Witness: Ruth Nordström – Why Sweden leads the way in tackling human trafficking and the sex trade

criminalising-purchase-of-sexual-servicesIn a penultimate contribution to the ‘Witness’ series, Ruth Nordström, President of Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers, discusses the Swedish ban against the purchase of sexual services and its contribution to the fight against trafficking for sexual exploitation.

The Swedish ban is considered an important reference point in Europe’s policy approach towards the sex trade.

An analysis of the impact of the ‘Swedish model’ is at the heart of a Parliamentary Assembly investigation into human trafficking and the sex trade,which will see a report presented by José Mendes Bota, its General Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, to the assembly’s April Spring session.

A preview of this report will be outlined tomorrow by assembly administrator Giorgio Loddo, as the final part of this ‘Witness’ series.

  • Witness 1 : Livia Aninosanu – Loverboys, minors and the sex trade
  • Witness 2 : Roshan Heiler – Human trafficking and the sex trade in Aachen
  • Witness 3: Sonja Dolinsek – Is anti-trafficking really a fight against sex work? Web Chat Q & A

The Swedish ban against the purchase of sexual services

When I met with the Parliamentary Assembly’s Rapporteur José Mendes Bota at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last June (photo), we compared the Swedish Sex Purchase Act with other European countries’ legislation on prostitution. Could the ‘Swedish model’ be an example for Europe?

In 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalize the purchase of sex. The ‘Swedish model’ – a ban against the purchase but not the sale, of sexual services – is gaining support across Europe. The criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services targets the demand, the sex-buyer and the prospective sex-buyer.

The Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt recently set the focus on the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking in his speech to the Swedish people in December, stating that: “People who buy sex in Sweden should be sent to jail.”

Reinfeldt declared that Swedish legislation on human trafficking should be sharpened, that the penalties for the purchase of sexual services linked to sex-trafficking should be raised.

He also proposed prison as a minimum sentence for those who exploit minors for sexual purposes. The Swedish Prime Minister illustrated his speech with a large pile of paper, to show that nearly 5,000 crimes have been reported since the law was introduced but none of them has led to imprisonment, only fines. Reinfeldt also declared that he intended to evaluate the Swedish legislation on sex trafficking.

Violence against women

When the Swedish Sex Purchase Act was introduced 1999, it was a part of a bill against the violence against women, recognising prostitution as related to such violence.

The law states that: “A person who obtains a casual sexual relation in return for payment, shall be sentenced for purchase of sexual service to a fine or imprisonment for at most one year.” The maximum penalty was raised from six months to one year from 1 July 2011.

Those who criticize the Swedish Model, argue that it restricts the rights of the prostitutes, reducing the number of prospective sex buyers. Other opponents argue that activities in connection with the purchase or sale of sex that take place in consent between adults, should not be criminalised at all and that buying and selling sex should be protected from government interference, so long as intimidation or violence is not associated with the acts.

On the other hand, supporters of the ban on the purchase of sexual services claim that fighting prostitution is a pressing social concern. The Swedish legislative proposal stated that is shameful and unacceptable that men should obtain casual sexual services with women in return for payment, in a gender-equal society and pointed out that prostitution results in serious harm to both individuals and to the society. Others argue that there is a clear link between prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.

Evaluation of the Swedish legislation on the purchase of sexual services

According to the evaluation of the legislation on the purchase of sexual service made a couple of years ago by the Swedish government (SOU 2010:49), street prostitution in Sweden has been reduced by half, since the ban was introduced.

The evaluation also states that that although the number of foreign women in street prostitution has increased in all the Nordic countries, including Sweden, the dramatic increase reported from the neighbouring countries, has no parallel in Sweden.

The report claims that it is reasonable to assume that the ban against purchase of sexual services has counteracted the establishment of organized crime and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden.

However, the evaluation could be criticised for the insufficient statistical data presented to support these facts. Sweden has also been criticised for insufficient priorities set by the police and the lack of resources they have available. A substantially larger number of buyers of sexual services could be prosecuted if priority was given to this type of crime. One reason why priority is not given to sex purchase offenses is the low penal value of this type of offense. The recent statement from the Swedish Prime minister is therefore welcomed.

One of the most significant effects of prohibiting the purchase of sexual services has been the normative effect. There is currently a strong support for the ban on purchasing sexual services in Sweden, especially among young people, aimed at deterring sex purchasers.

The next step

The European Union has the highest number of sex slaves per capita in the world. With the promise of a well-paid job as a model or au pair in a rich European country, young teenage girls, mainly from Eastern Europe, dream of a better life. Reality strikes mercilessly when they are caught in the mare dream of brothels, gang rapes and sexual abuse. It is a serious and dangerous situation, especially for the young, vulnerable girls, who are exploited for sexual purposes on a daily basis.

The Internet market is still growing and there are not enough statistics to show that the Swedish ban on the purchase of sexual services has had the proposed effect on the sexual exposure, exploitation and abuse of young people on the Internet. There is a pressing need of increased resources to protect young people in the risk zone.

Discussions of the rights of the sex workers are important as well. To escape from prostitution, the prostitutes must be able to claim damages effectively. In Sweden, the coordinating efforts against prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes need to be strengthened. The link between prostitution and human trafficking is crystal clear.

There has been a discussion in Sweden about the need to expand the opportunities for prosecuting sexual purchase offences committed abroad. In order for the Swedish courts to have the competence to pass judgment on offences committed outside Sweden, it is normally conditional on dual criminality. The majority of countries do not have a ban on the purchase of sexual services equivalent to that in force in Sweden. A consensus, in Europe and globally, on what methods should be used to combat prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes, is therefore crucial.

The Swedish Angel in the Red Light District

At the end of last year, the Scandinavian Human Rights Committee dedicated the anual Scandinavian Human Dignity Award, to Ms Elise Lindqvist, the so-called ‘Angel in the Red Light District’ of Stockholm.

In her award speech, Elise told the audience that although she will turn 78 years old this year, it is her intention to work at least another decade to help the prostitutes in the Red Light District in Stockholm. She rejoices with several of them, who managed to escape prostitution, now educating themselves and daring to hope for a new future.

Elise highlighted in her speech the artwork she had won, representing a broken person in the dark, slowly rising up to the light and to human dignity, saying emphatically “that is me – and that is my girls!”

Ms Lindqvist also challenged the Swedish model, saying: “I suggest that the next step should be to criminalize both the purchase and the sale of sexual services.”

The Swedish Angel in the Red Light District, Elise Lindqvist, has just released her auto-biography, telling her story about being a victim of sexual abuse as a child. She was sold as a prostitute as a young teenager and years of sexual humiliation and abuse ended in heavy drug use for several years.
But Elise’s story did not end in darkness and degradation. Her life took whole new turn and she has now dedicated her life to protect and secure women from all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of women in Sweden, enabling them to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Ruth Nordström, is President of the Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers, a non governmental organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity in Sweden, Scandinavia and Europe.

Each year, the Scandinavian Human Dignity Award is presented to a person or an organization which has made a special contribution to human rights.

The Essential

  • Podcast: Criminalising the purchase of sexual services
  • Podcast: Human trafficking in Europe – Myths and facts
  • Podcast: Sex slavery in Europe
  • Information: Action against trafficking in human beings
  • Video: Sex slavery in Strasbourg [fr] Full Interview
  • News: Jenny Kleeman’s sex trafficking film
  • News: The curse of ‘juju’ that drives sex slaves to Europe
  • Treaty: Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings