Essay 6: The Swedish Model – Abolitionist Nirvana? Part 1

Broadly speaking, feminist abolitionism tends to favor developing policy and legal responses . . . that implement what has been coined the “Swedish model.” This model includes social-welfare policies that assist people in exiting and avoiding prostitution; public education campaigns to raise awareness of the harms experienced by prostituted people and to change social norms that support sex trafficking and prostitution; and criminal law reforms that penalize trafficking, pimping, and the purchase of sex, while decriminalizing the sale of sex.

So writes Michelle Madden Dempsey. [1]

All abolitionists acclaim the Swedish Model. When the Canadian Parliament had to overhaul its prostitution laws in 2014, an “Open Letter” signed by more than 800 feminists urged it “to support the ‘Nordic approach’.”[2]  It did. When the French National Assembly took up prostitution legislation in the autumn of 2013, the bill it adopted arose out of several consultations with Swedish officials, including Stockholm’s public prosecutor for trafficking.[3] (See more on France in Essay 10.)

Equality Now and CATW, two leading American NGO’s opposed to prostitution, endorse the Swedish Model.[4]

The Swedish Model, so-called, features elements put into effect in 1999 when Sweden made it a legal offense to purchase sex. The Swedish legislation had three main aims: to deter men from using prostitutes and thereby reduce prostitution and trafficking; to embed and cultivate in Sweden a public norm against commercial sex; and to position Sweden internationally as a model to emulate.[5] The criminalizing of buyers was supposed to complement social programs assisting women to exit prostitution.[6]

The abolitionist picture supposes several things: first, that there is pent-up demand by prostitutes to exit and no available social institutions to aid them; second, that the stigma that attaches to prostitutes can be shifted off them onto men by making the purchase of sex a criminal act; third, that criminalizing the purchase of sex will actually deter buyers and erode the market for prostitutes.[7] Abolitionists universally point to Sweden as a success story on all counts. They see plenty of good and no bad from Swedish policy.

For example, according to Melissa Farley, as a result of Sweden’s sex purchase ban (as it was initially called), sex trafficking has “plummeted.”[8] Farley also trumpets that “[t]wo years after the law’s passage . . . there was a fifty percent decrease in the number of women prostituting and a seventy-five percent decrease in the number of men who bought sex.”[9] Maud Olivier, member of the French National Assembly and a force behind the Assembly’s passage of a ban modeled on Sweden’s, more correctly reports that “street prostitution [in Sweden] has been halved in ten years,“ while (she goes on) “prostitution in hotels and restaurants has disappeared.”[10] Janice Raymond, of course, sees great hope in the Swedish policy, observing that the decrease in street prostitution is “a direct result of the law criminalizing buyers.”[11] Mary Honeyball, rapporteur of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, extolls the “dramatic” impact of the Swedish legislation: “Sweden’s prostituted population is one-tenth of neighboring Denmark’s,” she declares.[12]

One enthusiast posted these astonishing benefits:

Street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. The Swedish government estimates that only around 200-500 women are trafficked annually into the country, as compared to some 17,000 trafficked into Finland each year. And most importantly, 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in exiting the sex industry.[13]

No sources are offered for these “factoids” and they don’t accord with reports from Sweden by even the strongest defenders of its policy.[14]

In 2010, the Swedish Government itself commissioned an “evaluation” of the legal ban on purchase (the Skarhed Report). This evaluation – more a vindicatio – of the ban’s effects on prostitution and human trafficking was hobbled by its starting point, namely “that the purchase of sexual services is to remain criminalized.”[15] Yet, even given this launching point, the Skarhed Report hardly amounted to a ringing endorsement of Sweden’s policy. Moreover, its arguments exhibited a flavor of self-contradiction. It is worth quoting from the report at some length.

Evaluating the effects of the ban on the purchase of sexual services has proven to be a difficult task. Prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes are complex, multifaceted social phenomena that occur in part in secret. . . . [K]nowledge of the scale of prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes is consequently limited. In particular, this applies to knowledge about individuals who are active as prostitutes in arenas other than street settings and on the Internet.

[S]treet prostitution has been reduced by half . . . In the last five years, Internet prostitution has increased in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. . . .[T]here is nothing to indicate that a greater increase in prostitution over the Internet has occurred in Sweden than in those comparable countries.

[T]he National Board of Health and Welfare’s . . . surveys indicate that prostitution still occurs in hotels, restaurants, casinos and similar operations. It is difficult to distinguish between cases in which the first contact is made directly on location at these places of business and cases in which the contact was the result of an Internet ad, for example. However, several convictions for sex purchasing, procurement and human trafficking make it abundantly clear that sexual services have been marketed and prostitution contacts have been made in these environments.

There is nothing to indicate that . . . prostitution [in these venues] . . . has increased . . . . People working in the field do not consider that there has been an increase in prostitution since the ban was introduced. Since those involved in prostitution . . . need to promote themselves in order to come into contact with clients, it is unlikely that prostitution could exist on any great scale and remain entirely undetected.

