Ending the Sex Trade: What we can Learn from Sweden

10th Oct 2015

Ever since Sweden banned the buying of sex in 1999, there’s been an ongoing debate in the UK about introducing a similar law here.

Indeed, Northern Ireland did just that recently, but it’s the only part of the UK that has legislated against commercial sexual exploitation – enacting the so called Sex Buyer Law – so far.

Some 80,000 people are involved in prostitution in the UK, according to Home Office statistics, while the trafficking of women into England and Wales for the sex trade is worth upwards of £130 million a year for their abusers. The majority of those who are paid for sex are women and girls, while the overwhelming majority of those who buy sex are men.

The Crown Prosecution Service recognises that prostitution is a form of violence against women and the burden of criminality should be on those who exploit vulnerable women and girls by paying them for sex – as well as ‘third parties’ that profit from this exploitation.

Regardless of the arguments around the status of sex workers legally, almost all the women who end up as street prostitutes are highly vulnerable and most often suffer extreme brutality and harm at the hands of their “clients”. The statistics speak for themselves.

It is estimated that:

  • 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old
  • 95% of women in street prostitution are regular drug users
  • More than half of the women involved in prostitution in the UK have been raped and/or sexually assaulted – and the vast majority of these assaults are committed by sex buyers
  • 68% of women sex workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder
  • 9 out of 10 women say they want to leave the sex trade but are unable to do so.

So what is the Sex Buyer Law?

This has three key components:

  1. The buying of sex acts should be criminalised
  2. The selling of sex acts should be decriminalised
  3. Support and exiting services are provided for those exploited through prostitution. For exiting services, Routes Out provides drop-in and outreach services as well as case management support to help women exit.

The underlying principles of the law recognise that the exploitation of people through prostitution and sex trafficking ultimately only occurs because there is a demand to pay for it.

The idea of the Sex Buyer Law is to reduce demand for sexual exploitation by making it a criminal offence to pay a person for sex. Meanwhile, people who are exploited through the sex trade should be supported by decriminalising the sale of sex acts and be given support and exiting services.

Among other aspects, the law provides formal recognition of prostitution as a barrier to gender equality. The idea is to change fundamentally prevailing public attitudes by challenging the belief that it is acceptable to treat women and girls as sexual objects by paying them for sex.

Evidence of improvement once the law is enacted

Since adopting the law, Sweden has less prostitution than neighbouring countries and the prices for sex are the highest in Europe. Between 1999 and 2008, street prostitution in Sweden has fallen by 50% and there is no evidence women have been simply displaced to indoor prostitution or prostitution advertised online.

Also during that period the numbers of men paying for sex has dropped from almost 14% to 8%.

Interestingly, the public’s attitude has changed – the majority of Swedes were opposed to the law before it was introduced, but since 1999 some 70% of the population support it. Importantly, since the law was introduced not a single sex worker has been killed while working.

The End Demand Alliance campaign in the UK is vocal in its attempts to introduce the Sex Buyer Law and debate is now taking place in Westminster under Gavin Shuker MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prostitution.

Just to reiterate where this debate is now headed (apologies for the repetition, but it’s a point that needs to be hammered home): payment for sex should be decriminalised, with exiting services provided to people exploited through prostitution, while paying for sex should be criminalised. This would tackle the demand that drives prostitution.

For information on the End Demand Alliance contact Kat Banyard on 020 7700 0948 or contact@enddemand.uk. Also download the report, ‘Shifting the Burden‘.

If you feel passionate about this then ask your MP to attend an important debate in Parliament on Tuesday, October 13 and take action to support the Sex Buyer Law. 

Emailing your MP only takes a couple of minutes. Simply enter your postcode in the space in this link and press ‘Find your MP‘.