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Prostitution in Sweden

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Title: Prostitution in Sweden  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Prostitution in Norway, Prostitution in the United Kingdom, Yvonne Svanström, Gunilla Ekberg, Prostitution in Northern Ireland
Collection: History of Sweden, Prostitution in Sweden, Social History of Sweden
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Prostitution in Sweden

The laws on prostitution in Sweden make it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. Pimping, procuring and operating a brothel are also illegal. The criminalisation of the purchase, but not selling, of sex was unique when first enacted in 1999, but since then Norway and Iceland have adopted similar legislation, both in 2009, followed by Canada in 2014 and Northern Ireland in 2015.


  • History of prostitution in Sweden 1
    • Eighteenth century 1.1
    • Nineteenth century 1.2
    • Twentieth century 1.3
  • The gender equality debate and the Kvinnofrid law (1960- ) 2
    • The Kvinnofrid law (1999) 2.1
    • The debates: frames and actors 2.2
      • Political parties 2.2.1
      • Gendering the debate 2.2.2
      • Role of equality 2.2.3
      • Major discourses 2.2.4
      • Official position 2.2.5
    • Aftermath of Kvinnofrid law 2.3
      • Exporting the model 2.3.1
    • Research on prostitution in Sweden 2.4
    • Evaluation of the Kvinnofrid law 2.5
      • Initial efforts 2.5.1
        • Socialstyrelsen (National Board of Health and Welfare)
        • Police and media reports
        • Government action
      • Public opinion 2.5.2
      • Skarhed commission and report (Ban on purchase of sexual services: An evaluation 1999-2008) 2010 2.5.3
        • Report
        • Initial responses to report
        • International commentary
        • Consultation process
        • Legislative response
  • Continuing political and public debate 3
    • After passage of purchase law (1998) 3.1
    • After publication of the evaluation (2010) 3.2
  • Current legal status 4
    • Purchasing sex (Brottsbalk 6.11) 4.1
      • Enforcement of law 4.1.1
    • Third party activities (Brottsbalk 6.12) 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7
    • History 7.1
      • Comparative studies 7.1.1
      • Law 7.1.2
      • Sex worker perspective 7.1.3
      • Evaluation of law 7.1.4
  • Other sources 8

History of prostitution in Sweden

Prostitution is not mentioned in any law texts in Sweden in the middle ages, and was thus not formally a crime. However, under the influence of the church, sexual acts outside of marriage was criminalized for both sexes, which also affected prostitutes. The normal punishment for illegal sexual relations was fines or, if the accused was unable to pay them, pillorying, whipping or other disciplinarian physical punishments.[1] The law and procedure was the same in the question of actual prostitution: when the activity of Sara Simonsdotter was exposed in the capital in 1618, revealing her brothel with clients in high circles, she, her staff and clients were sentenced to various forms of fines, pillorying and physical punishments for fornication.[2]

Eighteenth century

The earliest law to explicitly ban prostitution was in the Civil Code of 1734, were procuring and brothels was banned and punished with imprisonment, whipping and forced labor, and prostitution at a brothel with forced labor.[3]

From 1724 onward, women in Stockholm with no certification asserting that they were supported either by a legal profession, a personal fortune, or by a sponsor guaranteeing their economic support, could be arrested for vagrancy and placed at the Långholmens spinnhus to prevent them from supporting themselves "indecently", and this was a method frequently used toward prostitutes.[4] There were women active as courtesans, who prostituted themselves to upper class clients, such as the famed courtesan Catharina Norman, called "The Swedish Ninon", who did not belong to a brothel but met her clients at the theater or Opera and received them in her own home or in theirs: this class of prostitutes were protected from the police either by a certificate of sponsorship given by a client, or by having another official legal profession, usually as an actress or singer.[5]

In 18th-century Stockholm, coffee houses established by women, financed by their previous upper class lovers, were often suspected by the police of being masked brothels, as were pubs and bars, were the waitresses were suspected to be prostitutes.[6] These were often raided by the police, who forced the female staff to subject to physical examination to prevent the spread of sexual diseases.[7]

In parallel, however, there were brothels that were in practice tolerated by the police, such as the Platskans jungfrubur (The Plat Woman's Maiden Cage), which was managed by the procurer Lovisa von Plat for decades and tendered to wealthy clients.

Nineteenth century

In 1812, a law was introduced which allowed forced medical examination and treatment of any one suspected of carrying a sexual disease, a law that was in practice mostly forced upon women in the capital suspected of being prostitutes by the police.[8] Like many European countries Sweden delegated prostitution control to local municipalities from 1833 onwards. [9] An attempt was made to ban prostitution in 1836, but within a year a state run brothel was established, [10] which was not a success, nor were an expriment with private licenced brothels, London and Stadt Hamburg, in 1838-1841. From 1847 [11] most prostitution was illegal but tolerated and regulated, including medical examinations and lock hospitals for venereal diseases. Brothels were also illegal but persisted under police surveillance. Other regulations controlled areas frequented by prostitutes and the clothes that they could wear. This policy was both gendered and intrusive, [12] typifying the ‘necessary evil’[13] framing of prostitution typical of Western European discourse. An abolitionist office, the Svenska Federationen, was established in Sweden in 1878, [14] and eventually protests, including women’s movements in the 1880s [15] led to the commissioning of an inquiry in 1903, reporting in 1910.[16] The resulting proposals met vigorous dissent from feminists and liberals[17] who succeeded in removing gendered prostitution clauses from the proposed legislation dealing with contagious disease.