[So] far as we can see, prostitution has not increased in Sweden. . . . Therefore, criminalization has helped to combat prostitution.[16]

It is rather sobering that after ten years of the sex purchase ban the best the Skarhed Report could claim is that prostitution in Sweden has not increased.[17] That does not sound like the road to abolition. Moreover, the conclusion that prostitution has not increased seems belied by the report’s own data. Prostitution in the streets has declined by a few hundred while Internet-based prostitution has grown. The report tries to downplay this latter fact by claiming that the growth in Sweden has been “no greater” than that in neighboring countries – but the growth in neighboring countries (and everywhere else, for that matter) – has been quite substantial. Finally, contrary to Maud Olivier’s claim above, prostitution in older venues like massage parlors, restaurants, hotels, and clubs continues. Thus, it is hard to see how one can wring from these facts no net increase in prostitution. Nor is it persuasive for the Skarhed Report to argue that any significant increase in prostitution could not go undetected when it has already told us at the outset that so much of prostitution takes place in secret that it goes undetected, hence is poorly understood.[18]

Of course, the sex purchase ban could be working truly positive effects by keeping the rate of increase lower than otherwise it would be. The Skarhed Report repeatedly draws comparisons with neighboring countries, where rates are higher and increasing, but the disparities it points to have many causes and hardly settle the question of the sex purchase ban’s efficacy.

To determine whether Sweden represents a model that other countries should follow we need to look more closely at the context in which Sweden’s purchase ban arose, whether it deters, how it affects prostitutes, and what its real normative message is. In this essay I will address some of the context and look at deterrence, saving for follow-up essays reflections on the sex purchase law’s norm-building influence and other effects.


Start first with the abolitionist assumption about pent-up demand for exit. There may be such a demand in other countries but not in Sweden in 1999. First, Sweden is known for its extensive welfare services. A young woman with children is eligible for a range of services and income support. Even childless young women can find greater measures of aid than almost anywhere else – and all this was truer in 1999 than now.[19] Moreover, the three large cities in Sweden – Stockholm, Malmo, and Gothenburg – already had “Prostitution Agencies” in place, public bureaus whose task was to assist prostitutes who wanted out.[20] These Agencies had been in operation a decade and a half before the sex purchase ban went into effect. Agency staff engaged in continual outreach; they were available for walk-in support; they could broker services for prostitutes from other parts of the Swedish social service network; and they could offer counseling and therapy, short-term or long-term. Thus the “social-welfare policies” policies Michelle Dempsey lists as part of the abolitionist scheme already existed in Sweden. Exit paths were available to prostitutes long before the sex purchase ban. Its enactment didn’t do anything to change the situation of sex workers (except to make their job harder by possibly scaring away their customers). The Prostitution Agencies were not enlarged; and the claim by the enthusiast reporter, above, that 60% of Sweden’s prostitute’s “took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in exiting the sex industry” is another case of a factoid gone bad.[21] The Prostitution Agencies were not flooded with takers; indeed, they often had to work hard and patiently to establish trust with the street prostitutes they encountered in order to persuade them to meet with Agency staff. This work became even harder when their outreach efforts, after the onset of the sex purchase ban, took place as adjuncts to police street-patrols meant to hassle and menace men who might be sex buyers; and after the street prostitutes became increasingly foreign-born.

The Agencies make “contact” with several hundred women a year, but most of these contacts amount to brief introductions on the street and handing out flyers, or to sending emails to escort websites. Full-blown exit projects are few. The clients in long-term therapy at the Agencies are often women who’ve already quit prostitution on their own and are seeking the free therapy to “process their bad experiences.”[22]

In 2011, researchers at Linköping University did a series of studies. Three focused on the Prostitution Agencies and how well they performed. One study, though, was a general population survey, using a broad panel of more than 5,000 individuals representative, more or less, of the Swedish population. The study asked panelists if they had ever sold sex or bought it. According to the responses,

0.7 percent indicated that at some time in their lives they had received payment in exchange for sex (0.8% among men and 0.6% among women), corresponding to 30,000 and 53,000 people in the population. . . . Those who had stopped buying or selling sex reported that they had not had any problems with quitting, and only a few people mentioned that they had received formal or informal support. . . .

[Moreover] there were relatively few differences between the men and women who at some point in their lives sold sex and those who had never done so in terms of socio-demographic factors, psychological symptoms and self-esteem at the time of the survey.[23]

The clients of the Prostitution Agencies, on the other hand, differ markedly from the sample of sex-sellers in the population survey.

In the population study, none of the women . . . who sold sex had done so more than 20 occasions, i.e., a much lesser extent than [the women in therapy at the Prostitution Agencies]. Three quarters (72%) [of the latter] said they sold sex once a week, eight reported [selling] daily, eight several times per week and eight a few times per week. Just over a quarter said they sold sex a few times a month or less frequently. Some said they sold sex to several customers a day when it was at its most intensive and some that they never sold to more than one customer on the same day.

[Clients in treatment at the Agencies] had usually started selling sex to fund an addiction. Half . . . reported . . . abuse of alcohol and drugs. The majority reported low self-esteem.[24]

Even so, many if not most of these clients exited on their own before coming to the Agencies.

Women who show up at the Prostitution Agencies make up a special sub-group of those who sell sex. And since most official information about prostitutes is gleaned from this sub-group, the result is a very skewed picture.

I made this point in an earlier essay in discussing “survivors.” There are countless women who sell sex for a time – intermittently or intensively – who then stop without assistance and go on with their lives, never coming to the attention of judicial systems, social welfare agencies, or NGOs.

