The Social Contexts of Sweden’s Sex-Purchase Ban

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.

A Paradox of Prohibitionism

The reader will note the use of the singular article in the title, as there are indeed many paradoxes to the anti-prostitution position. For this post, I’ll be discussing one which recently has come to the fore.

Prohibitionists have crowed repeatedly how their “end demand” strategy of targeting sex work clients for punishment and derision is “the most effective means” to achieve their desired goal of “ending the sex trade”. Recently, however, I’ve noticed many of these groups lamenting that sex trafficking is on the rise, even in Sweden where “ending demand” became law and public policy almost two decades ago. So, how is it that this strategy is being adopted at an increasing rate, based on claims of success, yet the evil of sex trafficking and exploitation has also increased, indicating failure?

The first likely response to this paradox is to allege that “the problem is bigger than we thought” – that all the figures cited as to the number of people and amount of profits involved were too conservative. Such a claim would make sense, except that the peer-reviewed research of scholars indicates that such estimates were not only unreliable, but frequently exaggerated. See if you’re able to follow the logic: Prohibitionists make claims about the definition and scope of sex trafficking, which legitimate researchers find dubious and likely overblown, so the same people who made the original claim now turn around with even higher numbers, again without solid substantiation.

Another problem with the original trafficking claims is that the activists who make them frequently conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking, either for ideological reasons or as a blatant public relations ploy (see page 17 of 20 in the paper hyperlinked here). So, is it likely that what prohibitionists are doing is stretching the definition of “sex trafficking” even further, to include legal forms of sex work such as web cam performance and stripping? You already have groups linking porn to trafficking, again with little to no substantiation. Plus, on even more extreme fringes, there are those who would argue that egg donation and reproductive surrogacy ought to be banned as “human trafficking”. This begs the question of where the definition of trafficking will ever end, if at all.

It seems the most obvious reason for claiming an increase in sex trafficking is to mobilize more people to do more work and give more money to one’s anti-trafficking organization. Such appeals to urgency are not new, but eventually lose their effectiveness. Think of it – how long do you expect volunteers to work, or donors to give money, while you continually claim that the problem they’re fighting is continually growing? Sooner or later, repeated use of this tactic leads to more questions, greater scrutiny, and abandonment by once-committed individuals who now feel used and deceived.

Finally, I’d like to propose the possibility that the problems related to the commercial sex industry may indeed be getting worse to some degree – but because of prohibitionist strategies, not in spite of them. This would fit with historical precedents, such as the banning of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933, the exorbitant taxation of tea in Great Britain up to 1784, and other instances of excessive government control leading to increased problems from smuggling and adulteration to corruption and violence. Once one realizes that exploitative practices in otherwise consensual activities are not prevented by prohibition, but exacerbated by it, the paradox disappears. Would that the scales fall from puritanical eyes.

Selling a Bill of Goods, Swedish Style

During my college days, one of the many issues which I actively supported was sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. I remember seeing a video of Desmond Tutu speaking to an audience, and fielding a question about whether he endorsed sanctions. He pointed out that, if he openly did so, the regime could send him to prison.

“Which shows you,” he then quipped, “how much they don’t like the very idea of sanctions!” The crowd of supporters broke into applause and laughter.

Along with such negative sanctions, South Africa also engaged in a continuous public relations campaign to “sell” apartheid to the rest of the world, especially the United States. From exploiting fears of Communism, to printing attractive spreads and write-ups, the regime spent up to $100 million a year on burnishing its image and influencing policy, even targeting African-Americans to convince them to oppose sanctions.

Now Sweden is doing the same thing in an effort to promote its sex-purchase ban, using exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims to convince other nations to follow its lead. Both the Swedish Institute and the country’s diplomatic corps have used publications and personal appeals to evangelize their policies – yet hiding its uglier elements, such as ongoing police harassment. In an ironic twist, they invited members of South Africa’s parliament – currently considering changes in their prostitution laws – to visit Sweden and see how “successful” the ban has been. (If they do, I hope they will take the time to contact the Rose Alliance, and and see what sex workers themselves say about the reality in that country.) Norway has apparently joined the act, too. In 2012, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry shelled out $1 million to Hunt Alternatives, the parent organization for Demand Abolition. It’s possible that other prohibitionist groups have also received funds from Sweden and Norway, but given the problems of transparency and accountability with so many of these organizations, specific figures are hard to come by.

