years Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of
its 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 renowned 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 is 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. It’s 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 in the Path

Interestingly, despite the country’s extensive planning prior to passing the
legislation, the first couple years into 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 it’s part. The police themselves, it was determined, needed in-depth
training and orientation to what the Swedish public and 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 put up extensive funds and the
country’s police and prosecutors, from the top ranks down to the officer on
the beat, were given intensive training and a clear message that the country
meant business. It was then that the country quickly began to see the
unequaled results.

Today, not only do the Swedish people continue to overwhelming 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 to be among the legislation’s staunchest supporters. Sweden’s
law enforcement has found that the prostitution legislation benefits them in
dealing with all sex crimes, particularly in enabling them to virtually wipe
out the organized crime element that plagues other countries where
prostitution has been legalized or regulated.

The Failure of Legalization and/or Regulation Strategies

This Swedish experiment is the single, solitary 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 failures and futility of the revolving
door of arresting and rearresting prostitutes is all too familiar the world

But the outcomes, as revealed in the Univ. of London study, in the states
under review that had legalized or regulated prostitution were found to be
just as discouraging or even more discouraging than the traditional all
round criminalization. In each case the results were dramatic in the

Legalization and/or regulation of prostitution, according to the study, led
to :

 A dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry,
 A dramatic increase in the involvement of organized crime in the sex
 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 a mire of 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

A survey of legal prostitutes under the showcase 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 services funds to help those prostitutes who
wanted to get out. 60% 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 ?

Why, then, with Sweden’s success so clearly lighting the way, aren’t others
quickly adopting the plan ? Well, some are. Both Finland and Norway are on
the verge of making the move. And if Scotland takes the advise 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 most, if not 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. In 1965, for example, Sweden criminalized rape in marriage.
Even by the 1980’s there were states in the United States that still hadn’t
made that fundamental recognition of women’s rights 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. Nor has Sweden stopped there. 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 patriarchal darkness 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
once the ground has been broken and the proof of success has been
established, it should be ever much easier to convince others to go down
that path.

* The full Scottish government report on prostitution policies can be seen
at this web page.

 Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep
the credit and text intact.

French version.

Copyright © Marie De Santis,

Women’s Justice Center

All rights reserved © 2000 by Woman’s Justice Center

Web site by S. Henry Wild

Marie De Santis


Version française/French Text

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