Back in March people in Canada contacted me to ask about Gunilla Ekberg’s claim, in talks given there, that there have been 3500 men found guilty under the Swedish law against buying sex (sexköpslagen) since it was passed in 1999. Why would Ekberg make a mistake about something that can be verified on the website of the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ)? The total is 757 over eleven years.
Until recently, the maximum penalty for those convicted of buying sex was six months in jail or a rather small fine. No one was ever jailed, as far as I can tell; jail-time is not mandated when penalties are minor. Therefore, the nearly unanimous vote in the Swedish parliament last month was about making it possible for a convicted person to go to jail, as a year-penalty pushes the crime upwards in importance. Perhaps one could say, then, that this apparently fierce vote was more about making the original 1999 law more coherent: if you seriously believe something is a crime, then you don’t want it to be never punished. If you see what I mean.
Numbers of convictions for buying sex in Sweden by year, 1999-2009
Is this a large or small number of convictions? How many men were detained by the police but the case dropped? That information isn’t available. Activists and scholars tend to focus on the law’s rhetoric and presumptions, but it is never easy to put such a law into practice. Consider the document BRÅ published in 1999 on the subject of these difficulties from a policing point of view:
Evidential difficulties are the most common reason for the discontinuation of police investigations into suspected offences of this type. The most difficult thing to prove has been that the parties have entered into an agreement that sexual services will be provided in exchange for payment. It is an offence without a complainant and even though the prostitutes are obliged to give evidence, this obligation is limited since they are not obliged to reveal that they have themselves participated in an act of prostitution. Even if the prostitutes might consider giving evidence about the incident, it has been deemed difficult to reach them to obtain their co-operation in investigations since they often have no fixed address or telephone number.
So although the Swedish parliament recently raised the maximum penalty from six months’ incarceration to a year, the difficulty of getting convictions remains.
Thanks to Louise Persson for help with the numbers.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist