The Swedish Model to Combating Sex Trafficking

Some say prostitution is the oldest profession still practiced and see no need for change. Others say prostitution is something society really needs to react to - by making it illegal to sell sex. When speaking of this issue, focus often lies on the selling part –the prostitute – rather than the one buying sex. Why is it so? Why are we not more interested in what drives a human being into buying another human being? Is this a behavior we should simply accept? Or is it may be time to ask ourselves if a time to change our focus has come.

In 1999, Sweden passed a new law; the prohibition of the purchase of sexual services, criminalizing the buyer and not the seller of sexual services. The law was the first of its kind and stirred up a lot of emotions and debate. The Swedish society has for a long time been viewed upon as striving for equality in every aspect. Gender equality is no exception, and the law itself was motivated by this ideology. We must ask ourselves: In a modern, equal society, where does a business which profits from putting foremost women in a weak and exposed situation fit in? It doesn’t matter how old the profession might be. We try to abolish slavery once and for all, why not abolish all kinds of exploitation of people? 

Many claim that making the purchase of sex illegal puts the prostitutes in a more dangerous situation, since only the worst kind of sex buyers will remain. These people often have a criminal history and have - as often put - not much to lose. Therefore, it is vital the police forces get the support and funding they need to keep the women still out there safe.  Even more important is the help provided for the women to break free of prostitution. To take it one step further, the most important issue is to change the habits and attitudes of society. It should never be acceptable to buy another person.

An opposite way of dealing with prostitution is of course to make it completely legal. In the Netherlands, for example, brothels are legal and the Red Light district of Amsterdam is world famous for its commerce. Police inspections are supposed to keep everything in check and health care is also supposed to be provided. A union for the prostitutes also exists. It is hard to tell if this way of handling this business is better, but where prostitution is legal, trafficking of humans tends to escalate. Many of the girls seen in these brothels are not Dutch, but from Eastern Europe and other poorer parts of the world.  

After the passing of the law, street prostitution in Sweden was reduced by 50 percent. A comparison study conducted in 2008 showed that Sweden even had a three times lower street prostitution rate than its two closest neighbors, Norway and Denmark. This sounds very good, but raises a lot of suspicion about how many unreported brothel-businesses or cases gone underground there are. However, during the first 10 years of the law, there was nothing supporting the idea of an increased indoor prostitution in Sweden. Sweden is also made a less interesting market for traffickers. Raids conducted by the Swedish police often involve two to four victims, whereas in several countries across Europe such raids often involves up to 60 victims. The law is therefore viewed as a success.   

Several surveys conducted in Sweden show that the public supports the ban of prostitution and also that the number of sex buyers has decreased, which hopefully indicates a change in attitude. Social workers also claim that buyers are more cautious than before.

Circulating back to the issue of gender equality, is the next step to ban both the buying and selling of sex? That is for the future do decide, but I would like to end this article with a quote from Stella Marr, a former sex worker: “Pimps don’t stop being pimps when you legalize what they do”.

-by Amanda Bränström, Nomi Intern

Eriksson, Johannes: Feministisches Institut der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 19. Green Ladies’ Lunch ”Prostitution in Europa – Nationale Gesetze und europapolitische Perspektiven”, The “Swedish model” – arguments, consequences, 031605,
Catalan, Zaida: „Efter en natt bland prostituerade och sexköpare“, Makthavare, 112409,
Janzon, Eva: “En ängel för de prostituerade”, Världen idag,
Tollgerdt, Johan: ”Kritiken växer mot ”Rör inte min hora””, Svenska dagbladet, 110913,
Svenska lagboken, kap. 6 §11,
Various authors:”Is prostitution safer when it’s legal?”, Room for debate, New York Times, 041912,
Swedish government report (SOU 2010:49): ”The ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services. An evaluation 1998-2008”, selected extracts, Nov. 2010,
Dr. Nick Mai: “ESRC Project: Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry”,     


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