In sum, in Sweden there were already in place exit mechanisms in 1999 when the sex purchase ban went into effect. There was no backlog of trapped prostitutes without exit options and no sudden rush to the Prostitution Agencies. Business went on as usual. The Prostitution Agencies did not add personnel, they continued to provide long-term therapy to 50 – 60 clients a year, and continued to broker opportunistic requests by some larger number for access to medical services, housing, and other state agencies.[25]


A sex purchase ban is supposed to diminish prostitution by reducing demand, and supposed to reduce demand by making potential sex buyers fearful. “[P]rohibiting the purchase of a sexual service is the most effective deterrent,” writes Gunilla Ekberg.[26] Does Sweden’s sex purchase ban actually deter? How much? Has the market for paid sex diminished? Has prostitution decreased?

In the Linköping University population survey I referred to above, there was little evidence that the law made much of a difference.

Few amongst those who bought sex and none of those who sold sex reported that the Sex Purchase Act had affected their behavior. . . . Few mentioned spontaneously that sex purchase law has affected their behavior. . . . [L]ess than a tenth of those who bought sex stated in response to a direct question that the law has affected their behavior.[27]

Other findings suggest that the sex buying behavior of men has been at best marginally affected by the Swedish law. In their study of men exchanging opinions on Internet prostitution-discussion-bulletin-boards and in their interviews with sex buyers, Maida Bajrami and Ulrika Andersson found that discussants deemed the risk of getting caught to be very small and found that the majority of interviewees claimed the law had not affected their behavior.[28] Likewise Jari Kuosmanen, reflecting on his own recent population survey, observes that “it is difficult, with any degree of certainty, to say how ordinary people’s purchasing behaviours have been affected by the legislation,” but notes that 15% of survey respondents who were previous sex buyers had stopped as a result of the law; others had curtailed their buying. Kuosmanen’s survey also showed that the Swedish public at large believes the sex purchase ban to be ineffective, a finding that pops up in other surveys as well. Strong pluralities in these surveys believe that the number of sex buyers and sex sellers has actually grown rather than diminished.[29]

If the sex purchase ban effectively deterred buyers, this should be reflected in the size of the prostitute population. However, as we saw above, there is considerable dispute about the extent and growth of prostitution in Sweden. The Skarhed Report tried to put the best gloss on the law’s effects, but because its information was drawn almost entirely from police and welfare sources, and because these sources have a very skewed interface with prostitution, the gloss couldn’t disguise itself as anything but gloss. As the Swedish National Center for Crime Prevention (Brå) noted in a 2010 report, “Official counts of prostitutes . . . fail to account for those who have never accessed outreach agencies.” Thus, although “[a]vailable studies suggest that visible prostitution in Sweden has decreased since the ban on buying sex was introduced,” these studies do not take account of other venues where prostitution takes place, such as pubs and restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, sex clubs, and other places. “The extent of the trade [in these venues] is unknown.”[30] Moreover, as the Skarhed report concedes, Internet-based prostitution has grown in Sweden just as elsewhere, the growth more than compensating for the reduction in street prostitution.[31]

Moreover the Brå report itself clearly underestimates the extent of Internet-based sex commerce. It cited a 2007 study identifying 400 people selling sex on the Internet. Studies of Internet-based prostitution look for explicit sex-for-sale (“escort”) ads on the Web, and there are plenty of those, to be sure. As the Stockholm County Board noted in its 2014 survey of prostitution, “[t]he number of escort ads aimed at men who buy sexual services of women has increased significantly over the past eight years, from 304 to 6965 ads.”[32] The Skarhed Report points out that between 2004 and 2009, the use of the Internet by youth who sold sex tripled.[33]

The Stockholm County Board stares at the increase in ads (from 304 to 6965) and without blinking concludes that “there is nothing to indicate that the . . . number of sellers . . . has increased even if the activity and the flow of information about sexual services on the Internet has.”[34] Of course, estimating real people behind ads is a tricky business. Multiple ads may represent a single provider, ads can linger on the Internet long after a provider has left the field, and so on. Still, there has to be some point at which the Board stops saying: “there is nothing to indicate.” What if the ads had increased from 304 to 60,965? Or 600,965?

Counting ads is clearly a crude method of detection and the number of ads obviously overstates the number of sellers. But only counting ads also clearly understates the number of people who use the Internet to sell sex. Younger sellers especially use chat rooms, social networking platforms, dating sites, and the like to start suggestive conversations that lead to an eventual open agreement on a sexual transaction.[35] The Internet makes possible myriad ways to sell sex and explicit escort ads probably represent one of the lesser ways.

Complacent as it is about the growth of Internet-based sex-selling, the County Board is only slightly less willing than the Skarhed Report to hand to the sex purchase ban the laurels for decreasing street prostitution. But it cautions:

Alternatively, street prostitution’s decrease can be seen in light of the technological development and digitalization of the past 15 years. Those who criticized the Skarhed Report argue that reduction of street prostitution is because of new contact channels such as internet and mobile telephony . . . That street prostitution has decreased is furthermore not unique to Sweden. A similar trend has been observed in other countries since the mid-1990s and has since been linked to new information and communication technologies and new means of contact for people who sell and buy sexual services.”[36]

Indeed, the decrease in Sweden reflects a very long-term domestic trend, with street prostitution, according to one estimate, falling from 1,300 in 1977 to 730 in 1999, before the sex purchase ban.[37] Nevertheless, the Board, despite its caution, opts to join the Skarhed Report in seeing cause-and-effect: the fact that in countries where prostitution is legal there are a lot more street prostitutes “may suggest that the prohibition against the purchase of sexual services has had a normative effect on prospective [Swedish] buyers and influenced the extent of prostitution in Sweden.” The Board modestly allows, though, that “[m]ore scientifically based studies are needed to clarify this effect.” (Two things happened in 1999 that might have effected street prostitution in Sweden. The first, the coming into effect of the sex purchase ban, gets all the attention. The second, never noted in any study or report, may have been just as important: the opening of the Oresund Bridge-Tunnel connecting Sweden and Denmark, making the drive from Stockholm to Copenhagen a five hour trip.)

