Ever since Sweden passed its “sex-purchase ban” in 1999, those seeking to eliminate commercial sex have been trying to duplicate its supposed success in other countries. What these prohibitionists fail to understand is the cultural, political and historical contexts in which this legal scheme emerged.
Scandinavian societies – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – are known for their peaceful and egalitarian cultures, and their comprehensive social programs. What most outsiders may not recognize is that they are relatively more conformist than other Western societies. Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandermose coined the term “Jante Law” (Janteloven in Danish and Norwegian, Jantelögen in Swedish) to refer to the traditional communitarian attitudes against excessive individual pride, if not individualism in general. The name derived from the fictional town of Jante, where its elder citizens enforced through various means the admonition: “You are not to think you’re anyone special, or that you’re better than us.”
In Sweden, this principle was combined with the Social Democratic Party’s concept of folkhemmet – “people’s home” – where the society is to be modelled on the family unit, with every member contributing to the prosperity of the whole. This vision emerged at a time when Social Democratic ideology was being revised to a more corporatist model of class collaboration, with the state serving as arbiters between labor and capital, thus encouraging a more stable and cohesive society. In their zeal to create such a society, they not only strove to level the playing field between the classes, but to improve society through a number of “social engineering” programs, including some eugenics policies starting in the 1930s. [See Introduction in “Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden” by Jay Levy (Routledge Press)]
Many critics of the sex-purchase ban have referred to it as “a failed experiment in social engineering”, but its roots precede the advent of the Social Democrats’ folkhemmet ideology. In 1724, Swedish law required that unmarried women officially certify that they had a “legitimate” source of income, or face arrest and imprisonment in a workhouse to prevent them “indecently” earning a living. Even women who did have a legal profession were not exempt from state scrutiny and control; police often raided pubs and coffee houses owned and operated by women, on the pretext that they might be fronts for prostitution, and compel waitresses to undergo medical examinations for sexually transmitted diseases. The early 20th century saw prostitutes pathologized, arrested for “vagrancy”, and even subjected to forced sterilization under Sweden’s eugenics policies. While the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s saw traditional mores questioned, the old “vagrancy” law was replaced by a law against “antisocial behavior”, until it was challenged in court. Throughout this period, Swedish feminists attempted to stress a focus on demand, but failed to overcome the prevailing stigma against commercial sex. Indeed, the negative attitude towards “social deviance” in Sweden is not confined to sex workers; people who use drugs face persecution under “zero-tolerance” policies, and HIV-positive people risk summary confinement if they fail to report their status to sexual partners.
By the 1990s, Swedish law did not outlaw either the purchase or sale of sex, but did prohibit various related activities (pimping, pandering, brothel-keeping) as well as allowing immediate deportation of any immigrant found to be engaging in prostitution. It was during that time that various political groups, including the Social Democrats, became increasingly concerned with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and East Asia, many of them women engaging in commercial sex. While some politicians considered total criminalization as the answer, radical feminists proposed through the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties that only the purchase be banned, constructing the argument that prostitution was “violence against women” and that those who engaged in selling sex were to be considered victims. Unfortunately, this model did not take into account the longstanding stigmatization of prostitutes as social deviants, thus resulting in further victimization of sex workers by police, social workers, and other government agencies.
While Sweden tries to present its sex-purchase ban as a progressive innovation, it is in fact the latest in a long line of efforts to suppress sex workers based on rigid social attitudes against nonconformity, a political tradition of paternalistic social engineering, and radical feminist ideological constructs being appropriated during a period of heightened anxiety around increased immigration and Swedish identity in a changing Europe. While terminology and demographic factors may change, one constant remains in all of these futile attempts to deal with prostitution: Sex workers themselves have never been allowed a voice in the political process in which these decisions are made about them. This is in stark contrast to the situation in New South Wales and New Zealand, where sex worker organizations were important stakeholders in developing laws and policies that improved the lives of their constituents. Whether and when Sweden will learn from these examples – and their own repeated failures – remains to be seen.
I’m indebted to Dr. Jay Levy, who conducted extensive fieldwork and research on the impact of Sweden’s sex-purchase law and related policies; click here for his webpage, with links to his books and articles for more information.