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The Swedish Model Criminalising The Purchase of Sex Is Dangerous: The European Parliament Should Have Rejected It

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 27 February 2014
An extended version of this article can be read on Women News Network

Photo credit:  fdecomite, Flikr

Photo credit: fdecomite, Flikr

Some 560 NGOs and civil society organisations along with 86 academics and researchers urged the European Parliament to reject the report promoting the criminalisation of the purchase of sex that was put forward by London MEP Mary Honeyball in a plenary session this week in Strasbourg. But although the European Parliament has voted in favour of the report, putting pressure on EU member states to re-evaluate their prostitution laws, they do not need to make the same mistake.

Not surprisingly, the experiment has failed. In the thirteen years since the law was enacted, the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking. All it has to show for its efforts are a (contested) public support for the law and more danger for street-based sex workers. Despite this failure, the government has chosen to ignore the evidence and proclaim the law to be a success; it also continues to advocate that other countries should adopt a similar law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

In sound bites, the Swedish Government has been spinning their sex purchase ban, known as the “Swedish model” or sometimes the “Nordic model” though it is not adopted by all Nordic countries, as a success. However, research does not show it has reduced sex trafficking or sex work. In addition, their own police report demonstrates it has pushed prostitution indoors with nearly three times as many Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and the vicinity:

In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450. (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Mary Honeyball, Labour’s Spokesperson on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, who wrote the report recommending the Swedish sex purchase ban, said she wanted a model that reduced prostitution. She claims demand has halved in Sweden. However, this is untrue:

The law has been enforced almost entirely against clients of street-based sex workers but the government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect. They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and on line, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)

On Sunday 23 February, I met Mary Honeyball at the BBC1 debate on The Big Questions about whether it should be illegal to pay for sex. Clearly, by the inaccuracies she was stating, she is misinformed – and misinforming others – about the actual outcomes of the Swedish model.

 

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

As someone who had a traumatic experience of prostitution, mine is a standard narrative held up as an example of why the Swedish model is needed. But actually my traumatic experience in the sex trade, suffering being raped more than once and beaten once, every time while working alone, and ending up an intravenous heroin and crack addict, is a prime example of why decriminalisation is needed.

There is no drug harm reduction practised in Sweden because it is deemed to enable drug use. So as a former intravenous addict, I would probably have died from a blood-borne virus or perhaps lost a limb. Equally, there is no harm reduction for sex workers because access to free condoms is erroneously believed to encourage people to sell sex. So I would be at an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases if I was unable to afford my own condoms. These issues primarily affect women working on-street who are most often in poverty and many suffering with addiction. The sex purchase ban has put these women in more danger:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. Where sex work is criminalised, sex workers are very vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, in detention facilities and elsewhere. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)

The Swedish model has meant for sex workers who are mothers, they are at risk of losing custody of their children as by selling sex they are deemed unfit parents. This happened to Petite Jasmine and custody of her children was given to the father, a man known to be violent, who had threatened and stalked her. She was given no protection by the Swedish authorities. Then, in 2013, he murdered her.

The Swedish model is social cleansing, something Sweden has history of undertaking. It must not be done in this country or in any country.

Without the criminalisation of the purchase of sex the UK, and other countries, should work to establish comprehensive services to meet the needs of women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people seeking to leave the sex trade. There are 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK, most of whom are in poverty and 70% are single mothers. Huge investment from the government is needed and these complex services are going to take a long time to build. Additionally, these services will not work if they are forced.

For many women selling sex, they do not have other options, so we need to reform our benefits system and end poverty so no woman has to sell sex in order to pay her rent so her family are not made homeless, to ensure her children eat, or to heat her home. Criminalising her clients is not going to help her. It will only put her in greater danger.

The priority for police must be building trusting relationships with people in prostitution as it is in Merseyside, but this is impossible when clients are criminalised under the Swedish model. Merseyside has astonishingly high conviction rates for violent offenders targeting sex workers, which makes all of society safer. Their hate crime model, working closely with sex work projects that offer harm reduction services, has great results on assisting women leave the sex trade and ‘exiting’ is not the focus.

