In 1999, when Sweden passed a law criminalising the buying but not the selling of sex, many outsiders were dubious. It seemed a quirk of Sweden’s famously collectivist, earnestly feminist political culture. “In European countries, when we were talking about the Swedish model four or five years ago, people were actually laughing,” says Olga Persson, the head of a network of Swedish women’s shelters, who has pressed for other countries to adopt similar laws.
Some people still see things this way, but these days the Swedish model has lots of momentum behind it. Norway adopted it in 2008 and Iceland in 2009. Canada’s government recently proposed a version of it. Earlier this year, the European parliament approved a resolution by the British MEP Mary Honeyball calling for the Swedish model to be adopted throughout the continent. Should a Labour government be elected in the UK, Honeyball says, there could be a serious push for it.
This summer, thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I travelled to the Netherlands and Sweden to write about this growing international campaign to criminalise those buying sex. It’s a complex issue. Supporters of the Swedish model say that in countries like the Netherlands, where pimping and brothel-keeping were legalised in 2000, trafficking has increased and the welfare of prostitutes has suffered. They are right. Opponents of the Swedish model, particularly sex worker advocacy groups, say that the law has increased the stigma on sex workers, with occasionally grave repercussions. They are also right. Deciding which model works better is as much an ideological as an empirical question, ultimately depending on whether one believes that prostitution can ever be simply a job like any other.