Wanting to promote a course of action is one thing. Distorting the facts, and ignoring the harm that such action creates, is quite another. That also goes for those groups who may have accepted money from other countries, and failed to be forthcoming about it.

Kay Khan’s Crazy Contrivance Against Commercial Sex

Some weeks ago, I posted about the prohibitionists’ misleading re-branding of the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not its sale, as “partial decriminalization”. Apparently, Massachusetts state representative Kay Khan has gone into outright deception. Her proposed bill, H. 3499, is being called An Act Decriminalizing Prostitution – and it does no such thing.

First of all, Khan would have the law relabel “prostitution” as “commercial sexual exploitation”. Indeed, the definition is worded so that providing sex and receiving any material gain might be construed as such. So if your date buys you dinner, and you later consent to have sex, your date just might be arrested for “commercial sexual exploitation”.

Second, while providing sex for money is no longer a crime in itself, the following clause would give one pause to offer to do so:

Whoever commits offensive and disorderly acts or language, accosts or annoy another person, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Third, Khan’s proposal makes it clear that paying for sex, or even offering or agreeing to pay for sex, would remain a crime, with a fine of up to $10,000, a prison sentence of up to two and a half years, or both.

Fourth, the classic provisions against being a pimp (defined as someone who “live[s] or derive[s] support or maintenance, in whole or in part, from the earnings or proceeds of [another person’s] prostitution,”), running a brothel (called a “house of ill fame”), and procuring are still retained.

This is no more “decriminalization” than using lean beef in a bacon double cheeseburger makes it “low-calorie”.

The author of this bill is clearly subscribing to the dogma that “all prostituted women are victims” who should be instantly infantilized, while anyone who even offers to pay a sex worker is automatically engaging in exploitation. Not being a mind-reader, I’m unable to discern whether Khan has proposed this out of misinformed naïveté or shared zealotry, but given her past associations with Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition, its origins seem all too obvious.

It’s also obvious that Khan never considered any scenario where a person willingly enters sex work, whether in an existing business or as a sole proprietor. Indeed, perhaps the largest segment of sex workers are independent escorts, both incall and outcall. Khan’s proposal may be presented as a weapon against sex trafficking, but like similar laws in other countries, it’s more likely to cause collateral damage – much like throwing a hand grenade into a crowd to get a single suspected terrorist.

Consider, then, the following … A woman chooses, without compulsion, to be an incall escort. She has a disabled sibling living with her, who occasionally helps by doing online background checks of prospective clients. One of those individuals asks for an intense BDSM session, which she politely declines, then refers him to another willing provider in the area. Note that there is no force or fraud, no harm, and in the specific case described, no actual exchange of sexual activity for money.

But it is all still criminalized, despite the contrivances of Khan and Hunt. The prospective client’s mere inquiry is considered an illegal attempt to exchange sex for money. The disabled relative is considered not just a mere accomplice but a pimp. And, to top off this looney logic, the escort is guilty of pandering and running a “house of ill fame” while simultaneously being labeled a “commercial sexual exploitation victim” of the gentleman whom she declined.

If Khan still believes that the “Swedish model” relieves sex workers of being burdened by police, she needs to read these excerpts from the memoirs of Simon Häggström, head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit. This is not decriminalization by any reasonable measure – it is an attempt to re-brand a failed attempt at repressive social engineering that has caused harm to thousands of sex workers and those associated with them.

The Big Lie of “Partial Decriminalization”

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Two kinds of language are often employed in propaganda: simple yet emotionally loaded, and seemingly sophisticated obfuscations. The former is most frequently used by opponents of sex workers’ rights, especially in appeals to “fight human trafficking”. Yet it is careful use of the latter which has allowed prohibitionists to sell the so-called “Swedish Model” as an alternative.

