The lobby group Turn Off the Red Light, which campaigns against prostitution and sex trafficking, has recently been linking an article in the London Independent in support of its position that Ireland should attempt to emulate Sweden as a model of how to deal with the problem of prostitution. The Swedish model is seen as a unique case because it ostensibly de-criminalises the supply side of the industry while protecting those most vulnerable, the female street workers. However, in addressing whether it is advisable for the Irish government to attempt to follow the Swedish model, it is worth looking at the substance of the claims made in the article and the actual evidence for the success of the Swedish law.
The article claims that there has been a 70% reduction in “business”, a figure which does not hold up under scrutiny. Furthermore, it is pointed out that crime figures show that in 2011 only two people were convicted of sex trafficking in Sweden and another eleven for pimping connected to trafficking. This allegedly supports the argument that Sweden is no longer seen as an attractive place to traffickers. What is not mentioned is that since 2003, only two years have had higher trafficking conviction rates, three had lower, and two have been the same. These figures, therefore, don’t support either side of the argument; the truth is Sweden has never been a country in which trafficking has been a large problem. In addition, it is stated that there are now far less Swedish workers in street prostitution in Stockholm and more immigrants, mostly from Africa and the Baltic states. This trend would seem to lead to the opposite conclusion with regards to the amount of women being trafficked into Sweden to work in the sex industry. The fact is that it is incredibly difficult to get reliable data on what has happened or is happening in the Swedish sex industry due to the very nature of the subject. While street prostitution appears to have decreased, this is part of a longer term global trend, as indoor prostitution increases facilitated by methods such as online procurement. There are serious problems with the reported data both before and after the introduction of the act and the official claims about the laws success cannot be substantiated by any available evidence. Given this, it is very odd that Government officials continue to proclaim it a success with such certainty and even odder that these claims are taken at face value in other countries and in the media. In light of the lack of reliable quantitative evidence, it may be worth looking at some of the qualitative research done on the issue and seeing how the claims made in the article, and supported by Turn Off the Red Light, stack up.
It is claimed that the opposition to the passage of the Act on the basis that it would drive prostitution underground and make it more dangerous was unsubstantiated. It even goes on to say that foreign prostitutes who now work in Sweden claim that “they’re much more likely to be subjected to violence in countries where prostitution has been legalised.” This is curious as it is the exact opposite of the conclusions that have been found by independent academic research. Unintended consequences of the ban include an unwillingness of clients to act as witnesses in cases of abuse and exploitation of sexual labour, an increased level of vulnerability for sex workers in dealing with clients and an increased experience of social and economic stigmatization. This does not appear to be progress in the protection of those involved in the sex trade, but it is exactly what one would expect if prohibition simply drives these practices underground. What is perhaps most disturbing is the level to which harm reduction for those involved has been placed in a secondary role by the state in favour of abolition, affecting provision of information and contraception. The situation is so severe that Sweden has, for instance, been condemned by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law as recently as 2012. It is claimed in the article that an arrest for the purchase of sex is one of the most shameful in Sweden. This does not coincide with the research and surveys which have been carried out. These would suggest that the law has not and does not act as a powerful deterrent, with the purchase of sex even being compared with crimes such as speeding. A further claim is made that public opinion has swung around to support for the law from initial hostility, however this does not appear to be supported by the evidence. Between 1999 and 2008 support for the legislation has remained relatively constant since its introduction, dipping somewhat among men, and the majority of people still wish to see sex workers in Sweden criminalised.
Towards the end of the piece, the writer asks if the Swedish law could work in other countries. A better question would be whether it has worked in Sweden, or even had any positive effects whatsoever. As Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren have concluded “While there are some police, social workers and former sex workers who claim that the ban has indeed helped reduce prostitution and trafficking and deterred clients without any adverse effects, the reports and documents that have a scientific rather than ideological base do not support these success claims. Hence, as we and others have written elsewhere, we believe that it is in the ideological and cultural domains that the creation of the “unique” Sex Purchase Act and the above mention discrepancy must be found.”
The Swedish model has not been shown to decrease the activity in the sex trade in Sweden or bring about a change in peoples attitude to the practice of prostitution generally. It has however exacerbated the difficulties and dangers faced by those working within it, according to the workers themselves. The disparity between the facts and the rhetoric on this matter seems to be too great to attribute to naivety, incompetence or ignorance on their own. The continual disregard of empirical evidence and the marginalisation of the opinion of those who actually work in the sex industry would suggest that those pursuing these policies simply do not care about sex workers or human trafficking, and are merely pushing ahead with their moralistic and ideological agenda whatever the human cost may be.
We can see this same process in Ireland, with the Turn Off the Red Light campaign being opposed by the very people they claim to be trying to protect. A campaign to secure the rights of sex workers in Ireland and prevent further criminalisation, called Turn off the Blue Light has been started and is supported by the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland. The concerns and advice of those most affected, the sex workers themselves, were actively ignored and sidelined in Sweden in the formulation and implementation of their laws, with disastrous consequences. We should not repeat the mistakes here.
 Joan Smith, 2013. “Why the game’s up for Sweden’s sex trade.” The Independent, 26 March
 Ann Jordan, 2012. “The Swedish Law To Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering.” RightsWork.org Issue Paper 4, p. 5-9
 Bob Wallace, “The Ban On Purchasing Sex In Sweden: The So-Called ‘Swedish Model’.” p. 10-19
 Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, March 2011. “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects.” p. 8-11
 Ibid. P. 13
 Ibid. P. 11
 Petra Östergren, “Sexworkers Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy.”
 Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, March 2011. “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects.” p. 21-22
 Jay Levy, July 2011. “Impacts of the Swedish Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex on Sex Workers.”
 Global Commission on HIV and the Law, July 2012. “Risks, Rights & Health.” pp. 38
 Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, March 2011. “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects.” p. 15
 Ann Jordan, 2012. “The Swedish Law To Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering.” RightsWork.org Issue Paper 4, p. 9
 Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, March 2011. “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects.” p. 24-25
 Jay Levy, July 2011. “Impacts of the Swedish Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex on Sex Workers.” pp. 5
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