Twentieth century

After 1918 control of prostitution was a national responsibility, under two laws, the Lex Veneris (1918),[18] and the Vagrancy law (1885), dealing with disease and unemployment respectively, since money earned through sex work was considered illegal.[19] These were now gender neutral in language, but as elsewhere, not in practice,[20] and the new vagrancy provisions were condemned as even more coercive by women.[21] This was the Scandinavian Sonderweg (Special Way).[22] Six official commissions considered the issues between 1923-1964. In practice, women charged under the vagrancy provisions were apprehended for prostitution in what was still coercive care as social control.

The three commissions of the 1920s (1923, 1926, 1929) depicted prostitution as a dangerous predisposition requiring correction, as opposed to mere detention, a moral analogue to the danger of spreading disease. The 1929 report presaged contemporary legislative developments by referring to public education and the role of demand. Women were divided, some calling for abolition of the law pointing out it was gendered in practice, and others supporting the then popular social hygiene concept of sterilisation of the unfit. These discussions raised the idea that men who sought out sex workers were a danger to all women. Health professionals shifted from arguing about contagion to arguing morality.

This pathologised theory became the dominant discourse from the 1930s onwards for dealing with uncontrolled sexuality in a period which was characterised by social medicalisation.[23] This was also an era associated with an attempt to eradicate venereal disease by mandatory tracing, treatment and consent to behavioural change (Lex Veneris).[24] This formed part of a package of legislation that defined citizenship in terms of desired normative behaviour, including ‘honest labour’,[25] a social welfare state based on the priority of the State over individual freedoms[26] to promote the goals of folkhygien (public hygiene). Citizenship became a hierarchical attribute depending on adherence to these norms.[27]

Throughout these discourses, care was taken to distinguish attitude, which required correction, from acts, which were punishable. A parallel discourse was the concern about population and the 1935-8 Population Commission commented on the need to control demand. It also raised the idea of prostitution as antisocial. The 1939 prostitution commission proposed criminalising prostitution related activities as part of the fight against such a social evil, including the actions of clients, although for law and order reasons rather than moral. However examining the language of this and a contemporary commission on homosexuality, it is clear that the construction remained heteronormative and patriarchal. The 1940s saw continued pressure for abolition of the increasingly obsolete vagrancy law, which was now being enforced in a more restrained manner. The 1960s brought the widespread questioning of sexual mores to Sweden, and for the first time the notion of prostitution as normative, together with proposals for re-establishing state brothels.[28]

Debates in the Riksdag in 1950 saw women state that the primary cause of prostitution was male demand, echoing discourse outside of government in the 1880s and 1920s. By 1958 women parliamentarians were stating that prostitution was the most important social problem of all time,[29] demanding a further commission (1958–1962). By now there was yet another reconceptualisation of prostitution, from psychopathology to sociopathology, and the resulting legislation replaced the vagrancy law with the antisocial behaviour law in 1964. Regulation of prostitution passed to this Act, but retained the concept of normative social citizenship based on honest labour. In practice the law was used less and less, was successfully challenged in court in 1967 and was replaced in 1969 by the Social Services Act of 1980, till the Prohibition of Purchase of Sexual Services Act[30] of 1999 (amended 2005).[15]

The gender equality debate and the Kvinnofrid law (1960- )

Sweden has had an active debate on gender equality since the 1960s, and this has resulted in a number of institutional structures such as the Ministry of Equal Status (1976) and the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman(1980).[31][32] A gendered recommendation on rape by a state commission on sexual offences in 1976 evoked a remarkable consensus within both the women’s movement and the parliamentary women’s groups that eventually led to the demand for further inquiries including yet another prostitution commission. The resulting inquiry in 1981[33] was very controversial (internally and externally), concluding that prostitution was not a question of gender equality. Interestingly they found that prostitution was declining and recommended that criminalisation would merely drive it underground and worsen stigmatisation. Some attempt was made to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary prostitution. Amongst those opposing criminalisation were the police, judiciary and Ombudsman, gay rights groups and the Swedish Association for Sex Education (RSFU).[34] The battered women’s shelter, and most women’s political groups (except the conservatives) supported criminalising the client. The resultant bill (1982) only dealt with pornography but provided some funding for research on prostitution. However the rhetoric was clear, prostitution was still a social evil, and incompatible with equality, and should be fought.[9]

Between 1983 and 1993 (particularly 1984–1987 and 1990–1992) some 50 bills were presented dealing with prostitution, many of which included the criminalisation of purchase, and there was a major lobby within and without the Riksdag from women’s movements and calls for more commissions. A further commission was instigated in 1993 under a former Ombudsman.[35] One bill from women parliamentarians at the time demanded immediate criminalisation of clients, believing there was sufficient ‘evidence’ and that a further commission was not required.[9]

1995 saw both the reports of this commission (SOU 1995: 15) and also one on violence against women and rape (SOU 1995: 60). The latter [36] met the women’s objectives, the former [37][38] however proposed criminalising both parties to an exchange in prostitution, including both hetero and homosexual prostitution. In the ensuing public debate there was talk of a historic reversal of patriarchy and of the need to avoid further victimising the victims (women).[39] There was virtually no support for the commission’s recommendations in the ensuing consultation process, most commentators opposing any criminalisation. Bills from women parliamentarians criminalising clients continued to be presented and the Government was criticised for inaction.[9]

The Kvinnofrid law (1999)

The resulting government bill (February 5, 1998) packaged both commission reports together as a Violence Against Women Act (Kvinnofrid)[40] including criminalisation of purchase in the prostitution provisions[41] and measures to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. It was sponsored by both the Prime Minister, Göran Persson and the Minister of Gender Equality, [42] Ulrika Messing. The Justice Committee was not convinced that criminalisation would reduce prostitution, but still recommended the bill.[9] Yvonne Svanström (Department of Economic History, Stockholm University) describes[9][15] the debates as being heavily gendered. Men tended to argue that this was a social, not criminal, matter and that the bill intruded on self-determination, while the women argued that prostitution was incompatible with a social order embracing gender equity. They saw prostitution as patriarchal oppression, and therefore not a free will choice, although there was less unanimity over what should be done. The uniqueness of the proposal was emphasised, all of which took place at an ideological level with no appeal to empiricism, which was explicitly rejected.[9] Eventually the bill passed on June 4, 1998[43] by 181 to 92 in the 349-member Riksdag, becoming law on January 1, 1999.[9] On 1 April 2005 this provision was transferred to the Penal Code[44] as section 11 of a new sexual crimes chapter (6).