The two “visible” portions of prostitution – street prostitution and explicit escort ads on the Internet – drive the discussion about the sex purchase ban. Yet, information about prostitution in other venues is virtually non-existent; the extent of activity there is “unknown,” as I quoted from the Brå 2010 report above. Can authorities dismiss these venues as too insignificant to worry about? A detail in the Linköping population study should get their notice. It noted that making

contact at a restaurant, bar, club, or dance hall was the method most frequently mentioned [by sex buyers] regardless of whether the purchase of sex was relatively recent or not. Internet and cell phones gradually increased as the preferred contact form for recent purchases of sex . . . Among those who bought sex less than 12 months ago, the new technology (the Internet or mobile phone) was as common as making contact at a restaurant, pub, etc.[38]

If these “invisible” contact sites are currently used as commonly as the Internet, then they are major sources of commercial sex transactions; they do not lie on the periphery of prostitution.

The Stockholm County Board’s report offers one clear message: more study is needed. The lack of knowledge about prostitution’s many facets is glaring. No one has a good handle on its extent and growth.[39] Charlotta Holmström, in her 2015 survey of studies at the behest of RFSU, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, found uncertainty around every corner. There is no shortage of conflicting analyses, incomplete data, and hasty extrapolations in a field riven with ideological commitments: “Scientific analyzes lead to different political positions and different political positions lead to different scientific analyzes,” laments Holmströom.[40] After completing her study she provides no clear winner in the debate about Sweden’s ban: “Buying and selling sex proves to be complex and multifaceted affair, difficult to define and demarcate. This creates limitations in assessing how the ban has affected the shape and extent of prostitution.”[41]

Lack of hard data doesn’t temper the official enthusiasm for the sex purchase ban, though. Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, claimed in 2010 that not only has the ban’s effect on prostitution been salutary, it has deterred sex trafficking as well. She pointed to lower sex trafficking in Sweden than in its neighbors and declared:

It is clear that this is due to the successful enforcement of the law that prohibits the purchase of a sexual service, which, according to a number of studies, functions as an effective barrier to the establishment of traffickers in Sweden.[42]

Wahlberg was already glimpsing this “effective barrier” in 2003 and 2004, according to Gunilla Ekberg. Wahlberg’s reports, Ekberg writes, were even then finding “clear indications that the [sex purchase ban] . . . has had direct and positive effects in limiting the trafficking in women for prostitution to Sweden.”[43] However, this effect couldn’t be derived from hard data. In its 2004 report the National Criminal Police Investigative Division quit offering numbers estimating trafficking into Sweden (although the previous year it had suggested 400-600 women were trafficked into the country for sexual purposes).[44] Nobody could put real numbers to trafficking, nor plot its growth (or decline). Yet Wahlberg remained satisfied that the sex purchase ban was working its magic. What was the “evidence” that the sex purchase ban was efficacious? The Story. Here’s Anna Skarhed’s version of The Story:

Data from interviews with people involved in the pimping and human trade matters and wiretapping also shows that Sweden, in comparison with many other European countries, does not appear to be a “good market” for selling people.[45]

This story shows up in various guises: police through wiretapping have overheard traffickers bemoaning the market in Sweden; trafficked women have told police that traffickers are unhappy with Sweden’s market; and so on. However, The Story crumbles under inspection. Look at the Skarhed Report’s elaboration:

The ban on the purchase of sexual services is perceived to have made it more difficult for both Swedish and foreign individuals to start prostituting themselves, especially in street prostitution. This has in turn made it more difficult for pimps and other promoters to establish themselves. For an organization dedicated to procuring, the regulatory framework in Sweden means more inconvenience and higher expenses compared to countries where prostitution is allowed or tolerated.[46]

Yes, the regulatory framework in Sweden makes it difficult for traffickers to operate. They have to switch locations often, they have to take extra precautions, they can’t carry on large visible operations, and so on. But these burdens have little if anything to do with the sex purchase ban.[47] The real burdens that traffickers, pimps, procurers, and prostitutes alike face derive from the panoply of laws that long predate the sex purchase ban – the punitive laws that forbid brothel-keeping, procuring, and nearly every other activity associated with selling sex. These laws actually put offenders in jail for several years, not rap their knuckles with small fines. Yet traffickers and pimps obviously make a profit in Sweden; they came before the sex purchase ban and they still come after the ban. If their numbers have diminished in recent years, it is because Sweden has enacted even tougher laws on trafficking and devoted more police resources to making cases against procurers and pimps.


In the next part of this essay I discuss how the law works, how the prostitute fares, and how the sex purchase ban was justified by its supporters.


Prostitutionsenheten/The Prostitution Agencies

The Prostitution Agencies emerged out of growing concern in Sweden in the 1970s-1980s about the fate of prostitutes. The first one was created in Malmo in 1977. Gothenberg and Stockholm established their own soon after. These organizations were, and are, small. The Stockholm agency employs about eleven people; Malmo four. Gothenburg has trouble maintaining two employees. Staff turnover and instability detract from the work of the Agencies. Some of the staff do out-reach work on the streets two nights a week, trying to make contact with prostitutes to acquaint them about agency services. They also send emails to prostitute ads they find on the internet. Others do counseling and therapy. Staff members also serve as intermediaries, able to put clients in contact with parts of the Swedish welfare system that can address their needs. In addition, the Spiral Project in Stockholm – a clinic providing free gynecological services – works in unison with the Stockholm Prostitution Agency.