Specifically, prohibitionists have marketed this scheme as “partial decriminalization” – the supposed decriminalization of those who sell sex, while outlawing those who would buy sex. It’s appealing on two levels. First, it plays upon common stereotypes of the prostitute as victim and “john” or “punter” as lecherous deviant. Second, it appeals to both misgivings about the status quo and uncertainties around full decriminalization. But it also depends upon a suspension of basic logic, and ignorance of both the full legal context and real-life implications, behind this model.

In the first place, whenever an action is made a crime, any other actions necessarily linked to it are also outlawed. This is why a person who knowingly buys stolen merchandise is just as culpable as the one who knowingly sells it. Likewise, it inevitably becomes impossible to separate the sale of sex from its purchase; outlaw one, and the mirror image is complicit in its commission.

Further, the Swedish Model is not limited to just a ban on buying. Sweeping laws against “brothel-keeping” and “living off the avails of prostitution” also remain in place, and are used to penalize sex workers and deprive them of safety. Thus the full legal context of this scheme reveals it to be near-total criminalization, nowhere near the supposed “middle ground” that its proponents would have people believe.

The proponents of this scheme would argue that “prostituted women” would no longer be the targets of police, but instead would be offered social services to help them exit. That’s the theory – but reality is a different matter, with police in Sweden and Norway routinely watching and intimidating sex workers, even bullying their landlords to get them evicted. As for the social services, that only applies if the sex worker repents and embraces the government’s party line; otherwise, they are refused help, even denied condoms to help protect them from HIV and other STIs under the rationale that, because “prostitution is inherently dangerous”, there is no point in helping them reduce any risk of potential harm.

It is a lie to repeatedly refer to the “Swedish Model” as a form of decriminalization, because in fact it still gives police the power and authority to control sex workers. If those who sell sex are to be free of such control – and the abuses that inevitably come with it – the answer is full decriminalization of consensual commercial sex, allowing existing laws against assault and exploitation to protect them. This is what has worked in New Zealand and New South Wales, and what sex workers themselves rightly demand.

Mandating Tests for Sex Workers Doesn’t Get a Passing Grade

[Originally posted December 20, 2016]

Often when I engage in conversations with folks about sex work and public policy, I’m asked how I feel about mandatory testing of sex workers for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And, when I answer that I don’t support such measures, they’re frequently astonished. “I thought you said that you support harm reduction methods! So why not this? Wouldn’t requiring sex workers to be regularly tested reduce the spread of HIV and other STIs?”

No. Testing doesn’t “prevent” anything. It provides information towards that end, and only if it’s done right.

Let’s take the argument for mandatory testing to its logical extreme. Sex workers are a relatively small segment of the total number of sexually active people out there, and according to the best studies out there, contribute very little to STIs overall, and virtually none of HIV transmissions. So if we were to mandate STI testing, then it makes sense to do that for all sexually active adults and adolescents, not just sex workers. Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that a significant number of people would lie about being sexually active, in order to avoid being tested. The answer then would be to test everyone from the age of thirteen up.

This would, of course, be met with a number of objections, from cost to loss of freedom to invasions of privacy. And yet, some would still argue that, since STIs constitute an “occupational hazard” for sex workers, then mandatory testing therefore qualifies as an occupational health and safety measure.

But again, this doesn’t make sense when applied to comparable circumstances. Hospital workers, for example, are exposed to far more diseases, some of them far more dangerous, and far more often. Yet hospitals do not regularly test every employee for every disease they might have been exposed to. Instead, they find it more effective to implement preventative measures, much as full-service sex workers use condoms and other safer sex measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV or other infections.

There’s also the question of how such measures are best mandated and enforced. More often, they are mandated as a condition of employment rather than by legal regulation; even when laws or government regulations are put in place, it is usually left to employers to maintain and enforce, with government agencies making spot checks or responding to employee complaints. Also, the most effective systems are when lawmakers institute a general mandate to assure health and safety, while leaving specifics to another body which may adapt more quickly to changes in evidence as to the best means of assuring this.

An example of which I’m personally aware is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). I’ve been trained and recertified many times over the years, and have noticed how the protocols change as new evidence comes in, most significantly the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). While there are laws determining who may train and certify people, those laws do not specify the protocols for performing CPR; instead, the groups that train and certify pay attention to new scientific data, and update protocols accordingly.