The debates: frames and actors

Political parties

Sweden has proportional representation and a multiparty system. Social Democrats[45] dominated Swedish Politics for most of the last century but formed a minority left of center government during this time with support from the Centre Party.[46] In the final vote the Social Democratic Party, the Left Party and the Greens supported the Bill, while opposition to the proposals in the Riksdag was only moderate, the opposition parties believing that the bill would be passed anyway. The Moderate (conservative) Party[47] and Liberals [48] opposed the policy, while the Christian Democrats[49] abstained. The Liberals argued that prostitution would be merely pushed underground, while the Christian Democrats wanted both the sale and purchase of sex criminalized.

Gendering the debate

While maintaining that this was not about women’s sexuality, the supporters of the bill claimed that women should control their own bodies, and that this was about men’s access to women’s bodies. Feminists and women’s movements had carried out considerable lobbying for criminalising purchase, but in the end it was the women’s groups within the parliamentary parties that were responsible for the success of the legislation, crossing and even defying their own party lines. However this was not as homogeneous as is sometimes perceived. Moderate women never joined the movement, and both Moderate, and a number of Liberal women opposed the bill.[38]

Most of the parliamentary debate was undertaken by women, which Ulrika Lorentzi, former editor of the feminist magazine Bang, referred to as the ‘Sex Wars’.[50] Women held 41% of the seats in parliament which although the highest proportion in Europe[51] still meant they had to lobby for male support within their parties in order to get this passed. The women’s movement had prostitution high on its agenda, criminalisation of purchase had been on that agenda for a hundred years, and there was little opposition to this. However ensuing public debates revealed that even Swedish feminists were divided on the approach that had been taken.

For the women, this was a test case of their ability to come together as a caucus and push through a women’s agenda over the wishes of male colleagues. Messing’s agenda was expansive: “I believe that in 20 years today’s decision will be described as the big leap forward to fight violence against women and to reach Kvinnofrid”.[52] [53]

Role of equality

In addition to the Ministry and Ombudsman, equality issues lay with the parliamentary Gender Equality Committee (1976), and a unit was created at the Department of Labour. Legislation was created in 1980. In this case the women’s agencies were seen as not being supportive of the women’s movement which had become increasingly coalesced around the demand for criminalising the client, but rather pursuing equality in a more impartial mode. The Minister, however, essentially championed the proposal both inside and outside of the Riksdag, and therefore it may be argued that that women’s political agencies played an indirect role through the profile of the office and minister.

Major discourses

Arguments as to action varied across a spectrum from no action, criminalising both partners, to criminalising the client. Opponents expressed concern that criminalisation would drive prostitution underground, and was symbolic rather than realistic. Other concerns were expressed about the state of legislation and practice in the rest of the EU, including a fear of contamination of Sweden, and that this would send a message to Europe against liberalisation. Other aspects of this included concerns about trafficking.[38]

A term that appeared in the debates and has since become popularised is ‘Swedish Model’[54] or "Den Svenska Modellen", a term long used to describe foreigner’s perception of the Swedish way of doing things, and in particular the paternalist welfare state that arose in the 1930s.[55] Out of context, this has become the most commonly used term to describe criminalising purchase in subsequent debates around the world.[9]

Official position

The Swedish Government states that the reason behind this legislation is the importance to society of fighting prostitution.[56]

Prostitution 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 also commonly associated with prostitution. (...)The vast majority of those in prostitution also have very difficult social circumstances.

The law is in accordance with Sweden's gender equality programme.[57] Theoretically the gender of the seller and buyer are immaterial under the law, that is it is gender neutral. However, the law is politically constructed, discussed and enforced in the context of women selling sex to men. The Swedish Government believes that women selling sexual services to men constitutes a form of violence against women which should be eliminated by reducing demand. Demand for women's sexual services is constructed as a form of male dominance over women, and as a practice which maintains patriarchal hegemony.[58][59] (see feminist arguments against prostitution). This legal and social approach to prostitution, which has become known as the "Swedish Model" or more recently the "Nordic Model", needs to be understood—at least partly—in the context of radical feminism (a philosophy which focuses on the theory of the patriarchal roots of inequality between men and women), which is very prominent in Sweden.[38]

Today, the law is largely uncontroversial across the whole political spectrum. The view of prostitution as a legacy of a societal order that subordinates women to men being officially accepted. Consequently, it has become a taboo subject to question the legitimacy and effectiveness of the law. and those who have criticised the law have faced considerable opposition. Nevertheless, there is a body of criticism, within and without parliament but this has had no measurable effect on the official position and party policy (see below). [60]

Aftermath of Kvinnofrid law

Most of the debate, other than the lobbying from women’s groups, took place within the parliament. Only after the law was passed did significant debate take place in public. 'Sex as work' had been discussed during the 1990s but was not part of the parliamentary debates, but started to be heard more in the public debates that followed. Petra Östergren, a PhD candidate and writer on sexuality, was a noted opponent, as were prostitution activists such as Lillian Andersson.[50][61] Criticisms were made of women politicians on the grounds of class and for causing divisions between women (although they have framed the debate as being about men, not women). There was also interest in the fact that Sweden was quite unique in this regard. Some former sex workers supported the law.