The Linköping University studies referred to in the text focused at length on how the Agencies were run and how the clients who used them felt. The client responses were favorable. “The programs are a safe place where prostitution experiences are listened to in a positive, affirming context;”[48] “[t]he most important thing that happened in treatment according to respondents was to meet a sympathetic and knowledgeable person [therapist] who was not judgmental.”[49] Most clients were happy with their interactions at the Agencies.

However, other studies give a different view. Sex workers interviewed by Carina Edlund and Pye Jakobsson described a “disrespectful” attitude towards them among social services workers.[50] Interviews by Jay Levy portrayed police and social service workers alike as contemptuous of prostitutes.[51] Daniela Danna unearthed similar stories of Prostitution Agency workers pressing prostitutes to understand their self-harm and exit.[52]

Going through these agencies is not the only pathway for prostitutes; they can directly contact various parts of the Swedish welfare state on their own. And as the Linköping University population survey revealed, most prostitutes leave sex work without help. Even the Prostitution Agencies seem to know this. Two researchers who studied them note that

[t]he work [of the Agencies] is considered important for women seeking help, but according to respondents [in the Agencies] a high proportion of women get out on their own. . . . only a few prostitutes seek the help of the authorities or organizations and it is therefore difficult to determine if . . .  [the Agencies’] role is relevant or not.[53] (p. 28)

Here is a glimpse of their operations: In the year 2009-2010 the three agencies made “contact” with 326 prostitutes (a contact could amount to nothing more than handing a prostitute a brochure). One hundred forty women received “advice and support” of various kinds from the Agencies. Sixty were in therapy, half of those carry-overs from previous years.[54]


Short titles used in the notes:

LINKÖPING MAIN REPORT: Carl Göran Svedin, Linda Jonsson, Cecilia Kjellgren, Gisela Priebe & Ingrid Åkerman, Prostitution i Sverige-Huvudrapport: Kartläggning och utvärdering av prostitutionsgruppernas insatser samt erfarenheter och attityder i befolkningen, Malmö: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012,

LINKÖPING 1: Gisela Priebe och Carl Göran Svedin, Sälja och köpa sex i Sverige 2011: Förekomst, hälsa och attityder- Delrapport 1 ur Prostitution i Sverige – Kartläggning och utvärdering av prostitutionsgruppernas insatser samt erfarenheter och attityder i befolkningen, Malmö: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012,

LINKÖPING 2: Ingrid Åkerman och Carl Göran Svedin, Kartläggning av insatser mot prostitutionen i Stockholm, Göteborg och Malmö-Delrapport 2 ur Prostitution i Sverige –Kartläggning och utvärdering av prostitutionsgruppernas insatser samt erfarenheter och attityder i befolkningen, Malmö: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012,

LINKÖPING 5: Cecilia Kjellgren, Gisela Priebe och Carl Göran Svedin, Utvärdering av samtalsbehandling med försäljare av sexuella tjänster (FAST)-Delrapport 5 ur Prostitution i Sverige – Kartläggning och utvärdering av prostitutionsgruppernas insatser samt erfarenheter och attityder i befolkningen, Malmö: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012,

SKARHED REPORT: Förbud mot köp av sexuell tjänst: En utvärdering 1999–2008, Stockholm 2010, SOU 2010:49,

BRÅ  2010: Prostitution och människohandel för sexuella ändamål: En första uppföljning av regeringens handlingsplan, Rapport 2010:5 Brottsförebyggande rådet (Brå),

STOCKHOLM REPORT: Prostitutionen i Sverige 2014: En omfattningskartläggning, Stockholm: Rapport 2015:10 (Stockholm County Board),

HOLMSTRÖM: Charlotta Holmström, Förbud mot köp av sexuell tjänst i Sverige: en kunskapsöversikt om avsedda effekter och oavsedda konsekvenser, Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning RFSU (The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education), February 2, 2015,


[1] Michelle Madden Dempsey, “Sex Trafficking and Criminalization: In Defense of Feminist Abolitionism,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 158 (May 2010), pp. 1730-1731.

[2] “Open Letter Calls for Nordic Approach to Prostitution in Canada,” April 23, 2014,

[3] Proposition de loi, renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel, N° 1437, 10 octobre 2013,; Transcription de l’audition de Mme Lise Tamm, procureure au Parquet international de Stockholm, devant la Commission spéciale prostitution (5 novembre 2013),

[4] “What Is the ‘Nordic Model’?” Equality Now,>; Janice G. Raymond, “Trafficking, Prostitution and the Sex Industry: The Nordic Legal Model,” CATW, July 25, 2010,

[5] Skarhed Report,p. 29; Ola Florin, “A Particular Kind of Violence: Swedish Social Policy Puzzles of a Multipurpose Criminal Law,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy, vol. 9 (2012), p. 271; Regeringens proposition 1997/98:55-Kvinnofrid,

[6] Regeringens proposition 1997/98:55-Kvinnofrid.

