Sweden and prostitution law: the conditions of possibility

redup2The idea of criminalising the purchase of sex continues to be promoted round the world, usually as part of some politician’s campaign against immoral sex and the exploitation of children, with a subtext aimed at keeping women at home and migrants out. Sweden’s law is thrown out as the model, along with claims that prostitution is practically absent and trafficking nearly non-existent there. Neither of these has been proven. To explore this sort of claim, see tags to the right of this post (sweden, nordic model, laws, gender equality, for example.)

The banning-sex-purchase proposal has been made in countries as far away from Sweden as Brazil and India. Presented abstractly it sounds clear, simple and righteous. But local context and history make a big difference in how a proposed law can come to pass and operate on the ground (as opposed to in starry rhetoric). The Swedish context is unusual in the world, the conditions making this law (sexköpslagen) possible difficult to imagine outside the Nordic region. Nothing slapdash nor sudden was involved but rather deep history in a particular culture. This is not true of other countries that jump on the bandwagon because some politicians see their chance to make names based on simplistic moralising.

The following is an excerpt from a longer article I published a few months ago on the dysfunction of prostitution laws, the idea of whore stigma and the disqualification and actual murder of sex workers. For those who ask Where did the Swedish model come from? How could feminism have led to it? this provides a short version of what might be called an épistème – the epistemological field forming the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place.

Sweden and prostitution (from Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores, Jacobin, 15 August 2013)

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights and did all he could to impede her seeing them. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.


Some of the immediate questions you might have, for instance on Gender Equality and State Feminism, are addressed in the full essay Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores. This kind of background is, of course, not interesting to everyone, and most of what I see on the topic talks about the law as Bad or Good. Discussions typical in parliamentary committees like the Irish are silly because they opt to accept banal lists of supposed successes in Sweden without acknowledging the difficulties of knowing effects at all. Activists on both sides tend to over-state their cases – practically the definition of much activism in social movements. For anyone interested in history, though, the background is crucial, and it can be seen as good news that it’s not so easy to simply transfer the logic of a law from one country to another: that kind of homogenised culture is not here yet.

Proof of the law’s effects are mostly unknowable so far. The state’s evaluation of the law in 2010 admitted ignorance of how to investigate commercial sex online and gave numbers only for street prostitution. This was a tiny number to begin with describing an activity that is diminishing. Claims that sex trafficking have decreased are meaningless since no baseline statistics were kept on this before the law was passed. The claims of eradicating either phenomenon are public-relations trivia. That politicians in other countries reproduce these claims in supposedly serious hearings demonstrates mediocrity and lack of interest in the subject. As I said above, the principle effect we can be sure of is

Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice.

Increases in stigma, social death and excuses to disqualify women who sell sex as autonomous beings are dire effects to a piece of legislation that emerged from a goal to achieve Gender Equality. Utopian visions can backfire, and this one has.

For another of my views of Sweden’s present State Feminists see Extremist Feminism in Swedish government: Something Dark

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

14 thoughts on “Sweden and prostitution law: the conditions of possibility

  1. Cliente X

    A really simple question to you, Laura. Do u think that behind that law there are good-hearted, innocent politicians that are really interested in the prostitutes and want the best for them, or do you think that maybe a possibility is that the horrible effects of the law are not a mistake but what they wanted and with the feminist rethoric they only want to cover their intentions cynically?

    BTW, I have seen several of ur interviews in youtube. Are you going to come to Spain to any conference? I really like ur work, it’s great.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      I don’t think either of those but what I wrote, that a move towards gender equality that identified prostitution as bad backfired. Individual politicians may be good or not but all are interested in their careers and which political moves may further them. I referred to this in the Irish case.

      During the 5 or so years I lived in Spain I was invited to speak in many towns and enjoyed it. Nowadays I don’t hear from Spain so much.

  2. Paul Whitehead

    Thank you for a very clear article. I’d often wondered what the “Swedish Model” was.

  3. Balthasar Thomass

    Another very simple question:

    Have there been any attempts, by Rose Alliance or another sex workers organisation, individual workers or even clients, to seize the European Court of Human Rights, or the European Court of Justice, on the matter of the swedish law?