Parliamentary activity continued, including the introduction of bills to criminalise the selling of sex, and to promote the Swedish approach and oppose liberalisation of laws on prostitution worldwide. In April 2005 the law was amended as part of a reform of sexual crimes to add the clause “That which is stated in the first section also applies if the payment has been promised or made by someone else” to include procurement by a third party which was acknowledged as a loophole. Sexual acts with children were also added (section 9) and the Sex Purchase Law was moved to the Penal Code.

Following the passage of the law, the Government provided 7 million crowns ($1 million US) to the National Police Board[62] for enforcement.[63] Extra police were hired and vehicles in known areas of street work placed under surveillance. Ninety one reports were filed in 1999, and a reduction in visible prostitution was noted while acknowledging that estimating the actual activity of prostitution was extremely difficult, and that it was quite possible it had merely gone underground. The difficulties of enforcement were immediately noted by the police who had opposed the law, and the difficulty in getting a conviction was even harder under Swedish judicial procedure and the rights of citizens. Few of the reports in 1999 were concluded. Six convictions were obtained, and fines imposed. Difficulties in even understanding the law were noted, and understandably prostitutes were reluctant to inform or testify against their clients. The Socialstyrelsen (National Board of Health and Welfare) noted that estimating the extent of prostitution was almost impossible. A number of reports suggest that prostitution was at a low level in Sweden, and was on the decline, but may have experienced a slight increase in the 1990s.[64] As expected there was an immediate decrease in the visible spectrum, as seen in other countries introducing repressive legislation (e.g. Street Offences Act 1959, U.K.) followed fairly rapidly by displacement to the less visible spectrum.[9]

The historian Yvonne Svanström describes two similar cases, in which the outcome is very different for the man and the woman (a male judge and a woman police cadet), as exemplifying the fact that the law as a symbolic tool has done little if anything to achieve its intent of reversing patriarchal hegemony and reversing centuries of controlling women’s sexuality to controlling that of men.[15] She saw this as indicative of Eva Lundgren’s thesis[65] of the divide between regulative systems and constitutive systems, and the relative stability of the latter. [66]

Exporting the model

Swedish authorities and activists[67] went on to promote internationally the ‘Swedish Model’. The Government hosted conferences on trafficking, sexual violence and prostitution as a comprehensive entity[68] and issued Fact Sheets outlining official Swedish policy in a variety of languages.[56][69] These claimed that prostitution and trafficking were manifestations of the same male criminal predisposition, ‘male violence against women and children’, who are described as victims. A severe threat to society as a whole and indeed the world at large is described. Alliances were formed with prohibitionist anti-trafficking groups such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women,[70] and representations made at higher levels such as the European Union, Council of Europe and the United Nations.[71] An approach of public anti-prostitution education was taken, through advertising and education, including schools programmes. Subsequently the Swedish approach has found support amongst prohibitionist groups around the world who lobbied for similar legislation. Several European countries have discussed or are currently discussing adopting a similar legal system.[72][73] After a long debate, in 2009 similar laws were adopted by Norway[74] and Iceland.[75]

This approach has met with mixed results. For instance there has been intense lobbying in Western Australia over the last two government's attempts to reform the law there. In 2010 the Attorney-General criticised leading Swedish activist Gunilla Ekberg's credibility.[76]

Research on prostitution in Sweden

One often cited Swedish historian on the subject of the Swedish law on prostitution is Yvonne Svanström (Stockholm). Some research into the law comes from outside of Sweden as well.[77][78][79][80][81] In 2008 data appeared on a study of prostitution across the Nordic region by the Nordic Gender Institute (NIKK), including work done by several authors from the different Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden).[82] The most visible effect of the Swedish law according to the data presented seemed to be that since the law came into effect less men reported purchasing sex and prostitutes were less visible. Social workers reported a gradual decline in involvement over a ten-year period and more use of technology. It was unclear how much of this change could be attributed to the law itself. The 1995 Swedish government commission (SOU 1995:15)[37] had estimated that there were 2500-3000 women in prostitution in Sweden, among whom 650 were on the streets. In contrast, in the 2008 NIKK report estimates show there are approximately 300 women in street prostitution, and 300 women and 50 men who used the internet (indoor prostitution). Similar data from Denmark, where prostitution appeared much more acceptable, obtained by comparable methods, show there are at least 5567 persons visibly in prostitution among whom 1415 were on the streets. Compared to Denmark where purchase of sex is legal, Sweden’s prostitution population then seems to be only a tenth even though Denmark only has a population of 5.5 million[83] while Sweden has 9.3.[84]

In Norway with 4.9 million people[85] it was estimated that there were 2654 women, of whom 1157 were on the street in 2007 (among those not on the street in Norway, the numbers were based on those who sought support from social agencies, or whose advertisements were found on the internet or in a paper) which is over 4 times compared to Sweden's numbers and over 8 times more per capita. Furthermore, the number of men reporting the experience of purchasing sex in the national Swedish population samples seems to have dropped from 12.7% to 7.6% from 1996[86] to 2008.[82] No respondents in the latest survey published in 2008 reported they increased, or that they started purchasing sex outside of Sweden, nor changed into purchasing sex in “non-physical” forms. This 2008 survey, which obtained responses from 2500 men and women between 18 and 74, is now also published in English.[87]

Evaluation of the Kvinnofrid law

Initial efforts

Evaluation of the law creates considerable conceptual burdens, especially given the expansionist claims of the rationale and objectives, which include not only the eradication of prostitution but also of violence against women, and a cultural shift in sexuality values. It is important to note that, even before the introduction of this law, Sweden had less prostitution than other European countries.[88] Supporters of the law maintain that it has had the effect of decreasing trafficking and pimping.[89][90][91] Critics claim that there has been an increase in hidden prostitution, especially internet prostitution.[92][93][94][95] However, the research published by NIKK (see above) does not suggest that hidden- or internet prostitution is a comparably larger proportion in Sweden than in Denmark or Norway.[82]

Socialstyrelsen (National Board of Health and Welfare)

Monitoring and evaluation of the law was delegated to the Socialstyrelsen, which has produced three reports (2000, 2004, 2007). These acknowledged the difficulties in evaluating the situation and provided no hard evidence that the law had in any way achieved its objectives. The 2007 report states that street prostitution is on the increase after an initial decline and that customers and prostitutes now use the internet and mobile phone to communicate.