[7] “By using the law, the stigma that previously attached to sellers would be transferred to buyers,” Holmström, p. 17; “It was expected that criminalisation would have a deterrent effect on prospective purchasers of sex,” Skarhed Report, p. 29.

[8] Melissa Farley, “Prostitution, Liberalism, and Slavery,” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture, 2013, See also Dorchen Leidholt, “Prostitution and Trafficking in Women: An Intimate Relationship,” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, (2003), p. 180 (“sex trafficking in Sweden declined significantly”); Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, “Should Prostitution Be Legalised in France?” The New Statesman, 22 January, 2013 (quoting Maxime Ruszniewski-Bryner, press adviser to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Minister of Women’s Rights: “in Sweden, where clients of prostitution have been criminalised since 1999, prostitution has decreased by half”).

[9] Melissa Farley, “Prostitution, Trafficking, and Cultural Amnesia: What We Must Not Know in Order to Keep The Business of Sexual Exploitation Running Smoothly,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 18 (2006), p. 131. Here and in the note above, Farley cites Gunilla Ekberg, “The Swedish Law that Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services: Best Practices for Prevention of Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings,” Violence Against Women, Vol. 10 (2004) and an unpublished 2001 manuscript. See also Moira Heiges, “From the Inside Out: Reforming State and Local Prostitution Enforcement to Combat Sex Trafficking in the United States and Abroad,” Minnesota Law Review, Vol. 94 (December 2009), p. 460 (citing Ekberg 2004); further, according to Alexandra Topping, street prostitution has fallen by two-thirds (Alexandra Topping, “UK Urged to Follow the Nordic Model in Criminalizing Prostitution Clients,” The Guardian, December 11, 2013, See also Kathleen Barry, “Abolishing Prostitution: A Feminist Human Rights Treaty,” August 28, 2012, These and other instances reflect the sort of carelessness about conflating street prostitution with total prostitution that I have complained about in previous essays: an alleged 50% drop in street prostitution gets transformed by writers (scholars as well as reporters and activists) into a 50% drop in prostitution.

[10] Commission spéciale chargée d’examiner la proposition de loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel, Mardi 19 novembre 2013, Séance de 9 heures 30, Compte rendu n° 11 [Special committee to examine the bill strengthening the fight against the prostitution system, Tuesday, November 19, 2013, Session 9:30, Report No. 11],

[11] Janice Raymond, “Canada’s New Sex Trade Law,” CATW, March 24, 2015,

[12] Mary Honeyball, “Report on Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution and Its Impact on Gender Equality,” European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, p. 17,

[13] Bradford Plumer, “Is Prostitution Really Inevitable?” Mother Jones, June 30, 2006,

[14] One of the law’s staunchest proponents, Gunilla Ekberg, produces fairly tepid numbers in its support. Writing in 2007, she declares there’s been “a dramatic drop in the numbers in street prostitution,” but the study she draws from merely reports that street prostitution is “less widespread.” Gunilla Ekberg, “Update on Swedish Model of Sex Industry Reform,” Speech to the Women’s Front-Norway, November 2, 2007,…/Gunilla-Ekberg-on-the-Swedish-model.pdf. In her own fuller survey of 2004, she estimates 650 prostitutes on the streets in 1999, and “no more than 500” in 2004. Elsewhere she speaks of a 30%-50% decline. She is judicious in her reference to internet-based prostitution: there’s no evidence that the sex purchase ban rather than developments in technology itself has caused internet-based prostitution to increase, she writes, leaving unspoken the fact that it has increased. Ekberg, “Best Practices,” op cit. (supra note 9), pp. 1193-1194. The law, Ekberg goes on to say, has had “a direct and positive effect in limiting trafficking” into Sweden. However, the effect is hard to discern in the numbers. The national authority responsible for reporting on trafficking, before it quit offering numbers, indicated that around 400 to 600 women were trafficked into Sweden each year. There’s no evidence that trafficking has increased, Ekberg declares, but, she then concedes, “[t]here is also no conclusive evidence that the number . . . has decreased,” either. The alleged “positive” effect is inferred by Ekberg from a handful of phone conversations allegedly picked up by police wiretaps in which “traffickers” lamented the difficulties in doing business in Sweden. Ekberg, “Best Practices,” pp. 1199-2000 (supra note 9). This story of overheard traffickers’ conversations gets retailed in a variety of defenses of the sex purchase ban. See text for further on this.

[15] Skarhed Report, pp. 30, 60.

[16] Skarhed Report, pp. 34, 35, 112, 36.

[17] Skarhed Report, p. 227.

[18] See also Skarhed Report, p. 76 (prostitutes largely invisible).

[19] “[A] majority of [Swedish] women who sell sex in Sweden, unlike women in poor countries, are not forced to do so by security reasons. Available safety nets would help them to cope in other ways.” Suzanna Boman and Elisabeth Green, “Sex pa kopet? Reflektioner utifrån ett psykoterapeutiskt arbete” [“Sex in the bargain? Reflections from a psychotherapeutic work”], Riksförbundet för Sexuell Upplysning (RSFU) [Swedish Association for Sexuality Education], 2010, p.7,

[20] These agencies are generally referred to in the literature as “Prostitutionsenheten,” which translates as “prostitution units.” They are also identified by the acronym FAST. I will call them “Prostitution Agencies.” They have recently changed their names and the ones in Stockholm and Gothenburg are called Mika Reception Centers.