Compare that system to how Nevada mandates STI testing for sex workers in their legal brothels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people with multiple sexual partners should be screened every three to six months, based on the best available medical studies; more frequent tests do not produce more reliable results. Nevada’s legal requirements, relatively unchanged since 1937, are that women working in brothels are required to have weekly medical exams, and at their own expense. With consistent condom usage, and STI rates reported at zero, where is the sense in having sex workers required to be tested at thirteen times the rate recommended by public health officials?

There is no good reason to impose such a requirement on sex workers when other people in similar circumstances are not similarly required. To impose such a burden is nothing more than discrimination, rooted in stigma and unnecessarily perpetuating it. Sex workers have long known how to minimize these risks, as proven by empirical studies. They need neither bureaucrats nor moralists to require anything further. If anything, the rest of us would benefit from listening to their collective experience.

The Case for Decriminalizing Pimping

[Originally posted July 7, 2016]

Recently, the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee issued a recommendation to decriminalize certain aspects of prostitution. While some sex worker rights organizations and activists hailed the move, others have expressed caution. Too often, those who have advocated the so-called “Swedish Model” claim that it “decriminalizes sex workers” while supposedly tackling “exploitation”; in reality, this regime is best described as asymmetrical criminalization, with its real-world results being disastrous for the very people supposedly being “helped” by this approach. Is it any wonder that Norway’s government actually stated in a report that the hardships meted upon sex workers in that country was considered a sign of success?

It thus bears repeating that what the vast majority of sex workers want is full decriminalization of their work, including their relationships with third parties. In response, those who wish to keep or expand criminal prohibitions drag out the tired trope of the “abusive pimp” – now labeled a “sex trafficker” – using manipulation and coercion to “lure” and “enslave” young girls into the trade. Even so-called moderates who support half-way measures for making prostitution legal wind up swallowing this blue pill; yes, they say, let people sell sex if they want, but let’s keep the ban on those evil pimps.

There are two major problems with this, rooted in the dichotomous definitions given to the word pimp. The first is that the best research actually shows that the villainous stereotype is such an anomaly that some sex workers consider it a myth. A goodly percentage of escorts are “independents” who operate as sole proprietors; in fact, many of these independent escorts are employers themselves, retaining the assistance of others for everything from website design to office administration to transportation and security.

This leads into the second problem with regard to anti-pimping laws. While the public has been given a narrow and loaded stereotypical definition, the law defines the act more broadly as deriving financial benefit from the prostitution of another. As a result, those employed by independent escorts are deemed to be “exploiting” them, simply because of the way the law is worded. Indeed, this overly sweeping definition may also be applied to anyone who receives any significant funds from sex workers, from those who rent or sublet apartments, to their children or other relatives. If we really wanted to take this to the extreme, we could consider any and all transactions done with “the profits of prostitution” to make just about everyone a pimp – newsstands, coffee shops, dry cleaners, even the neighbor holding a yard sale.

I’m sure those seeking a comfortable middle ground would advocate for a “reformed” anti-pimping law, where the focus is on abuse rather than mere financial gain. This raises the question of what constitutes abuse, and why new laws need to be created when current laws already address such problems. Using violence? We have laws against assault and battery. Taking money from someone who works for you? Laws against theft, and labor protection laws, also provide for that. Turf wars between pimps? Assuming this part of the myth is also true, that would fall under existing racketeering and anti-trust laws. Et cetera, et cetera. If the existence of these laws proves anything, it is that just about every business has some history of exploitative outliers. If the sex industry has more than its fair share, it seems more because of the stigma and lack of transparency which comes from continued criminalization.

Like any group of service providers, prostitutes don’t always work in isolation, even when they do so as sole proprietors. They depend upon various support services, as well as supporting both biological and chosen family members. Decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing those connected to them in this way is just as asymmetrically unworkable as the criminalization of their clientele. And before we attach the stigmatized label of “pimp” to those so connected, let’s remember how deep those connections may run – even to ourselves.