The issue of unintended consequences was raised by critics of the proposed legislation in Sweden in 1996 three years before it took place,[96] namely that it would drive women in prostitution underground, increase the risk of violence, harm the most vulnerable, and be almost impossible to enforce, which some claim has happened.[97] However the 2003 report stated that one "cannot state with certainty whether there has been an increase of violence [in prostitution]. . . . Some informants speak of greater risks . . . few have observed an actual increase . . . . Police who have studied the occurrence of violence have not found any evidence of an increase. . . . The interview data and other research indicate that violence and prostitution are closely linked, whatever sort of legislation may be in effect."[98] This assessment was not modified in the later follow-up report by the Board in 2007. [99] A 2001 police report contradicted this (see below).

Some observers have noted that practitioners have left Sweden in order to ply their trade elsewhere, Africa being one destination.

Police and media reports

In 2001 the Malmö police reported that there was no evidence that the law had reduced violence, rather there was evidence it had increased,[100]

In 2007 Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, stated that according to the Swedish police, 400 to 600 foreign women are brought to Sweden each year to be prostitutes. In Finland, which is only half the size of Sweden, that number is between 10,000 and 15,000 women. That same year, Jonas Trolle, an inspector with a unit of the Stockholm police dedicated to combating the sex trade, was quoted as saying "We only have between 105 and 130 women, both on the Internet and on the street, active (in prostitution) in Stockholm today."[101]

In 2008 Kajsa Wahlberg,[102] of the human trafficking unit at Sweden's national police board, conceded that accurate statistics are hard to obtain, but estimated that the number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped 40% from 2,500 in 1998 to 1,500 in 2003.[103] However, by 2010 she had conceded that the policy had failed, and that issues around prostitution were increasing [104] as noted in the media which carried out surveys on the street.[105][106][107] In Stockholm, police sources reported increased activity on Malmskillnadsgatan in the city centre (which with Artillerigatan in the Östermalm district was a traditional site for street prostitution in Stockholm).[108][109] Judges[110] and senior police officials have been caught purchasing sex,[111] [112] while most recently the Minister of Labour, Sven Otto Littorin, was also accused of purchasing sex (Littoringate). [113]

Government action

Amongst other concerns about the law, taxing the proceeds of prostitution (recognised since 1982) is raising questions as to the rationality of a law prohibiting purchase.[114] On July 10, 2008 the Government announced a new Action Plan[115] on prostitution including the investment of another 200 million kroner,[116] action at an international level and further educational measures to ‘help them [people] rethink their attitudes’. Stories about prostitution appear almost daily in the media, often with commentary from Gender Equality officials. The increasing emphasis on the symbolic nature of the law, ‘sending a message’, by the authorities also sends a message that the instrumental value is in doubt.

Public opinion

Opinion polls have shown high public support: polls conducted by the opinion and social research consultancy, SIFO, in 1999, and again two years later, showed a rise – from 76% to 81% – in the number of people who favoured this law. The percentage of respondents who wanted the law to be repealed was 15% in 1999 and 14% two years later. The rest "didn't know". [117] In the 2008 survey conducted by NIKK (see above), 71% of Swedes said they supported the ban on paying for sex, although only 20% of respondents believed that the number of people who pay for sex had been reduced. 79% of women and 60% of men favored the law. The young adult population (18-38), particularly women, were most in favor of the law.[118][119]

A 2005 sex survey conducted online by Durex has shown that out of the 34 countries surveyed, Sweden had the lowest percentage of respondents who had paid for sex (3% of those who answered the question. Respondents included both men and women). The methodology has been criticised.[120]

A 2010 survey by Järfälla tjejjour[121] found that 25% of Swedish men were in favour of repealing the law, compared with 7% of women.[122]

Skarhed commission and report (Ban on purchase of sexual services: An evaluation 1999-2008) 2010

In 2008, the Swedish government appointed Supreme Court Justice and later Justice Chancellor (Justitiekanslern), Anna Skarhed, to lead an official inquiry into the effects that the purchase law has had on prostitution and human trafficking in Sweden.[123] This evaluation attracted great interest internationally. But Susanne Dodillet, an academic at Gothenburg University and author of Är sex arbete? (Is Sex Work?), [124][125] was sceptical that the review would add much to what we know.[126] She criticized the fact that the report, regardless of its results, would not be allowed to suggest repeal of the law.

One group of scholars, politicians, and NGOs made a submission to the Commission on March 17, 2008, arguing that the Government should provide a civil rights remedy to people in prostitution in order to support their exiting the trade.[127] Their submission stated that the judiciary were misinterpreting the law, and that this should be recognized and corrected. In support of this they cited a 2001 case[128] in which it was held that the law did not provide a woman with a civil right to damage awards from a purchaser in a sexual transaction. Among this group of thirteen petitioners, were the Swedish Association of Women's Shelters and Young Women's Empowerment Centers [129] (one of the two national umbrella shelter-organizations), the Social Democrat’s Women’s Federation (S-Kvinnor), and the immigrant-oriented women's shelter Terrafem.[130]


The final report of the commission was submitted to Justice Minister Beatrice Ask in July 2010.[131] [132] The report stated that the law worked, and had achieved its objectives but suggested that the sentence for purchasing sex be doubled. It stated that since the introduction of the ban on buying sex, street prostitution had been halved and that: "This reduction may be considered to be a direct result of the criminalisation of sex purchases." It was also found that there had been no overall increase in prostitution in Sweden. "People working in the field do not consider that there has been an increase in prostitution since the ban was introduced". It also stated that the law has had a positive effect on human trafficking. "According to the National Criminal Police, 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".