[21] The writer obviously derives his claim from this passage by Gunilla Ekberg: “Of the 130 persons with whom they [Pro Centre, another reference to Stockholm’s Prostitution Agency] had contact during the past 3 years, 60% have left prostitution permanently,” which is considerably different than saying 60% of Sweden’s more than one thousand prostitutes have exited. Gunilla Ekberg, “Best Practices,” p. 1204 (supra note 9). Ekberg’s own contention that prostitutes after the sex purchase ban began to “contact [exit organizations] in greater numbers to get assistance to leave prostitution” is not borne out by the objective data. The “social service funds” the enthusiast refers to were not prostitution-specific funds; they were appropriations to deal with gender violence (wife battering, sexual assault, and the like), and little if any of the money may have gone to the Prostitution Agencies or other services to which prostitutes might have turned.

[22] Linköping 5, p. 18.

[23] Linköping 1, p. 6.

[24] Linköping 5, pp. 20, 5.

[25] Linköping 2, p. 22.

[26] Gunilla S. Ekberg and Kajsa Wahlberg, “The Swedish Approach: A European Union Country Fights Sex Trafficking,” Solutions, Vol. 2 (March 2011),

[27] Linköping 1, pp. 6, 46, 47.

[28] Maida Bajrami and Ulrika Andersson, “Sexkopslagen-Hinder Eller Mojlhet? Analys av diskurser om sexköp och sexköpslagen med fokus på manliga sexköpares perspektiv” [“The Criminalization of buying sexual services-An obstacle or a possibilty?”], Malmö University, January 2007, p. 26 (the sample of interviewees was very small).

[29] Jari Kuosmanen, “Attitudes and perceptions about legislation prohibiting the purchase of sexual services in Sweden,” European Journal of Social Work, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2011), pp.261, 256.

[30] Brå 2010, pp. 17, 5,

[31] Skarhed Report, pp. 35-36, 151-152. It is worth quoting at length here to show how the Report tries to work its magic: “In the last five years, Internet prostitution has increased in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. However, the scale of this form of prostitution is more extensive in our neighbouring countries, and there is nothing to indicate that a greater increase in prostitution over the Internet has occurred in Sweden than in these comparable countries. This indicates that the ban has not led to street prostitution in Sweden shifting arenas to the Internet.” The third sentence here is a complete non sequitur. The first two try to obscure the relevance of the increase in internet-based prostitution: its increase in Sweden is no greater than in neighboring nations. But suppose internet based prostitution has increased by 600% in Denmark, 500% in Norway, and 300% in Sweden. That Sweden’s increase is less than Denmark’s or Norway’s is perfectly compatible with its being real and substantial. More amazing is the sleight of hand attempted in this passage: “This comparison [between the three countries] is interesting because it does not give any credence to the allegation that the Swedish ban has led to prostitution’s ‘move to the Internet’ to a far greater extent than it would have done otherwise. Rather, the increase in Internet prostitution is directly related to new information technology. (p. 152). In other words, without the sex purchase ban, internet-based prostitution would have increased anyway. Adding the ban produced no greater increase. But the real issue evaded by these circumlocutions remains the real increase in internet-based prostitution. Moreover, other prostitution has increased, too. For example, police report a sharp increase in massage parlors in the last ten years. Not all are fronts for prostitution, but some are. If we consider that street prostitution usually represents 10-20% of total prostitution, it takes only a little growth in non-street prostitution to compensate for any drop-offs in street activity. See Människohandel för sexuella och andra ändamål: Lägesrapport 17 (2016), pp. 15, 57,

[32] Stockholm Report, p. 10,

[33] Skarhed Report, p. 110. Kajsa Wahlberg, the Trafficking Rapporteur, in a 2015 interview on the Swedish police website, remarks on the “explosion of girls selling their bodies online.” Carlson, “Nya metoder bland människohandlarna,”

[34] Stockholm Report, p. 21.

[35] Brå 2010, p. 22; Stockholm Report, p. 20. In its survey of Internet ads, the Stockholm County Board didn’t count even such obvious appeals as this: “Sexy girl offers to clean at home or in the office. You decide the dress and other requests. Stockholm area only” (p. 42).

[36] Stockholm Report, p. 19. Citations omitted.

[37] Brå 2010, p. 18; Skarhed Report, p. 108.

[38] Linköping 1, p. 39. Emphasis added.

[39] Stockholm Report, pp. 9-10, 19, 26, 31, 36, 37, 40, 41.

[40] Holmström, p. 8.