Women being able to work together in well-lit areas on-street and a small number of women being able to work from premises together should be decriminalised as research shows whether on-street or off-street, women are more at risk of rape and other violence when they are on their own and isolated. The two women who were recently murdered in London were working alone: Mariana Popa who was working on-street, and in an area where a police crackdown on street prostitution was being enforced, and Maria Duque-Tunjano who was working alone in a flat. Under decriminalisation they might still be alive because they would have been able to work with other women for safety.

Decriminalisation also means sex trafficking victims do not need to fear arrest and being charged. Jes Richardson, a sex trafficking survivor, was not able to turn to police for this reason, and it was a sex worker who helped her escape. She is another woman formerly in the sex trade who is advocating for decriminalisation. The Swedish model, according to the Swedish Police report, cannot demonstrate it has reduced sex trafficking:

According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people may have fallen victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims discovered in Sweden depends largely on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the skills that exists within the police organisation. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and differs from one year to another. Neither is it possible to identify (nor indeed to locate) all of the victims, mostly girls and women, who are mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance.  (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)

Sex workers are often well placed to identify and assist sex trafficking victims and essential in ensuring this and developing it further are good relationships between the police and sex workers.

I stand with 560 NGOs and civil society organisations and 86 academics and researchers who also object to the Swedish model and urge EU member states not to criminalise the purchase of sex when reassessing their prostitution laws.

Dr Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, met with me in London at the end of 2013 to discuss his findings.

About Ruth Jacobs (297 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

9 Comments on The Swedish Model Criminalising The Purchase of Sex Is Dangerous: The European Parliament Should Have Rejected It

  1. paulcarr1974 // March 4, 2014 at 12:59 pm // Reply

    Reblogged this on My Thoughts on Sex Work and the Law and commented:
    Well informed piece by Ruth Jacobs.

  2. from where have you received the information that sex workers in Sweden get LESS support from authorities such as the police after the new law? I don’t mean when it comes to custody battles, I mean the protection for women who are sex workers.

    • The links to the research are within the article and also the video at the end of the article is an interview with Dr Jay Levy who conducted research in Sweden over several years and he covers this with information he received from his respondents. The fact that if the authorities know a woman is selling sex and she is living in rented accommodation her landlord is forced to evict her is an obvious deterrent to report crime committed against her. Exactly the same for sex workers who are mothers as they will risk losing custody of their children. These are huge barriers to reporting crime.

  3. Lots to think about. I appreciate your posts.

  4. Alan Green // March 8, 2014 at 9:58 am // Reply

    Well written article. I fear that the next labour government will push through the Swedish model in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure. We need decriminalisation, but I imagine there are notes votes in it. I would be interested in your thoughts on what those affected by tbe proposal can do to oppose it?

    • I wouldn’t be so sure about the Labour government, or any government for that matter, pushing through the Swedish model in the forseeable future because I suspect there would be little public support for it in the UK, beyond the hard line feminists, government-funded ‘rescue’ charities and religious conservatives, none of whom constitute a sizeable majority of the population. I think people would strongly object to the notion of consensual sex between adults (as the majority of sex work indeed is) being classed as a crime, and also to a law that implicitly tries to tell women what to do with their bodies, the issues of personal freedom and civil liberties being affected would likely prove very problematic. Any future government may also face a problem encouraging voters to empathise with the plight of migrant sex workers, when you consider for years the main political parties have all espoused strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the sizeable climate of hostility towards immigrants and immigration in this country. The electorate may well be sceptical of such a law having any major effect, considering that prostitution has been mostly treated as a criminal issue historically and yet has always flourished, and voters are likely also to react with cynical contempt to the idea of politicians attempting the claim the moral high ground. It may also be the case that many British people feel it is not an issue that directly affects them, such is it’s clandestine nature, and why should politicians be wasting time on something that Joe public largely regards as having no bearing on their day to day lives?

7 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. In the Booth with Ruth – Pye Jakobsson, Sex Workers’ Rights Activist from Sweden | Ruth Jacobs
  2. 26 March in Parliament, Stop the Criminalisation of Sex Work | Ruth Jacobs
  3. 26 March in Parliament, Stop the Criminalisation of Sex Work | Soul Destruction
  4. APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Ruth Jacobs
  5. APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Soul Destruction
  6. The Sex Trade: Lies, the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ and Other Silencing Tactics | Soul Destruction
  7. The Sex Trade: Lies, the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ and Other Silencing Tactics | Ruth Jacobs

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