By Cornelia Fransson

Swedish Sex Purchase Act, often referred to as ‘the Swedish model’ was implemented in 1999. The law considers the purchase, but not the sale, of sex illegal. Sweden was the first country in the world to implement this model and several countries have adopted similar ones since. It is a neo-abolitionist approach, deeming sex purchase a violation against human rights. While the prostitute is not penalized, all client and third-party involvement is criminalized. 20 years later the law is still under debate. Some are pushing for the decriminalization of sex purchase itself and therefore we need to discuss the potential consequences.

It is crucial to begin by differentiating between sex trafficking and uncoerced prostitution. Sex trafficking is prostitution by use of force, fraud or coercion and is exploitative. It is a form of modern day slavery. Uncoerced prostitution on the other hand is the practice of voluntarily engaging in sexual activity for payment. In Sweden, both prostitution and sex trafficking are considered harmful for individuals and society however it is necessary to distinguish the two to ensure that trafficking victims receiving sufficient help and so that willing sellers do not become victims of poorly targeted anti-trafficking efforts. It would also deflate the seriousness of trafficking. Both these acts are closely intertwined and should therefore be discussed parallelly. Legislation regarding prostitution has major effects on sex trafficking and should be formed taking that into consideration. 

The major aims of the Swedish model were to decrease inflows of human trafficking as well as prostitution while simultaneously preventing other organized crime, which is often funded through trafficking. Other important aims were to promote gender equality and create normative changes, while not stigmatizing sellers by criminalizing them. In several of these aspects the law has been successful. Street prostitution halved and prostitution via internet increased less than in neighbouring countries. The law prevented the establishment of new organized crimes and the law gained major support among the population. Though largely successful, there are still challenges it has been unable to meet.

The organization Riksförbundet för homosexuellas, bisexuellas, transpersoners och queeras rättigheter [RFSL] has argued against the Swedish Model for several years. Their critique concerns increased repercussions for sellers, including stigmatization and vulnerability, due to the hidden arenas prostitution has been pushed towards. They believe that sellers engage in risky behaviour to encourage reluctant buyers who are afraid of legal consequences. It is an important question for RFSL as LGBTQ+ persons, migrants and minorities members are overrepresented in prostitution engagement.

RFSL proposes decriminalization, not to be confused with legalization. Decriminalization punishes neither the sale nor purchase of sex. It focuses on laws protecting sellers from exploitation within the legal industry. Legalization of prostitution on the other hand is state controlled regulation of the industry, a model used in Germany and the Netherlands. RFSL also states that the purchase of sex in situations of human trafficking, heavy intoxication, defencelessness or coercion should remain criminalized. They oppose the Swedish system but there are some merits to this model.

Research shows that high-income democracies have increased trafficking inflows due to the purchasing power of clients. Despite this, due to the Swedish model, there has been a reduction in the prostitution markets and the sex trafficking establishment in Sweden is considered substantially smaller than in other comparable countries. The Government’s evaluation of the Act states that “it is clear that the ban on the purchase of sexual services acts as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers considering establishing themselves in Sweden”. While sex trafficking still exists and is a major problem, criminalization works as a barrier to it. Europol found that it was easier for traffickers to use the legal environment to exploit their victims in EU Member States where prostitution is legal. They report also stated that clients were easily able to exploit children in legal brothels and were more likely to do so given that child prostitution is highly profitable.

Several influential human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch [HRW] support decriminalization of prostitution. They refer to prostitution as ‘work’. The Swedish model however does not consider prostitution an occupation. This does not aim to stigmatize sellers or to prevent organisation among prostitutes, as that is still possible. The issue remains however that prostitutes are more vulnerable to trafficking, rape, violence and discrimination. The Australian National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre shows that prostitutes in general have higher risk levels of PTSD than soldiers, making it the highest ‘occupational risk’ in the country, often in combination with long-lasting stigma. These are not acceptable risks for any occupation but rather systematic human rights abuse. The Swedish Government points out that “Prostitution always means that vulnerable people are forced to live under inhumane conditions”. This does not mean that all prostitutes are vulnerable people living under inhumane conditions. But many are and that must be enough. 

Unfortunately, the Swedish model has not been sufficient in preventing these dangerous risks for sellers. Sellers and researchers testify that stigma and vulnerability remain, despite normative changes and a smaller scale of the industry. The Government stated in its evaluation that it is evident that law enforcement agencies are entirely dependent on governmental resources for efficient work against prostitution and sex trafficking. Therefore it is unacceptable that the police’s Prostitution Group was shut down and that many help centers depend on municipal resources and goodwill which are not abundant. Implementing a law like this, with semi-serious support mechanisms for these vulnerable groups is not enough. Similarly, small fines and rare sentences of upto a year are  not enough. A crime deemed harmful for women and considered an affront to human rights must be treated as such. The Swedish model is working. But it can be improved to better protect those still in the industry. 

RFSL lifts a lot of important issues regarding the Swedish model in their critique and I encourage everyone to read their statements. However, I do not agree that decriminalization is the solution, as I agree with the Swedish Government’s stance about the harmfulness of prostitution. The main idea of the Swedish model is absolutely incredible and in many ways it has been very successful. However, it has to be complemented by proper victim support and reintegration mechanisms, harder punishments for perpetrators and continued efforts targeting demand. RFSL’s critique is necessary for an inclusive and sensitive debate, without pride in the legislation. The network #intedinhora replied to RFSL’s suggestion of decriminalization by stating that the freedom from prostitution must outweigh the freedom to choose prostitution and I could not agree more. Promotion of human rights has to be done without the facilitation of human trafficking.

Cover photo: Garry Knight

Cornelia Fransson is studying the bachelor program in Peace and Development studies. Currently on an internship in Budapest working with minority rights, integration projects and conducting research on human trafficking and the commercial sex industry in Southeast Asia. Otherwise interested in the usual things, like belly dancing and Flat Earthers.

Related Posts