[41] Holmström, p. 38. One study that Holmström uncritically describes provides an example of the difficulties facing anyone trying to understand prostitution. Andreas Kotsadam and Niklas Jakobsson, in their essay, “Shame on you, John! Laws, stigmatization, and the demand for sex,” European Journal of Law and Economics. Vol. 37 (2014), pp. 393–404, set out to test the following hypothesis: “Criminalizing buying sex decreases the quantity of sex bought” (p. 395). They do so by using three rounds of surveys. The first two waves (August 2008 and August 2009) were send to random samples of Swedish and Norwegian men. The third wave was sent in August 2010 to random samples of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish men. In the third wave, respondents were asked if they had purchased sex in the past 6 months. “1.71% of the Norwegian men said they had bought sex during the past 6 months, 0.56% of the Swedes, and 2.63% of the Danes” (p. 396). This outcome would be expected if sex purchase bans are effective, since Sweden, with lowest number, had a sex purchase ban in effect since 1999, Norway, which yielded the second lowest number, had just passed a ban in 2009, and Denmark, which produced the highest number, has no ban against commercial sex. However, in the first two waves of the survey, Kotsadam and Jakobsson did not ask respondents if they had bought sex; rather the asked respondents if they knew anyone who had bought sex in the previous six months. Kotsadam and Jakobsson describe the results: “We can see that the share of people who know someone who has bought sex during the past 6 months has gone down between Wave 1 and Wave 2 in Norway. That is, fewer people report to know someone who has bought sex after the criminalization of buying sex, while the share is unchanged in Sweden where its legal status was unchanged” (pp. 396-397). They conclude: “we believe that the results point toward less demand for sex when it is illegal” – that their hypothesis is confirmed. But there is a problem with this inference. It’s not unreasonable, Kotsadam and Jakobsson concede, to suppose that individuals are less willing to “report doing an activity if it is illegal.” If this is true, the hypothesis isn’t clearly supported by the survey results unless the authors rule out that this unwillingness manifested itself in the survey results. They think they do rule it out. Kotsadam and Jakobsson contend that unwillingness is not a problem in their survey because (i) they use an anonymous survey instrument and, (ii) “the issue of social desirability bias [that respondents tend to give answers that make themselves look good) . . . is further reduced by asking about the behavior of others.” Their answer shows that Kotsadam and Jakobsson think the problems of unwillingness and bias apply to the survey respondent. After all, it is the survey respondent for whom anonymity or lack of it matters. A bought-sex-recently-and-told-about-it acquaintance of the respondent is not going to be named whether the survey is anonymous or not; moreover his disclosure of his use has already occurred in other circumstances. So clearly Kotsadam and Jakobsson are talking about respondent unwillingness. But they simply blunder in thinking the problem has to do with respondents. The problem of unwillingness applies to the acquaintances-informants. To clarify: Suppose before buying sex was made illegal, Lars, a survey respondent, reports that he knows one man who used a prostitute in the last six months; his casual acquaintance Jorgen.At a later time, after buying sex has been made illegal, Lars responds again to a survey, saying he now knows no one who has used a prostitute in the last six months. This could be because Jorgen no longer using a prostitute or because he’s no longer willing to tell Lars. Kotsadam and Jakobsson are right to be worried about the unwillingness effect; once prostitution became illegal, this would certainly deter some users from disclosing their use to casual acquaintances. Nothing about their methodology compensates for this possibility. Their inference isn’t supported. The hypothesis remains unproved.

[42] Kajsa Wahlberg, Swedish National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings at the Third Swedish-Dutch Conference on Gender Equality: Trafficking in Human Beings and Prostitution, organized by the Swedish Institute the Swedish National Police Board, the Swedish Embassy, and the Netherlands National Police Agency, den Haag, The Netherlands, December 6, 2010,

[43] Gunilla Ekberg, “Best Practices,” op cit. (supra note 9, p. 1199.

[44] Trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes, Situation report no. 7 January 1 – December 31, 2004, National Criminal Investigation Department, RAPPORT 2005:4b,
; Trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes, Situation report no. 6, January 1 – December 31, 2003, National Criminal Investigation Department, RAPPORT 2004:2b,

[45] Skarhed Report, p. 223.

[46] Skarhed Report, p. 223.

[47] Max Waltman, “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Law,” Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 33 (Fall, 2011), pp. 147-148, insists the ban is efficacious (with his own version of The Story):

[T]he National Criminal Investigation Department states that its telephone interceptions show that international traffickers and pimps have been disappointed with the prostitution market in Sweden. Consequently, the latter’s clandestine brothels in Sweden are fairly small enterprises, with police operations rarely finding more than three or four prostituted women at one time, compared to the twenty to sixty women commonly included in certain criminal activities in the rest of Europe. These international traffickers and pimps avoid conducting prostitution for too long in any one apartment or location in order to calm customers’ fears of getting caught. This “necessity” for “several premises” has been corroborated in telephone interceptions, testimonies from prostituted women, police reports in the Baltic states, and in almost all preliminary investigations of procuring or trafficking charges.

Traffickers and pimps move locations frequently not because they fear getting caught and going to prison but in order to calm customers’ fears — really? In its Situation Report for 2002, which Waltman cites, the National Police Board does indeed contend that buyers “are very afraid of being exposed,” but this contention disappears in subsequent reports; and the other sources of evidence I’ve recounted in this essay suggest that buyers are not terribly afraid or significantly deterred. See Handel med kvinnor, Lägesrapport 5, December 31, 2002, § 6.4.3,

[48] Linköping Main, p. 18.

[49] Linköping 5, p. 34.

[50] Carina Edlund & Pye Jakobsson, En Annan Horisont: Sexarbete och hiv/STI-prevention ur ett peer-perspektiv, Rose Alliance/HIV-Sweden, 2014, pp. 11, 20, 96-97.

[51] Jay Levy, Impacts of the Swedish Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex on Service Provision for Sex Workers, Presented at the Correlation Final Conference, Ljubljana, 14th December 2011, pp. 8-9.

[52] Daniela Danna, “Client-Only Criminalization in the City of Stockholm: A Local Research on the Application of the ‘Swedish Model’ of Prostitution Policy,” Sexual Research & Social Policy, Vol. 9 (2012), p. 84.

[53] Frida Berzelius & Sara Gustafsson, Att arbeta med prostituerade kvinnor-en kvalitativ studie om socialarbetares upplevelser och insatser, Örebro Universitet, 2013, p. 28.

[54] Linköping 3, pp. 5-7.