The report also acknowledged Internet (indoor) prostitution as an expanding market, which is more difficult to study and verify than street prostitution, and which, in the last five years has increased in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, however it stated, concurring with the NIKK report (above), that "the scale of this form of prostitution is more extensive in our neighbouring countries, and there is nothing to indicate that a greater increase in prostitution over the Internet has occurred in Sweden than in these comparable countries. This indicates that the ban has not led to street prostitution in Sweden shifting arenas to the Internet". It also stated that there was no evidence of an increase of abuse towards the prostitutes and of worse living conditions for prostitutes. "As far as we can judge from the written material and the contacts we have had with public officials and people involved in prostitution, these fears have not been realised", concurring with the Board of Welfare assessment (above) that persons in prostitution are not worse off as an effect of the law. It was also noted that there were many limitations to evaluating the situation of prostitution in Sweden, due to the nature of prostitution and trafficking which are "complex and multifaceted social phenomena which partly occur in secret" and the fact that many empirical surveys had limited scope, and different methodologies and purposes.

Sweden's position on prostitution was reaffirmed: "Those who defend prostitution argue that it is possible to differentiate between voluntary and non-voluntary prostitution, that adults should have the right to freely sell and freely purchase sex (...) However, based on a gender equality and human rights perspective, (...) the distinction between voluntary and nonvoluntary prostitution is not relevant." The report also addressed the suggestion of civil remedy, stating that the "person exploited in prostitution may normally be considered the injured party" implying a civil right to damages under the law.

Initial responses to report

The report was sent to the consultation process, where interested groups were provided with the opportunity to comment on it (see below). Release of the report attracted many initial commentaries in both English[133][134] and Swedish.[135] [136][137] The Swedish media originally reported this in a largely factual manner, with two exceptions, one positive,[138] and one critical.[139] Commentaries have largely focussed on the ideological and political background. The law's supporters see the report as affirmation, while critics complain it adds nothing since it is not based on empirical research. They have commented on the lack of methodology and evidence and the failure to adequately consult with prostitutes themselves and have questioned the scientific validity. They have also raised the question as to whether it should be translated into English (only a summary is available) to allow a wider examination.[140]

At the time of the release of the report, the Littoringate affair (see above) was occupying the media, leading people to question the law's purpose and underlying rationale when even government ministers were ignoring it. For instance, lawyer Alice Teodorescu wrote in Aftonbladet that Sweden has double standards in morality,[141] while Isabelle Ståhl, in Sveriges Television questioned the underlying victimisation theory,[142] and Elisabet Höglund in Aftonbladet suggested the law be scrapped, calling it one of the weirdest laws in Swedish history and legally implausible because of its asymmetry.[143] Such open challenging of the law has been unusual in the last 10 years since it was passed. However the debate continues to be very divisive.[144] Other criticism came from Paulina Neuding, editor of Neo.[145] Some of the debate raised the broader question of state paternalism versus individual choice, and whether there should even be moral laws (Morallagar),[146][147] given the pending Swedish elections on September 19, 2010.[148][149]

One of the conclusions rests on comparisons between Sweden and surrounding Nordic countries (see NIKK study above). Some have considered the numbers on street prostitution in Denmark to be over reported, based on a report from the Danish prostitutes' organization

  • Yvonne Svanström. Prostitution in Sweden: Debates and policies 1980-2004, in Gangoli G, Westmarland N. International Approaches to Prostitution. The Policy Press, London 2006, pp. 67ff
  • Yvonne Svanström. Criminalising the john - a Swedish gender model?, in pp. Outshoorn J (ed.) The Politics of Prostitution: Women's movements, democratic states, and the globalisation of sex commerce. Cambridge 2004, 225ff

Other sources

  • "Policing prostitution: The oldest conundrum: The red lights are going out all over Europe - but not elsewhere".  
  • Sullivan, Tom (28 June 2009). "Sweden revisits prostitution law: Its tough stance is upheld as a model; but does it work?".  
Anti- Swedish Sex Purchase Act
  • "The Swedish law to criminalize clients: A failed experiment in social engineering". Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NWSP). 4 April 2012. 
  • Conference paper presented at the International Workshop: Decriminalizing Prostitution and Beyond: Practical Experiences and Challenges, March 3 and 4, 2011.  
  • Jacobs, Ruth (3 September 2013). "‘Criminalising the purchase of sex: Lessons from Sweden’ – Dr Jay Levy discusses his new book". Ruth Jacobs' blog. 
Book details: Levy, Jay (2015). Criminalising the purchase of sex: lessons from Sweden. Abingdon, Oxfordshire New York, New York: Routledge.  
  • Osborne, Hannah (27 January 2014). "Sex law expert Belinda Brooks-Gordon: Why the Nordic model of prostitution does not work".  
Pro - Swedish Sex Purchase Act
  • Baklinski, Thaddeus M. (15 November 2007). "Swedish prostitution ban an apparent enormous success". Life Site News. 
  • De Santis, Marie (20 December 2004). "Sweden treating prostitution as violence against women". Sisyphe. 
  • Pdf.  
  • Waltman, Max (2011). "Prohibiting sex purchasing and ending trafficking: The Swedish prostitution law" (pdf). Michigan Journal of International Law (  
  • Waltman, Max (September–October 2011). "Sweden's prohibition of purchase of sex: The law's reasons, impact, and potential". Free online version. Pdf.  

