What is the “Swedish model”?
The Swedish model is a legal regime, the central feature of which is that paying for sex is made a crime, but selling it is not. Additionally, Swedish law criminalizes other related activities such as “brothel-keeping” (having two or more sex workers operating out of the same physical venue) and “pimping” (living off the proceeds of commercial sex). The sex-purchase law was adopted in Sweden in 1999; similar laws have been enacted in Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), Northern Ireland (2015), Canada (2014), France (2016), and the Republic of Ireland (2017).
What is the rationale behind this model?
Swedish law and social policy defines prostitution as a form of “violence against women”, with sex workers as victims of exploitation, and the stated goal as the abolition of prostitution. Sex worker activists have disputed this assumption, as well as protested that peer-led sex workers’ organizations were ignored or excluded in consultations before these laws were passed and put into effect.
How did this come about?
Originally, Swedish law outlawed neither buying nor selling (but did criminalize related aspects). An alleged increase in street-based sex workers, especially non-white migrants, prompted some legislators to suggest full criminalization. Swedish radical feminists entered the discussion, promoting the assumption of prostitution as “violence against women” and sex workers as passive victims of exploitation. While many center-left politicians supported the model of a sex-purchase ban as promoting gender equality, others saw it as a “compromise” between the status quo and full criminalization.
What had been the result of this model? Has it helped to bring down the number of people buying and selling sex, or incidents of sex trafficking?
There is no solid evidence that this model does either reduces the incidence or number of people involved in commercial sex, or in any way improves the safety and well-being of sex workers. On the contrary, a 2014 report commissioned by the Swedish government showed that “the proportion of individuals in Sweden who have bought and sold sexual services is relatively constant over time” and that the number of escort ads over an eight year period increased by a factor of fifteen to twenty. Additionally, numerous researchers and organizations have pointed to increased stigma and harm to sex workers. Social service agencies, for example, will refuse to provide condoms to street-based sex workers, on the grounds that selling sex was “inherently harmful”. Even Swedish and Norwegian police have noted that, while clients were willing to report suspected trafficking or other abuses before the law was implemented in those countries, this quickly ceased soon afterwards.
So why didn’t Sweden make changes as soon as they saw that this was doing more harm than good?
Calum Bennachie noted in his analysis that “the situation in Sweden is radically different from most other European countries”. It is a highly homogenous community with strong tendencies towards social engineering and conformity to community standards. As a result, Swedish government leaders and civil servants tend to reject proven harm-reduction strategies as contrary to their goals of eradicating social problems. Sweden’s laws and policies regarding HIV status and drug use, for example, are some of harshest in the world.
What about those in the United States who say they want to implement the Swedish model here?
While prohibitionist groups claim to want to import the Swedish model, none of them have taken steps to have prostitution laws in any U.S. jurisdiction changed to reflect this. As a result, police in many U.S. cities simply re-label prostitution sweeps as “anti-trafficking initiatives” and arrests of sex workers as “rescues”. Prohibitionists trumpet arrests of “johns” while downplaying the number of sex workers arrested, and ignoring sexual abuses by police officers.
Is there an alternative?
Yes, there is. Full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work has been successfully implemented in the Australian state of New South Wales (1999) and New Zealand (2003), leading to significant improvement in the health and safety of sex workers, as well as their interactions with police. This is the model supported by sex workers themselves and by CoSWAC, along with a growing number of organizations around the world.
For more detailed information on the Swedish model, check out these resources:
Advocacy Toolkit: The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers
From the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), a collection of eight working papers on how the Swedish model promotes stigmatization and harm.
Analysis of the Swedish law criminalizing clients
Report by Dr. Calum Bennachie, Co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, on the negative consequences of Sweden’s laws and policies regarding sex work (PDF document).
The outcomes of the criminalization of the purchase of sex in Sweden
YouTube video of Ruth Jacobs’ 2014 interview with Dr. Jay Levy on the negative outcomes of Sweden’s “sex-purchase” law.
The Problem With the “Swedish Model” for Sex Work Laws
2015 New Republic article by Molly Smith on the negative consequences of the sex-purchase laws in Sweden, Norway, and other countries.
Sweden prostitution reduction model’s success a myth, skeptics warn
In this 2014 Washington Times article, Angela Waters discusses how the numbers purported by Sweden’s government in defending its sex-purchase law simply do not add up.
Sweden’s sex trade laws: not the answer
2011 commentary by Stephanie Lord and Wendy Lyon, with footnotes and links, outlining how the Swedish model harms sex workers and promotes racism.
Swedish Abolitionism as Violence Against Women
2013 paper by Jay Levy, Ph.D., outlining how Sweden’s “end demand” policies have failed to meet their objectives, and have only made conditions worse for sex workers there (PDF document).
The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects
2011 paper by Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren on the discrepancy between claims by proponents of the Swedish model and its actual effects (PDF document).