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Criminalising sex buyers, reducing demand, trafficking and violence: Swedish human rights experts in Australia advocating for The Nordic Model

Why Australia should adopt the Nordic Model

By Melinda Tankard Reist

International lawyers, Ruth Nordstrom and Rebecca Ahlstrand, are globally recognized legal experts on the Nordic model of prostitution regulation, first established in Sweden. They have been in Australia meeting with MPs in four states advocating for the Nordic Model to be adopted here. Ruth is President and Senior Legal Counsel of Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers with experience in the Administrative Court of Uppsala Sweden and the Swedish Ministry of Justice. Rebecca is Legal Counsel for Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyer specializing in international human rights, humanitarian law, asylum law and medical law. I interviewed them while they were here.

Welcome to Australia and thanks for being here. For those not familiar with the Nordic Model, could you give a brief description of how it works? How did the Swedish criminal code come to include prostitution in its provisions? 

The Swedish Sex Purchase Act came into force in 1999 and the law criminalizes the buyer, but not the seller of sex. The Swedish law on prostitution states the following: ‘A person who obtains a casual sexual relation in return for payment, shall be sentenced for purchase of sexual service to a fine or imprisonment for at most one year.’ When this law was passed it introduced a new way of thinking as it shifted focus from the seller to the buyer. There were several objectives to this, firstly to make a clear statement that women are not commodities to be sold or bought, but that women are equal to men. Secondly it was a way to reduce the demand for prostitution. Simply put, if there is no demand, prostitution will automatically be reduced. Just the fact that a buyer can get caught and have a letter from the police sent home to his family has been found to have a deterring effect on sex buyers.

Can you describe the effort it took to see the law passed? What had to happen for it to succeed and how long did it take?

The law was part of a larger Government Bill concerning violence against women. The Bill included many different proposals in different sectors and prostitution was amongst these. Already in the 70s the issue of criminalizing prostitution was raised and a big inquiry was made into the issue of prostitution. A proposal was presented in the beginning of the 80s, but the proposal only included suggestions on social measures and some legal amendments to reduce prostitution.

Already at that time, however, the inquiry found that men buying women for sexual pleasure was not compatible with the principles of individual freedom and gender equality. In a society where a man can buy a woman, respect for women is also lost. A new inquiry was made in 1993 and in a Government report from 1995 it was proposed that both selling and buying sexual services should be criminalized. However, this proposal was heavily criticized because of the criminalization of the prostitute and was never implemented. A new proposal, where only the person who purchases sexual services was criminalized, based on the inquiry from 1993, was the one that ultimately was implemented.

A few surveys were made before the implementation of the Sex Purchase Act, and they showed that more than 70 percent of the population in Sweden was against the new law. However, this changed radically in a short time as the new law had an interesting impact on attitudes – all surveys after the implementation, the latest one held in 2014, have shown that more than 70 percent of the population is now for the ban on buying sex. Among women the support is as high as 85 percent and a large majority of young people also favor the ban. It took many years, around 25 years to find a solution in Sweden, but now many countries are following Sweden’s example, the latest country being France.

France adopted the Nordic approach after a few years of debating the issue. Many countries in the world are waking up to the fact that the sex industry and trafficking in human beings are growing global problems connected with serious organized crime and have to be counteracted in different ways. A law that criminalizes buyers and helps reduce demand is one of the important steps to stop violence against women.

Did Swedish politicians expect at that time that this legislative model would be taken up by the number of countries who have since adopted it? Can you describe your feelings after the law was recently adopted in France?

When the Sex Purchase Act was implemented in Sweden in 1999, it was a signal and an important statement to other countries in the world, but few could by then foresee how far the legislative model would reach. Year 2014, the Council of Europe Report on Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Europe, recommended all other European Member states to seriously consider adopting the Swedish/Nordic model, which of course was a very important step forward.

When France had finally adopted the new law to criminalize sex purchase, we spoke with the Swedish “Angel in the Red Light District” who started to shout for joy. We often hear that it is only right wing/conservatives that would support any limits on the sex industry. That is a myth and not based on facts. In France, two Socialist MP’s, Maud Olivier and Bruno Le Roux were the two leading figures in this process and the Socialist were also supported by the Greens. In Sweden, the legislative model was introduced by the Social democrats, but today it has broad support within all the major political parties.

What are you doing at present to see the model taken up in other countries?