Evaluation of law

  • "A Swedish sexworker on the criminalization of clients", interview with Pye Jacbsson, film by HCLU-SWAN, at YouTube

Sex worker perspective

  • Brottsbalk 1962 Penal Code (The sex purchase law is 6.11)


  • Susanne Dodillet. Cultural clash on prostitution: Debates on prostitution in Germany and Sweden in the 1990s, in: Margaret Breen and Fiona Peters (eds.) Genealogies of Identity: Interdisciplinary readings on sex and sexuality, Rodophi, Amsterdam 2005
  • )Pdf version(
  • Is sex work? Swedish and German prostitution policy since the 1970s. by Susanne Dodillet, Gothenburg University, 2009.
  • Emma Dahlin. Prostitution in Germany and Sweden: What is right and what is wrong, 2008

Comparative studies

  • Prostitutionsproblemet och lösdrivarlagen. Morgonbris. February 1924 (The Prostitution problem and the Vagrancy Laws)
  • Johan Edman. Lösdrivarlagen och den samhällsfarliga lättjan.


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  185. ^ Ann Jordan. The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering. Rights Work Issue 4 April 2012
  186. ^ HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health. Global Commission on HIV and the Law. July 9 2012. Retrieved on July 25 2012.
  187. ^ )Reasons for the Government's proposals and assessment 16.1 The purchase of sexual services is prohibited Skälen för regeringens förslag och bedömning "...är det inte är rimligt att också kriminalisera den som, åtminstone i flertalet fall, är den svagare parten som utnyttjas av andra som vill tillfredsställa sin egen sexualdrift", p. 104)(16.1 Köp av sexuella tjänster förbjuds (p. 100) Section 16: ProstitutionProp. 1997/98:55 Kvinnofrid (Women’s Sanctuary, or Peace)
  188. ^ (A New Sexual Crimes Legislation) (Swed.) En ny sexualbrottslagstiftning Proposition (Prop.) 2004/05:45
  189. ^ Brottsbalken [BrB] (Criminal Code) 6:11 (English) “Chapter 6 of the Swedish Penal Code 1962:700
  190. ^ ‘Jail men who pay for sex', The Local, 8 April 2008, accessed December 18 2008
  191. ^ "Scotland's Sex Trade Fight Looks To Success Of Swedish Model".  
  192. ^ Sweden's prostitution law a success: report. The Local July 3 2010
  193. ^ Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform. The Swedish Ban: The Debate over Criminal Sentences. May 19 2010
  194. ^ Big increase in prostitution reports. The Local July 27 2010
  195. ^ Laura Agustín. Swedish sex-buying statistics: What do they mean? The Local July 29 2010
  196. ^ Swedish Penal Code 2005 (English) Chapter 6: Sexual Crimes


See also

6.12 Den som främjar eller på ett otillbörligt sätt ekonomiskt utnyttjar att en person har tillfälliga sexuella förbindelser mot ersättning, döms för koppleri till fängelse i högst fyra år. Om en person som med nyttjanderätt har upplåtit en lägenhet får veta att lägenheten helt eller till väsentlig del används för tillfälliga sexuella förbindelser mot ersättning och inte gör vad som skäligen kan begäras för att få upplåtelsen att upphöra, skall han eller hon, om verksamheten fortsätter eller återupptas i lägenheten, anses ha främjat verksamheten och dömas till ansvar enligt första stycket. Är brott som avses i första eller andra stycket att anse som grovt, döms för grovt koppleri till fängelse i lägst två och högst åtta år. Vid bedömande av om brottet är grovt skall särskilt beaktas om brottet avsett en verksamhet som bedrivits i större omfattning, medfört betydande vinning eller inneburit ett hänsynslöst utnyttjande av annan. Lag (2005:90).[44]

6.12 A person who promotes or improperly financially exploits a person’s engagement in casual sexual relations in return for payment shall be sentenced for procuring to imprisonment for at most four years. If a person who, holding the right to the use of premises, has granted the right to use them to another, subsequently learns that the premises are wholly or to a substantial extent used for casual sexual relations in return for payment and omits to do what can reasonably be requested to terminate the granted right, he or she shall, if the activity continues or is resumed at the premises, be considered to have promoted the activity and shall be held criminally responsible in accordance with the first paragraph. If a crime provided for in the first or second paragraph is considered gross, imprisonment for at least two and at most eight years shall be imposed for gross procuring. In assessing whether the crime is gross, special consideration shall be given to whether the crime has concerned a large-scale activity, brought significant financial gain or involved ruthless exploitation of another person.[196]

Prior to the sex purchase law, third party activities were already criminalised under the Criminal Code, as 6.12, so that the 1999 law increased the sanctions directed against sexual exchange.

Third party activities (Brottsbalk 6.12)

In 2008 the number of police reports was 1,500 with 86 convictions in 2006. A Supreme court ruling has prevented the optional jail term being applied, and some parliamentarians have called for a minimum one-year jail term.[190][191] To date nobody has been imprisoned, according to Swedish Public Radio. [192] A number of sources suggest that the law is not being enforced very strictly.[193] Figures released in July 2010, suggest a large increase in the number of men reported for paying sex, which was attributed to increased police activity. The number of convictions was not reported.[194][195]

Enforcement of law

6.11 Den som, i annat fall än som avses förut i detta kapitel, skaffar sig en tillfällig sexuell förbindelse mot ersättning, döms för köp av sexuell tjänst till böter eller fängelse i högst sex månader.

