The Swedish Approach

The Swedish response to prostitution emerged within the context of comprehensive measures to eliminate all forms of gender based violence and to address gender inequality. The law defined prostitution as a form of violence against women and consequently criminalised the purchase of sex. The law is not merely punitive but declarative and normative sending out a clear statement that prostitution is harmful not only to the individual prostituted woman or child, but also to society at large. In 2008, the Swedish government established a High-Level Inquiry led by Supreme Court Judge Anna Skarhed to investigate how the law had worked in practice and what effect it has had on the incidence of prostitution and human trafficking over the past decade.1 The High Level Inquiry has been criticised by those opposing the law as biased in that it took as the starting point that the law would remain. However, this is to misunderstand the remit of the inquiry which was to objectively assess whether it was achieving its objectives. This position is similar to reviews of the laws on rape which do not set out with the intention of repealing the law but rather to examine if there needs to be changes to make them more effective. The Inquiry found that the law had delivered on all its objectives, in particular:

  • Street prostitution in Sweden halved since the introduction of the ban. In 1995 it was estimated that the total number of people in prostitution was 2,500 – 3,000 with 650 on the streets. In 2008 it estimated that 350 women advertise on the net and 300 are on the street
  • In comparable countries, Norway and Denmark, the number of people in street prostitution has increased dramatically in the same period, three times higher than in Sweden; e.g. Denmark: 2008: 5,567; 1,415 on streets
  • There is no evidence that prostitution has gone underground and indoor prostitution including massage parlours, sex clubs, hotels has not increased
  • Internet advertising of prostitution has increased in all three countries over the past decade but is much more extensive in neighbouring countries
  • There is no indication that criminalisation has increased the risk of violence or worsened the conditions of those people exploited through prostitution
  • Trafficking is considered to be of a substantially smaller scale than in comparable countries. The National Criminal Police believe the law has acted as a barrier to human traffickers and procurers
  • Marked change in attitude to the purchase of sexual services; strong support for the ban on purchasing sexual services (70% – 80%)
  • Enforcement of the law: wide spectrum of offences used i.e. aggravated procuring; procuring; attempted/aided procuring enables more prosecutions of traffickers/pimps as trafficking offences notoriously difficult to prosecute
  • The ban has proved to be an effective deterrent to sex purchasers as there has been a steady decrease in buyers since the introduction of the law.

Regarding the well-being of women in prostitution, a less well highlighted aspect of the law was the decriminalising of the person selling sex and the provision of major funding to resource services for women. Despite claims by some sex work advocates, there is no evidence of more violence against women in prostitution.2 Earlier reports published soon after the introduction of the law had criticised the police focus on street prostitution. However, it is worth noting that more recent reports from the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Sweden (Wahlberg, 2009; 2010) have indicated a major focus in the current context on surveillance operations on apartments and telephone tapping to investigate the indoor market. In relation to the buyers the reports indicate that almost 90% admit to the offence and the vast majority are dealt with by fines which are calculated as 50 days of fines proportional to the offender’s income. It is clear that the buyers are informed, that the law is a deterrent and that a first offence is dealt with by fine. However, the consequences of further offences are also outlined in relation to going to court and the possibility of being involved in more serious offences, for example involvement in the buying of trafficked girls and women.

If the desire is to reduce the numbers of people in prostitution and thus reduce the number of women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation, the Swedish approach is irrefutably the best one for Ireland. Retaining the current tolerance of prostitution in Ireland or moving towards regulation, legalisation or decriminalisation of the industry will see the continuing rise in organised crime, prostitution agencies and the numbers of exploited girls and women. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the law has been at a political and cultural level in that what Sweden has done is make a fundamental shift in the public perception that prostitution is inevitable or necessary.

The words of Lise Bergh, who was the State Secretary for Gender Equality in Sweden at the time of the inquiry are worth remembering:

‘We can succumb to resignation and base our actions against prostitution and trafficking in women on the idea that these practices are inescapable, necessary and something that will always exist and therefore should be accepted: because men need it, women ‘choose’ it, or because prostitution has always existed as the ‘oldest profession in the world’. Or, we can firmly reject the idea that some women and children, mainly girls, should be seen as commodities that can be bought and sold. Instead, we must have a vision, like we do in Sweden, that it will, in fact, be possible to eliminate prostitution and instead create a society based on gender equality, a society in which prostitution and trafficking in women is seen as incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and the equal rights of men and women’.


1Swedish Government Offices (SOU) (Statens Offentliga Utredningar) (2010) Forbud mot kop av sexuell (Prohibition of the purchase of sexual services) Enutvardering 1999-2008 (An evaluation 1999-2008) (SOU).
2Waltman, M. (2011). Sweden’s prohibition of the purchase of sex: The law’s reasons, impact and potential. Women’s Studies International Forum, 34, 449-474.