Smoke gets in your eyes: Evaluation of Swedish anti-prostitution law offers ideology, not methodology

Louise Persson and I have published a piece in Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s major national newspapers. The topic was the government’s report evaluating the law against buying sex, sexköpslagen, issued recently and unsettlingly uncommented and uncritiqued in the mainstream media. There were ‘news’ stories, of course, reproducing the government’s line – publicity claiming the law has been proved successful. Given the very lively culture of debate in these same media on every other topic, the silence is noticeable. And given the unquestionable existence of a liberal/libertarian movement that hates the law and its ideas about sexuality and gender equality, one wonders what’s at work here: A genuine taboo? Gender equality such a sacred cow that everyone chooses to keep quiet about the report’s mediocrity? Sweden isn’t a police state and surveillance is low compared with the UK, for example. Critical blogging has been brisk, so what makes mainstream media commentators avoid criticising this evaluation, not on ideological grounds but because it is so badly done that it proves nothing at all?

That’s what we wrote about, the embarrassing lack of evidence to prove the law has had any impact at all on the buying and selling of sex. This is not an ideological argument; it doesn’t prove that the law is no good; it proves that the evaluation is no good. Significant because the world’s peabrained media have picked up the claim – Swedish Law Giant Success – without reading even the English summary of points that make it crystal-clear that evaluators couldn’t find any evidence of anything. That’s the story, and it’s one any researcher will appreciate!

The original is Tvivelaktig rapport om sexköp, Laura Agustín och Louise Persson, Svenska Dagbladet, 15 July 2010. Our own title was better, but it’ll be a cold day in hell when editors don’t think they can improve titles. Here’s the English translation Given a very small word limit, we could only mention key issues in a barebones fashion.

Doubtful report on sex-purchase law

Laura Agustín and Louise Persson, 15 July 2010, Svenska Dagbladet

Sex crimes go down in Sweden: The new evaluation of the law against buying sex is spreading the message round the world, but the report suffers from too many scientific errors to justify any such claim.

The report was delayed. It is hard to find evidence to explain why one can’t see sex workers where one saw them before: Have they stopped selling sex, or are they doing it somewhere else? Stigmatised and criminalised people avoid contact with police, social workers and researchers.

Street prostitution receives exaggerated attention in the inquiry, despite the fact that it represents a small, diminishing type of commercial sex that cannot be extrapolated to all. The inquiry mentions the difficulty of researching ‘prostitution on the internet’ but appears not to know that the sex industry comes in many different shapes being researched in depth elsewhere (escorts without websites, sex parties, strip clubs, massage parlours, students who sell sex, among others).

The report’s conclusion that the law has decreased prostitution is based on police reports, government-funded groups working on prostitution in three cities, a few small academic studies and comparisons with other Nordic countries. But police only encounter sex workers in the context of criminal inquiries, the funded groups mostly meet sex workers seeking help, small studies can only indicate possible trends and the Danish statistics on the number of ‘active’ street workers – used to show that Sweden’s prostitution is less – were publicly shown to be very wrong eight months ago.

The law is claimed to have a dampening effect on sex trafficking, but no proof is offered. Trafficking statistics have long been disputed outside Sweden, because of definitional confusion and refusals to accept the UN Convention on Organised Crime’s distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling linked to informal labour migration. The report claims the law diminishes ‘organised crime’ without analysing how crimes were identified and resolved or how they are related to the sex-purchase law.

All social research must explain its methodology. An evaluation like this one needs to provide details on the sample of people consulted, since even in a field as small as Sweden’s no study can pretend to speak to everyone. Methodological research norms require explaining how informants were consulted, under what conditions, what questions they were asked and how, what ethical apparatus was in place to help guarantee they gave their true opinions, how a balance of different stakeholders was achieved, how many people refused to participate, and so on. In this report, however, the methodology section is practically non-existent. We know nothing about how it the evaluation was actually carried out.

On the other hand, the report brims with irrelevant material: background on how the law came about, Sweden’s history with gender equality, why prostitution is bad, why international audiences are interested in the evaluation and how many Swedes are said to currently support the law. One single sex worker’s sad personal story takes up three pages, while the account of sex workers’ opinions is limited to the results of a survey of only 14 people of which only seven were current sex workers.

Research must try for some kind of objectivity, but the government’s remit to the evaluation team said that ‘the buying of sexual services shall continue to be criminalised’ no matter what the evaluators found. The bias was inherent.

The Swedish government understands that the law is of interest internationally as a form of crime prevention. What they don’t realise is how, when the report is translated and reviewed, the methodological errors and crude bias will cause researchers in the field to dismiss this evaluation.

The international trafficking debate has moved beyond the simplistic position presented in this report. More humility is needed from a small country with little experience of, and research about, undocumented migration and the sex industry. If one wants to present oneself as occupying a higher moral ground than other countries, one needs to do better work to understand complex questions. This evalution tells us nothing about the effects of the sex-purchase law.

We offered sources on the topic of flawed research not supporting extravagant claims in this field, but editors omitted them.

Socialstyrelsen. 2007. Kännedom om Prostitution. Another Swedish government report from just a few years ago that concludes little can be known about prostitution in Sweden:

Folketingets Socialudvalg, 20 november 2009. Socialministerens endelige svar påspørgsmål nr. 37 (SOU Alm. del). Question in Danish parliament about incorrect figures claimed for street prostitution.

IOM-SIDA. 2006. Trafficking in Human Beings and the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Swedish-funded research finding trafficking claims unsubstantiated.

BBC News Magazine. Is the number of trafficked call girls a myth? 9 January 2009.

United States Government Accountability Office. July 2006. Human Trafficking: Better Data, Strategy, and Reporting Needed to Enhance U.S. Antitrafficking Efforts Abroad.

Les Carpenter. 2010. Debunking World Cup’s biggest myth. Yahoo News, 10 June.

Svenska utdrag från Tvivelaktig rapport om sexköp

Laura Agustín och Louise Persson, Svenska Dagbladet, 15 July 2010

Den nysläppta utvärderingen av sexköpslagen sprider budskapet att sexbrotten minskar, men utredningen är behäftad med alltför allvarliga vetenskapliga fel för att man ska kunna hävda att lagen är framgångsrik.

Rapporten om sexköpslagen försenades. Det var svårt att hitta bevis som demonstrerar anledningarna bakom varför man inte ser sexarbetare där man sett dem förut: har de slutat sälja, eller har de flyttat någon annanstans? Stigmatiserade och kriminaliserade aktörer undviker kontakt med polis, socialarbetare och forskare.

. . . En grundprincip för forskning är att sträva efter objektivitet, men regeringens direktiv var: ”En utgångspunkt för vårt arbete har varit att köp av sexuell tjänst fortfarande ska vara kriminaliserat.” Det skapar läge för en partisk inlaga. . .

Vill man presentera sig med en högre moralisk nivå på den internationella arenan, krävs bättre underlag och förståelse för komplexa frågor. Den här utvärderingen säger oss ingenting om lagens effekter.

5 thoughts on “Smoke gets in your eyes: Evaluation of Swedish anti-prostitution law offers ideology, not methodology

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