Sweden’s The Local invited me to write on the government’s evaluation of the sex-buying law (sexköpslagen). I’m reproducing the article here minus stereotyped photo of woman’s high-booted legs in street at night with red overtones. It is very hard to illustrate these stories, I know, but I do feel the media could resist the worst cliches. These jolly masked men might be sex workers’ clients, as might this ashamed man be.
Laura Agustín, 23 July 2010, The Local
A new review of Sweden’s ban on buying sex has provided little hard evidence that the policy of prohibition has worked, writes Laura Agustín, but few politicians have dared to point out its obvious failings.
Every Swede knows that the famed law against buying sex – sexköpslagen – is a hot potato. Few politicians have commented one way or another on the evaluation of the law announced on 2 July, and only one government official claimed it proves the law is a success. Given that the report has been strongly criticised as empty of evidence and methodology but full of ideology in its very remit, debate has been curiously muted, even for the time of year.
At another period in history the sex-purchase law might have been considered a minor piece of legislation on a lesser social problem. Few people die, are maimed for life or lose their homes and jobs because of prostitution here; other threats to national security and happiness might seem more pressing.
But one feminist faction promotes the ideology that prostitutes are always, by definition, victims of violence against women. As victims, they can’t be criminals, so their side of the money-sex exchange is not penalised, whereas those who buy are perpetrators of a serious crime. This ideology, a minority view in other countries, predominates among Swedish State Feminists who claim that the existence of commercial sex is a key impediment to achieving gender equality. Such a dogma is odd, given the very small number of people engaged in selling sex in a welfare state that does not exclude them from its services and benefits. It is not illegal to sell sex in Sweden, just to buy it.
The evaluation leaned heavily on small-scale data about street prostitution, because that was the easiest to find. No one doubts that most street sex workers went somewhere else after the law came into effect, and no one knows where they went. But evaluators bolstered their case by claiming that street prostitution had increased in Denmark, where there is no such law, using information from a Copenhagen NGO whose inflated data was exposed in parliament last year. Street prostitution is known, in any case, to constitute a tiny, diminishing part of the whole of commercial sex.
The report confesses that ‘prostitution on the Internet’ was difficult to research but exhibits a poor understanding of the multiplicity of businesses, jobs and networks that characterise the sex industry. Asking police officials and social workers what they think is going on is no substitute for true research, and no academic studies pretend to know the extent of prostitution here. A government report from 2007 admitted it was difficult to find out much of anything about prostitution in Sweden.
The evaluation gives no account of how the research was actually carried out – its methodology – but is full of background material on Swedish history and why prostitution is bad. Only 14 sex workers were actually canvassed for their opinion of the law, seven of whom had already stopped selling sex. It is a rather pathetic display.
Several media commentators took the occasion to attack the law itself, since, despite regular government affirmations that the majority of Swedes support the law, opposition is fierce. In the blogosphere and other online forums, liberals, libertarians and non-conforming members of the main parties relentlessly resist a reductionist view of sexuality in which vulnerable women are forever threatened by predatory men.
But most politicians undoubtedly feel little good will come from complaining about legislation now symbolic of Mother Sweden. The Swedish Institute has turned the abolition of prostitution into part of the nation’s brand, what they call a ‘multi-faceted package to make Sweden attractive to the outside world.’ The SI, claiming to represent the most ‘socially liberal’ country on the planet, celebrates gender equality and gay love along with Ingmar Bergman, high technology and pine forests.
Sweden indisputably ranks high on several measures of gender equality, such as numbers of women who work outside the home, their salaries and length of parental leave. But other policies considered as part of gender equality are much harder to measure: cultural change, how people feel about sexual difference and, not least, the effect of a ban on buying sex. So it is hardly surprising that the government’s evaluation presents no evidence that relations between men and women have improved in Sweden because of the law. The evaluation’s main recommendation is to stiffen the punishment meted out to men who buy sex.
There was something new in Justice Minister Ask’s positioning of the law to the international media, however – a claim that it has been proved to combat organized crime, particularly the kind called sex trafficking. Citing no evidence, the report maintains there is less trafficking in Sweden because it is now ‘less attractive’ to traffickers.
Such naïve statements argue that without a demand for commercial sex there will be no supply, ignoring the complicated ways sex-money markets work in cultures with different concepts of family and love, reducing a wide range of sexual activities to an abstract notion of violence and brushing aside the many people who confirm that they prefer selling sex to their other livelihood options.
As for combating trafficking, there is no proof. Statistics continue to be a source of conflict in international debates, because different countries, institutions and researchers do not agree on what actually constitutes trafficking. It does not help that fundamentalist feminism refuses to accept the distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling linked to informal labour migration, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Organised Crime.
The Swedish government has proved nothing with this evaluation, and most Swedish politicians are keeping quiet, because they obviously know it.