Vad som sägs i första stycket gäller även om ersättningen har utlovats eller getts av någon annan. Lag (2005:90). [44]

6.11 A person who, otherwise than as previously provided in this Chapter [on Sexual Crimes], obtains a casual sexual relation in return for payment, shall be sentenced for purchase of a sexual service to a fine or imprisonment for at most six months.

The provision of the first paragraph also applies if the payment was promised or given by another person.[189]

The Act (amended to be part of the Criminal Code, or Brottsbalk in 2005)[188] states:

Sweden's Sex Purchase Act (Swedish: Sexköpslagen), enacted in 1999, makes it illegal to purchase sexual services (sexuell tjänst) but not to sell them. The rationale for criminalising the purchaser but not the seller was stated in the 1997 government proposition, namely that " is unreasonable to also criminalize the one who, at least in most cases, is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires".[187]

Purchasing sex (Brottsbalk 6.11)

Current legal status

In 2011, a research paper on the consequences of the Swedish legislation to sex workers concluded that the realisation of the desired outcomes of the legislation is hard to measure, whereas the law has stigmatised the already vulnerable sex workers.[183][184] In April 2012 the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor issued a report on the effects of the law, concluding that it had failed in its purpose.[185] In July 2012, a report by the UN-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended all countries to decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work. It specifically pointed out that this also applies to the Swedish model, claiming it has actually resulted in consequences for the sex workers even though reported as a success to the public.[186]

The law continues to remain controversial in Sweden, with regular debates in the media. On January 30, 2011, writing in Newsmill,[180] Helena von Schantz challenged the Liberal party leadership as to why it supported the lengthening of sentences for buying sex.[181] These penalties came into force on July 1, 2011.[182]

After publication of the evaluation (2010)

In May 2010 the law was criticised by Swedish MP Camilla Lindberg (Dalarna, Liberal)[175] in an interview[176] with Dalarnas Tidningar, who favoured a regulated system.[177][178][179]

On 3 May 2009 Hanna Wagenius[170] of the Centre Party Youth introduced a motion to repeal the sex purchase law, arguing that it did not help women involved in prostitution and that trafficking had actually increased since the law came into effect. The motion was passed 56: 39.[171][172] In October 2009, Centre Party MP Fredrick Federley introduced a motion for repeal of the law.[173] He also wrote a commentary in the October 9 Aftonbladet, explaining this - Avskaffa sexköpslagen! (Abolish the Sex Purchase Law!).[174]

Although the political scene had changed by 2005, the parties that had voted against the sex purchase law in 1998, and were now in power, no longer opposed it, and it became a non-partisan issue, although individual politicians still questioned the wisdom of the policy.

After passage of purchase law (1998)

Continuing political and public debate

The Swedish Government announced that it intended to increase the penalty for purchasing sex from six months to one year's imprisonment, effective July 1, 2011.[167] The proposal was debated on and passed May 12, 2011 with a vote of 282 for and 1 against. [168] The sole opponent was Federley, however he claimed that attempts were made to prevent him from speaking against the proposal by the Centre Party.[169]

Legislative response

52 remissvar (responses) were received. While many were favourable, those from academic sources, such as the Department of Criminology at Stockholm University were very critical.[165] Two Swedish researchers, Petra Östergren and Susanne Dodillet, analysed the responses and compared them to the official report and found major contradictions. Their study concluded that there was no evidence to support the official claims.[166]

Consultation process

In Queensland, Australia, the state government body responsible for regulating prostitution, the PLA, issued its own critique of the Skarhed Report, describing it as rhetoric that was not substantiated by evidence. [164]

In the United Kingdom, one supporter of the Swedish approach, Julie Bindel stated that she hoped that the evaluation would put an end to the claims that the sex-purchase law had been detrimental, she also wrote that "No doubt critics of this law will soon be arguing that the research that formed the basis of this evaluation is flawed and biased".[163]

International commentary

The debate moved to the political arena when a government member of parliament, Camilla Lindberg[154] (Liberal) (Dalarna) and Opposition member Marianne Berg (Left) (Malmö) published a bi-partisan article in Expressen, stating that the law did not protect women but rather hurt them, by reinforcing patriarchal attitudes towards women's control of their sexuality.[155] Berg was criticised within her own party by Karin Rågsjö in a party newsletter.[156] Criticism also came from Gudrun Schyman of Feministiskt initiativ.[157] and in an editorial in Linberg's own constituency.[158] This was then followed by a joint manifesto from parliamentary candidates of five political parties, including Helena von Schantz (Liberal) and Hanna Wagenius (Centre), attacking the evaluation process and report as immoral.[159] The Pirate Party had no official position on the law, but stands for basic freedoms and party members have unofficially opposed it[160] and the party published a very liberal manifesto for the 2010 election.[161] A Christian Democrat feminist, Sofie Jakobsson, has also supported re-opening brothels, but as with other critics of the Swedish approach, did not find much support within her party.[162]

Two researchers stated that they had evidence, based on cross-national data, that the Swedish ban was an effective counter-trafficking tool,[152] but this was criticised on methodological grounds by commentators.[153]

, that works with women in prostitution, and the numbers of women that they had seen. Other data suggests that any over reporting would not be as large and even if so the amount of persons in prostitution in total is many times larger in Denmark than in Sweden and Danish numbers on indoor prostitution were estimated at 3278. These numbers were mainly based on advertising, not Reden. Assuming 1415 is the number for outdoor prostitution in Denmark, that only amounts to a fourth of prostitution in Denmark. Therefore, it seems unlikely that street prostitution could be so significantly lower as SIO claims. However, whatever the numbers, the scientific question is whether this has anything to do with the sex purchase law or rather reflects historical patterns and cultural attitudes. Reden SIO stated that street prostitution in Copenhagen was overestimated by 1000 persons, attributing over reporting to an NGO, [151] [150]

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