    1. Laura Agustín

      To take a case to Strasbourg one has to have ‘exhausted’ possibilities in national courts. No group or individual has taken sexköpslagen to court in Sweden, and just what the case would be is not obvious. One would be arguing that the law violates a human right according to the Act that applies in the EU, using specific arguments. It is obviously possible but ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ do not mean just the same in the EU Act as they do in Canada (or the USA, for that matter).

  4. Richard Williamson

    Dear Laura Agustin,

    A lot has been discussed about prostitution and whether it should be legal or illegal for past many decades. Fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals, feminists, social workers, psychologists and sex workers have all participated in the discussions and voiced their opinions. But till now there hasn’t been a single instance in which the clients i.e. the customers of sex workers have been given an opportunity to express their views. We also have our side of the story. We want to be heard. I want to put forth the point of view of a client.

    My email id is ‘magfrt@rediffmail.com’. Please, will you send me your email id, so that I can express the client’s point of view. I have a lot to write and the space here may not be sufficient. I guarantee you can trust me and the email id which you give wouldn’t be used by me to send rubbish emails.

    Eagerly looking forward to your reply.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Clients are heard from seldom in the mainstream but now and then there are exceptions and I hear from them often and see their blogs – maybe you should make one!

  5. Richard Williamson

    And what is your personal opinion about us ? Do you also think of us as sex maniacs who are out there to violate sex workers ?

    Many people are not able to find the companionship of opposite gender due to shyness, introvertness, disability, handicap, cosmetic disability etc. Some are just not able to or don’t want to manage the responsibilities of relationships. Some are into dissatisfying relationships either sexually or emotionally.

    I am myself suffering from pectus excavatum due to which I am unable to find female companionship in a conventional way. Making prostitution illegal is not only discriminatory against us but also torcherous to us.

    There are many organizations which support the rights of sex workers(and I am happy about that) but there isn’t a single organization which supports our rights in the whole world. We are also human beings. We also suffer from stigma from society, most times more than sex workers.

    You must have spoken a lot on this topic in interviews, debates, academic lectures, newspapers, news channels. Would you please give atleast 1% of your time to tell our side of story and speak for us ? Please support us wherever and whenever it is possible.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Have you spent any time on this website? There is a clients tag, but also many references in hundreds of blog posts and published articles. I do not *speak for* anyone except myself and am mostly ignored in mainstream circles. If you’re looking for a celebrity sponsor, I’m not it.

  6. Richard Williamson

    Ok fine. But as an anthropologist what is your personal opinion about clients? How do you see us through your eyes?

    1. Laura Agustín

      I don’t think any general thing about everyone who buys sex. It’s an enormous group, located in all cultures, classes, ethnicities. I have no moral ideas about everyone, if that’s what you mean.

  7. Richard Williamsom

    Hmmm. You have a vast knowledge about this topic and have also studied it for many years. But still I would like to present to you one more dimension about it which you may not be knowing. Whenever any person visits a sex worker we normally think that he has visited her for ‘buying sex’. But some people also visit them to buy ‘love and affection’.

    I would like to give my own example. Till now I have visited sex workers two times in my life. On both the occasions I didn’t have sex with the girls. I just held her hand, hugged her, put my arms around her neck, put my hand on her shoulder and ran my fingers through her hair. After that I rested for sometime by resting my head on her lap while she caressed my hair.

    Sorry if I bored you with so many details. But I just wanted to let you know the difference between ‘buying sex’ and ‘buying love and affection’ though ‘buying sex’ is not morally wrong in anyway. Did you know before about this behavior of some people ?

    1. sunny

      HI, Richard,
      An indepth and real study of sex buyers has been done and published on johnsvoice.ca

      Related is this one that is mid way sexsafetysecurity.ca/

      I think that you will find that you are not alone. But i do not think that here is the venue for your concerns, tho there are other places for you to discuss them I am sure.

  8. John

    It should be noted that Eva-Maree’s former husband was convicted of violent crimes (such as assault and causing bodily harm) but according to Swedish law selling sex is not criminal (but buying is). I.e. it was proven that the father was a criminal and indeed dangerous to at least some people.

    Still the social-workers considered Eva-Maree to be so dangerous for her own children that she was only allowed to meet them under supervision. The non-criminal person was treated as a criminal and the criminal (The father) was treated as a non-criminal!


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