MARCH 14, 2015
GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Not far from the Sticky Fingers nightclub, three Romanian women were hunched against the cold on a street corner. When a man walked by, the women, in broken Swedish and English, tried to tempt him to buy sex.
On this dismal street in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, the same scene plays out every Friday night. Until recently, Daniella, 34, who was brought to Sweden from Romania by a pimp 10 years ago, was a part of it.
Now, Daniella, who asked that her full name not be used, has walked away from that life. After the pimp was sent to jail for four years, she turned to a volunteer group for help finding a way off the streets and became part of a broad decline in prostitution in Sweden.
Sweden’s pioneering law criminalizing the purchase of sex while allowing its sale — putting the criminal burden on the buyer, not the prostitute, while providing more assistance to women who want to stop selling sex — has been considered a success and a model for other countries since it was introduced in 1999. A study issued Friday by a government agency in Stockholm found that street prostitution had been cut by more than half since 1995 and that the number of men admitting to having purchased sex was down more than 40 percent.
The findings were consistent with an official report completed by the Swedish government in 2010, which concluded that the law had reduced trafficking and transformed attitudes toward buying sex.
Norway and Iceland adopted legislation similar to Sweden’s in 2009, and leading British politicians have called for the same. Last year, the European Parliament resolved to “reduce the demand for prostitution by punishing the clients.” Sweden itself is considering extending its law to make it a crime for Swedish citizens to buy sex abroad.
But as Sweden assesses the lessons of its approach, it continues to grapple with issues that could limit progress in reducing prostitution and sex trafficking, including the effects of technology on the market for sex and the rights of prostitutes themselves.
A review of research on the legislation that the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education commissioned from Malmo University found that it was unclear to what extent mobile phones and the Internet, rather than the law, may have accelerated the reduction in street prostitution by bringing buyers and sellers together electronically.
The stigma against prostitutes remains widespread, the review also found, making it difficult for women to get help from social services and the police, and stoking their fear of eviction or loss of custody of their children.
The law is forcing women who sell sex into more dangerous situations, it said, arguing that transactions have become faster and more furtive because men are afraid of the police, leading women to jump into cars without first checking if the driver is drunk, high or otherwise threatening. And the number of Swedes in favor of a ban on the sale of sex as well as its purchase appears to have grown.
The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education — known by its Swedish initials, R.F.S.U. — said the results of the research review raised questions about the law’s effectiveness, as well as its impact on prostitutes and on women like Daniella seeking to leave prostitution. The group said in February that it was “far from obvious that the legislation had had the intended effect.”
It said the law had increased stigma and discrimination, putting women who sell sex “in an even more precarious position,” and should be changed to better protect their rights.
Kristina Ljungros, the group’s president, said she opposed legalizing the purchase of sex, as Germany and the Netherlands have done. Instead, she said, her group wants to open a discussion about what it considers the unintended consequences of Sweden’s law.
“Some people selling sex report that it is very hard to find a social service that will help women unless they stop selling sex,” Ms. Ljungros said. “I think we need more of a harm reduction perspective that would protect people selling sex and their rights in a better way.”
Such questions about the law’s effectiveness have provoked a storm of indignation among its supporters, with some accusing the R.F.S.U. of siding with men who buy sex, closing its eyes to trafficking and violence against women, making prostitution respectable, and denying the victim status of the women who are forced into the trade.
In an open letter last month, 12 of Sweden’s top women’s rights lobbies noted that a number of countries were looking toward the Swedish model of combating prostitution. “Therefore, we are happy and proud that Swedish feminist and progressive legislation shows the way forward instead of backward,” they wrote.
The report released Friday by the County Administrative Board of Stockholm found that while there had been a huge increase in online ads for escorts selling sex to men, one seller was often behind multiple ads. “Against this background, there is nothing indicating that the actual number of individuals engaging in prostitution has increased,” it said.
When Patrik Cederlof, head of Sweden’s National Coordination Office Against Prostitution and Trafficking, began working on these issues in the late 1990s, the situation was very different: Trafficking was not an issue, and the women selling sex were overwhelmingly Swedish. Now, he said, the women are mostly from the poorest European countries, like Romania and Bulgaria, along with some from Nigeria.
More than eight in 10 want to go back to their home countries, Mr. Cederlof said, because it is hard for them to find other jobs and make a life in Sweden. “In the best of all possible worlds, we would have better exit programs, funding to offer education and work possibilities, and to increase cooperation with the countries of origin,” he said.
Sweden’s stuttering economy and 8.4 percent unemployment rate make it harder for prostitutes to quit, said Anna Skarhed, Sweden’s chancellor of justice, whose detailed review in 2010 presented evidence that the law had reduced prostitution and changed attitudes toward it.
Thomas Ahlstrand, Gothenburg’s deputy chief prosecutor, has spent more than a decade combating the trafficking of women into the city.
Mr. Ahlstrand was originally against the ban on buying sex — the state should not meddle in the affairs of consenting adults, he reasoned. But he later changed his mind. “I realized by meeting these girls and talking to them and reading about it, I was wrong,” he said. “They were victims of oppression.”
Sweden’s law is “a stroke of genius,” he said. “The beauty of the Swedish system is that we criminalize the strong, the oppressors.”
The law gives prostitutes essential support, Mr. Ahlstrand said, and helps the police track down pimps and traffickers while stigmatizing men who buy sex.
Daniella, the former prostitute, said her turning point came when the pimp who had brought her here was convicted and jailed. She continued working the streets at first, sending the money back to a prostitution ring in Bucharest, Romania, but eventually concluded that she needed to stop.
“I was fighting with myself inside,” she said. “I was afraid. It took me three years to trust the people who wanted to help me.”
Daniella relied on Rosenlundstodet, a group of female volunteers, to help her.
The government has an agency to help prostitutes, but “the girls don’t trust it,” said Jonna Bostrom, the founder of Rosenlundstodet. “We are sisters to the girls. We listen; we don’t judge.”
Ms. Bostrom spent months trying to win Daniella’s trust and convince her that she could start a new life outside prostitution.
“I wanted it to be my decision, not being pushed by somebody else,” Daniella said. “I needed to be ready inside to take this decision.”
Taken from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/world/swedish-prostitution-law-targets-buyers-but-some-say-it-hurts-sellers.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1