We are currently part of several EU projects concerning education and promotion of the Nordic model on prostitution and trafficking to other countries in Europe. Through the EU projects, representatives from several other EU countries participate and we will also arrange judicial training and release projects focused on reducing the demand for sexual services.

We often hear from those with vested interests that the Swedish model ‘doesn’t’ work’ and drives prostitution underground. How effective has the model been in reducing crime, trafficking, and protecting women?

When the law was introduced street prostitution was very soon reduced by half. The following years there was a steady increase in street prostitution in Sweden’s neighboring countries, Norway and Denmark, but not in Sweden. Prostitution can never be completely underground, but if the buyers can find prostitutes, so can the police and social workers.

In the comparing research that has been made in the Nordic countries, there is nothing to suggest that there is a larger underground prostitution industry in Sweden compared to other countries, quite the contrary. The estimated number of women trafficked for sexual purposes in Sweden and Finland a while back showed that Sweden had an estimate of 2-400 women who had been trafficked, while Finland, where prostitution is legal, the number was significantly higher with 15-17 000 women. Finland has a much smaller population than Sweden, which makes this number even more serious.

We strongly believe that prostituted women are in a stronger position when it’s illegal to buy sexual services, because this makes the man a criminal. Women who have worked in Germany before and after legalization, and who also worked in Sweden have stated that their experience is that men grew more violent to them as prostitutes after the legalization, because they felt entitled to having sex.

They found men to be less violent in Sweden. When the buyer is criminalized, it will give the prostitute a stronger position because the buyer knows he is committing a crime and the prostitute will have the police and the social authorities on her side. Through the European police cooperation, Interpol, undercover work and interviews with victims of human trafficking, there have been indications that criminal groups consider Sweden as a less attractive country for trafficking because it is riskier and less profitable.

The French law includes provision of “exit routes” through programs and support for those women who wish to leave the system, with the development of reparation and other remedies for victims of prostitution and trafficking. How essential are these programs in your view? Are you surprised that Australia has no publicly funded exit programs?

We think it’s great that France has incorporated this in the law. It’s not enough to just criminalize sex buyers, it is crucial to create opportunities for the women in prostitution to get away from the industry. Many of the girls are broken, abused, alcohol or drug addicted and suffer from a very low self-esteem. In Sweden the County Administrative Board in Stockholm was commissioned by the Government to develop an aid program for the rehabilitation of victims of trafficking and prostitution.

The mission was to strengthen and develop support with respect to the exposed situation, trauma, vulnerability and potential threats. The goal was to identify measures that were needed to ensure the person’s future through education and work, and to reduce the risk of ending up in prostitution again or of re-trafficking. Every country needs to have an action plan against trafficking which also includes funding of exit programs. Considering the great human rights abuses within human trafficking and the sex industry, it is very surprising that Australia has no publicly funded exit programs. During our visits and hearing in the Australian parliaments, we strongly recommended this.

The French law also mandates programs in educating young people and in raising public awareness that prostitution is linked to the commodification of the body as “a form of violence against women.” Is this a measure you hope would be included in passage of legislation in other countries in future?

Education on these issues is crucial and has a reducing effect on demand. The French law is very interesting in this regard. We definitely think other countries should take a close look and follow the French example. Young people are vulnerable, and there are many examples of young girls being groomed and lured into prostitution and abuse through the Internet. Education is a way to teach young people of the risks of prostitution and the abuse and violence that are associated with it. Every young person has the right to know that they are valuable and priceless and that women and their bodies are not commodities that could be bought and sold.

You have been visiting Australia and speaking with MPs here. How have they responded? Do you think Australia has a long way to go before there is political will to see the Nordic model adopted here or are you more hopeful?

Some politicians have been very positive, but we have also met some opposition. The knowledge about the Nordic Model is generally low and there are myths and rumors circulating that are not correct and therefore it is very important to bring the actual facts. There is a crystal clear link between prostitution and trafficking for sexual purposes. Millions of people are suffering; most of them are women and children. It is a global issue and we need a global strategy to combat trafficking and the exploitation of victims.

The Nordic model has proved to be an important tool to prevent and counteract the establishment of human trafficking and organized crime. Attitudes can change fast and we believe we are witnessing a trend toward the Nordic approach in Europe and other countries and we think Australia needs keep up with the rest of the world.