As part of my ongoing research, I subscribe to a number of ‘google alerts’. A handy tool for getting a quick look each day at what’s out there in cyberspace on issues of interest to you. At a glance, I can scour headlines from around the world on issues of poverty, homelessness, human trafficking. And prostitution.
And so each day, I scan headline after headline, the likes of “Police go undercover to arrest prostitutes”, or “Six women arrested in prostitution sting.” And more often than not, what I read makes my heart sink at just how backwards it all is. How can it be that in so many places around the world – including right here at home in Canada - it is still thought that the “solution” to the problem of prostitution is simply to clear the streets of the 'unwanted' prostitutes? Can’t we do better than that?
But the other day, I found a headline that brought some measure of hope. A measure of affirmation for a different way, an approach that is as just as it is logical.
In January, 1999, Sweden enacted a new law governing prostitution – at the time, the first of its kind - which criminalized the purchase of sexual services.
For a nation that believed prostitution to be harmful both to individuals and to society, the law was the latest leg in a journey that began in 1970 of seeking to address the country’s flourishing sex trade. Sweden takes pride in its strong belief in gender equity, and correspondingly takes the view that prostitution can only ever be considered a form of (often violent) exploitation against women. The original legislative proposal suggested it was shameful and unacceptable that, in a gender equal society, men obtain sexual relations with women in return for payment.
Prostitution was therefore not considered something to be managed or controlled, but rather eradicated, because it was fundamentally exploitive, demeaning and contrary to objectives of gender equality and freedom on the individual.
They also recognized that in order to eradicate prostitution, it was essential to hit the demand side - those who purchase sexual services. A simple equation of supply and demand: if there’s no demand, there will be no prostitution. The focus was necessarily punitive – but not towards the prostituted women, rather towards the pimps and johns.
Since the law was enacted, the approach has been subject to a great deal of criticism from ‘pro-prostitution’ advocates, and from those who argued it would never work, and would just drive the industry underground.
Well, more than ten years later, the results of an independent inquiry on the evaluation of the ban of the purchase of sexual services put many of those criticisms to rest. The independent inquiry was established to study how well the prohibition has worked and the effects it has had on rates of prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden.
The evaluation shows that the ban has been a “success.” Shortly after its introduction, street prostitution in Sweden was reduced by half, and has not shown any bounce-back. Before the ban, rates of street prostitution in the capital cities of Norway, Denmark and Sweden had been comparable. But while rates in Sweden decreased by half, the other countries have shown dramatic increases over the ten year period. The assertion that the decrease is a direct result of the ban is further supported by the dramatic reduction in street prostitution seen in Norway since a similar legislative scheme was introduced in 2009.
Also significant is the noted impact on the establishment and operation of organized crime and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden since the ban was implemented. Again, the same result has been observed in Norway since it adopted its own prohibitive legislation.
There has been an increase in selling of sexual services over internet – but proportionally, this increase has been much less than in neighbouring countries, and is likely more of a reflection of the increase in these activities over the internet everywhere than of the law’s effectiveness.
Importantly, there has also been a change in public attitude, with strong public support for the ban. Children in Sweden are growing up with the understanding that it is not okay to purchase sexual services from another person. That men and women are considered equals and each individual is worthy of respect and personal freedom, and that the very idea of one paying to be serviced by another sexually flies in the face of those fundamentals. And this maybe the greatest victory of the ban, one whose effects have not yet even been realized.
And amidst all of these positive results, there was no evidence found of negative impact on prostituted women. Prostitution and human trafficking rates have been dramatically reduced without criminalizing or further victimizing prostituted women, which leads me to believe that the model is both effective and just.
Sweden is to be commended for its longstanding commitment and determination to 'get it right.' The results of the inquiry show they are on the right track. And the inquiry itself demonstrates that they will continue to expand and improve upon the ban and its’ related support structures and services for women until they've got it as 'right' as possible.
And so today, we say (as we have already in our report, Selling Ourselves), with even greater conviction, that we believe the Canadian government should take a close look at the approach, perspective and commitment of Sweden and lead the way here in North America.