The Independent (UK) 26 March 2013
Sweden’s innovative sex-trade laws criminalise clients, not prostitutes. The result: a 70 per cent drop in business.
Sweden’s decision to reverse centuries of assumptions about prostitution and criminalise buyers of sex caused astonishment when the law came into force in 1999. As arguments raged elsewhere about whether prostitution should be legalised, the Swedish government’s simple idea – that the wrong people were being arrested – was new and controversial. Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg is Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings. When I meet her at her office in Stockholm, she recalls that one police officer from another country actually accused the Swedes of “Nazi methods”. Wahlberg acknowledges that many Swedish officers were sceptical as well. “There was frustration and anger within the police. People were chewing on lemons,” she says with a wry laugh.
All of that’s changed dramatically since the law came into effect. “The main change I can see when I look back is we got the men on board,” says Wahlberg. “The problem is gender-specific. Men buy women. One of the keys is to train police officers. When they have understood the background, they get the picture.” She talks about why women end up in prostitution, citing research that shows a history of childhood sexual abuse, compounded by problems with drugs and alcohol.
“They have no confidence in themselves. They’ve been left out and neglected and try to get all kinds of attention. This is not about an adult woman’s choice.” In the 1990s, the Swedish government accepted the arguments of women’s groups that prostitution is a barrier to gender equality and a form of violence against women.
What’s remarkable is that public opinion, which was initially hostile, has swung round to this view; these days, 70 per cent of the public support the law. “We’ve changed the mindset of the Swedish population,” Haggstrom tells me. The change is visible among the older members of his unit.