Old church, downtown Stockholm (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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Sweden’s eight year legal regime is leading the war against the sex industry

Old church, downtown Stockholm (Simon Roughneen)

STOCKHOLM — According to Stockholm Police Detective Inspector Per Englund, Sweden’s novel counter-prostitution regime has “reduced street work dramatically.”

Walking that city’s former red-light district – close to Högtorget metro station – Englund’s analysis seemed spot-on. Maybe it was the chilling, incessant winter rain, but only a handful of night-owls, seemingly hurrying to find shelter from the Swedish winter, were seen scurrying along the gothic-dank dusk streets,

In 1999, Sweden passed legislation that criminalises the buying of sex, while decriminalising the sale. In other words, the (mostly) men who pay for sex are the culprits – not the (mostly) women selling.

After a slow start, better enforcement by police now means that, ‘we have only 100-200 women on the streets in the capital’, as Englund told this newspaper.

He says that Swedish brothels and massage parlours – which proliferated while Sweden experimented with legalised prostitution in the late 20th Century are now “reduced to a few here and there.”

“But my team is working against this all the time,” he said.

Professor Liz Kelly is Roddick Chair on Violence Against Women at London Metropolitan University. She told the Irish Examiner that “as I understand it, the Swedish law works in a normative way, to change the views on prostitution in society. The law aims to inculcate the reality that prostitution is violence against women, that it is not normal or inevitable.”

Kelly added “The Swedes have turned the mirror on the men who see women as objects to be bought and sold.”

For now, the law is unique. That status may not last, however, as Norway, Denmark and Lithuania are now contemplating similar moves.

Oslo has an estimated 5,000 street-level prostitutes, while between 15,000-17,000 women and girls are sex-trafficked into Finland annually.

To complement the radical anti-prostitution norms, Sweden passed another law in 2002 against “trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes.”

This means that “all the links in the prostitution and women-trafficking chain have been made a criminal offence in Sweden: the buyers of women and children in prostitution, pimps and traffickers in women.”

Professor Kelly believes that Swedish success story shows that “we must get away from our lazy clichés about prostitution, that it will always be there in some form, that the best way to deal with it is to develop pragmatic measures to accommodate it.”

Kelly adds that the various experiments to legalise or sanction commercial sex have “been wrongly associated with sexual liberation, that there is a strain in social- liberal thinking that is entangled in nonsense rhetoric suggesting that prostitution is somehow part and parcel of rejecting old norms.”

Apparently no more than 200-400 women and girls have been trafficked into Sweden in any year since the law was passed. Pimps face up six years in jail, while traffickers look at decade-long sentences. Englund cited a 2002 case where a Lithuanian national was jailed for 12 years for trafficking women into Sweden, even though some of the offences were committed in Lithuania.

That prostitution as demand-driven is highlighted by Englund’s description of how women bussed from Murmansk in Arctic Russia work from Finnish border towns close to Sweden’s far north. Men cross the border to visit women who are ostensibly operating as domestic workers.

Professor Kelly co-authored a 2003 study commissioned by the Scottish Parliament, which looked at prostitution policies in Sweden, The Netherlands, Victoria in Australia, and Ireland. The study found in all cases bar the Swedish that regulation attempts criminalisng the prostitute or legalising vice led to varying degrees of increased violence against women, increased child prostitution, much higher levels of sex trafficking, and greater involvement of organised crime.

She told this newspaper that “in jurisdictions where prostitution is designated as a profession, where the thinking is that if you legalise, you reduce the stigmatisation, there are few success stories. In these countries where prostitutes can register with the authorities, only a tiny proportion do so – these women do not see what they are doing as normal or as a profession.”

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