The Swedish Model and Why It Works

study of 854 women in prostitution in nine countries found that 89 percent wanted to escape prostitution but felt they were not able to, and that two-thirds met clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress equal to that of treatment-seeking Vietnam veterans and victims of torture or rape.[1] We also know that a significant part of those in prostitution enter as children after being sexually abused. The Swedish Model views all women in prostitution as victims of sexual suppression and corresponds with the notion that prostitution actually represents a form of trafficking.

The Swedish Model was introduced in 1999 when Sweden adopted a partial decriminalization model regarding prostitution. The law is prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, but the person exploited in prostitution will not be subject to any kind of criminal or other legal repercussions. The reason behind the legislation was - and is - the importance for society to fight prostitution, that is considered to cause serious harm both to individuals and to society as a whole. Large-scale crime, including human trafficking for sexual purposes, assault, procuring and drug-dealing, is closely related to prostitution.[2] The other half of the Swedish Model is the criminalization of human trafficking stating that: who by means of coercion or other such means takes part in the process of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or reception of a person for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor[…], may be convicted of trafficking and sentenced to between two to ten years of imprisonment.[3]

In comparis­on to the current legislation in the United States, the federal response to sex-trafficking is already in line with the Swedish Model. The focus of criminalization is directed at the buyer and the trafficker/pimp rather than the victims. However the United States lacks a unified national response to prostitution “offenses”. Prostitution is currently illegal in almost all states and punishable by fines or jail time. This means that, women in prostitution receive disparate punishment throughout the United States depending on their jurisdiction and whether they are considered as victim of sex-trafficking under federal law. While the Swedish Model does not recognize a distinction between a prostitute and a victim of sex-trafficking, the United States conserves the arguably outdated belief that these two can be distinguished from one another in the modern society. Due to the relative ease in proving prostitution crimes in comparison with trafficking crimes which require a challenging showing of fraud, force, or coercion, there is the inevitable substantial risk that victims of trafficking and woman forced into prostitution will not receive help from the society, but rather criminal sanctions.[4]

Written by:  Olof Åberg

[1] Melissa Farley et al., (2003), Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, in Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress.
[3] My translation and edit of Brottsbalken 4 kap. 1a § (The Swedish criminal law).
[4] This paragraph: Kelsey Fleharty, (2014), Oregon Review Of International Law, Targeting the “Tricks” of the Trade: A Comparative Analysis of Prostitution Laws in Sweden and the United States & Max Waltman, (2011) Michigan Journal of International Law, Prohibiting Sex Purchasing And Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law


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