Legalising prostitution is not the answer - Swedish report, UK views, Analysis
An evaluation of Swedish law shows that criminalising the purchase, but not the sale, of sex, has been a great success
It is rare to have academic consensus on controversial areas of study, but currently in the UK it seems that the vast majority of academics studying prostitution and the sex industry are in agreement. It is almost impossible to find even a handful involved in this massively expanding area of study that will deviate from the opinion that the sex industry should be legalised or decriminalised, and that penalising sex buyers has a negative effect on those selling sexual services. Most academic studies produced in the past few years conclude that little harm is caused to those involved in prostitution, despite the thousands of testimonies on record of survivors of this abusive trade.
Today, Förbud mot köp av sexuell tjänst: en utvärdering 1999-2008 (Prohibition of the Purchase of a Sexual Service: an Evaluation 1999-2008), a report on the evaluation of the 11-year-old Swedish law that criminalises those who pay for or attempt to pay for sex, is released, and its conclusion is that the legislation has been overwhelmingly positive for all (except the pimps, traffickers and punters, of course). I hope it will put paid to the scores of assertions bandied about during the past decade that the law has been detrimental to those in prostitution as well as to wider society.
In a letter to a newspaper dated January 2006, Belinda Brooks-Gordon, reader in psychology and social policy at Birkbeck and an enthusiastic lobbyist for a repeal of all prostitution laws, wrote in response to the Home Office's 2004 green paper on prostitution, Paying the Price: "The government's idiosyncratic attention to the evidence base neglects the vast body of research, which shows that Sweden's policy of criminalising buyers of commercial sex is not progressive but rather that it is retrogressive, dangerous, unworkable and expensive …"
In protesting about the recently implemented UK law that criminalises those who pay for sex with someone controlled for gain, Cif contributor Douglas Fox (whose partner owns one of the biggest escort agencies in the northeast of England) seems to justify pimping by saying:
"Sex workers, for good legitimate reasons, choose to work through agencies or brothels. These agents offer sex workers security, anonymity and general companionship. It would be considered an abuse of our human rights if the government were to force every worker in the land to work alone and without contact with fellow workers."
Thierry Schaffauser, a male sex worker and advocate of total decriminalisation of the sex industry agreed, writing in CiF that: "The criminalisation of clients pushes us to find intermediaries who will organise the meeting with them and take a commission on our incomes."
Teela Sanders, another academic who believes that regulation of prostitution is neither desirable nor possible, says of moves to criminalise punters: "Putting limits on private morality with regard to the legitimate purchase and provision of consensual commercial sex is evidence of a state seeking to control sexuality rather than to preserve diversity, difference and freedom."
In 2007, Professor Julia O'Connell Davidson wrote a letter to this paper in which she argued that the numbers of women trafficked into the UK had been exaggerated, and concluded that: "Evidence from other countries (including Sweden) suggests that a policy of suppression, whether focused on clients or sex workers, can have very negative consequences for those who trade sex."
I could go on – there are countless articles, papers and comments from UK-based academics in which the Swedish model is heavily criticised and dismissed as a workable option. We have been told that putting any focus on the buyer will automatically have a negative impact on women in prostitution, and would offer no benefits to the police and public. However, these studies, reports and claims have been written by individuals with strong political positions on prostitution. As Catherine Stephens, who describes herself as a dominatrix prostitute, wrote on Cif last year: "When it comes to prostitution, everyone has an opinion." No one working in or on it is devoid of a view regarding this important topic, which is why it is somewhat frustrating that so many academics seem happy to be selective about the "evidence" supporting their claims that the Swedish model has been a disaster. Similarly, these same academics regularly accuse authors of research that reaches different conclusions from theirs of being biased.
However, today's report, a comprehensive evaluation of the Swedish law, conducted by an independent commission appointed by the government, and led by the chancellor of justice (the highest legal officer in Sweden) shows that legislation criminalising demand has been a resounding success. The evaluation concludes that, since the law came in to force in 1999, the number of women involved in street prostitution has halved, whereas neighbouring countries such as Denmark and Norway have seen a sharp rise; that there is no evidence of an increase in off-street prostitution; and that, despite a significant increase in prostitution in the neighbouring countries during the past 10 years, there is no evidence of a similar increase in Sweden.
Advertising of prostitution through the internet has increased in Sweden, as it has in other countries. This is not due to the law, the evaluation concludes, but to the development of online technology generally. Again, there is far more web advertising in neighbouring countries. The commission looked at abuse and coercion in the industry and found that, contrary to the opinion of Schaffauser and others, criminalising buyers does not lead women to pimps.
The commission, which took evidence from women currently in prostitution, those who had left the sex trade, police, social workers and other key stakeholders, also found that the law functioned as a barrier against the establishment of traffickers and pimps in Sweden, and had led to a reduction in organised crime.
The law has strong public support among the public in Sweden, has led to a significant positive change in attitudes, and acts as a deterrent for potential buyers. A 2008 study found that only 8% of Swedish men had paid for sex, compared with 13.6% before the law came into force.
Despite misgivings that the law would result in prostitution going underground, no evidence whatsoever was uncovered during the evaluation to substantiate this. Police and prosecutors, many of whom were resistant to the law in the early days, confirm that it has been good for the country and has reduced criminal activity. Importantly, because those selling sexual services were decriminalised at the same time as buyers were criminalised, it has proved easier for the women to leave the sex trade and seek the support available from projects.
No doubt critics of this law will soon be arguing that the research that formed the basis of this evaluation is flawed and biased. But the commission was careful to include a wide range of views, including Pye Jakobsson, who has worked in the Swedish sex industry for several years and has actively campaigned against the criminalisation of punters, and other pro-prostitution activists.
This evaluation report will enable those of us in the UK who are campaigning for a blanket ban on the purchase of sexual services and the decriminalisation of those selling sex to refute the claims made by lobbyists for legalisation. It may also lead a few prospective PhD candidates to use their imagination and not follow the current academic line, and to conduct some research that does not begin with the assumption that legalising this vile industry is the answer. I live in hope.