When in 1999 the Swedish government decided to criminalise the buying of sex for men, the international community looked on with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. Now sixteen years later, the question of criminalising prostitution has crept onto the shores of the UK, circulating once again the debate about whether paying for sex can ever be truly regulated.
There are of course obvious arguments either side of the debate – but with the Swedish government eagerly releasing figures to show a marked drop in prostitution since 1999, it’s easy to see why foreign politicians are succumbing to its influence. And Sweden’s no longer alone waving the criminalisation banner – over the past decade Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland have adopted similar legislation, with the latter doing so only last week.
So let’s look at some of the statistics. Authorities in Sweden have reported a drop in active street prostitutes in the Stockholm area from 700-800 in 1999 to 200 in 2015. Meanwhile, 17,500 men pay for sex each year in Northern Island, but only around 20% of prostitutes are street-based.
What do these figures tell us? Firstly, that they don’t mean a whole lot, which relates to one of the first fraudulent arguments behind pro-criminalisation. Sweden’s figures, for example, relate to numerous factors that have dictated a shift in punter habits and attitudes over the 15 year period. The statistical drop in street prostitutes is arguably only a circumstantial shift, propped up by the radical social and technological changes of the past decade. Seemingly, these pro-criminalisation campaigns neglect, whether purposefully or not, the impact of the internet and how this has changed customer habits, or how the demographic has if not altered, then at least evolved.
It’s no longer the 1970s – there are no longer unidentifiable black cars snaking through smoke-filled streets to the street corners at leisure. So whilst Stockholm’s red light district is likely to be more populated by stray cats than it is prostitutes, it does not necessarily mean the activity itself has declined. It merely means that it is now a more clandestine enterprise – occurring behind closed doors, firewalls and over social media networks.
This then brings us onto enough controversial aspect of the Swedish law – it is only men that are banned from purchasing sex from women. Men are rarely seen raising the gender card, but perhaps it is enough to say that the discrimination of men (even if men are the majority clientele) points to yet another arbitrary aspect of the legislation. At its core, it is meant to protect the rights of women from the salacious appetites of the opposing sex, whilst refusing to curb their right to sell their body for sex if they choose. Through this, however, it fails to make an absolute decision on the industry, and instead simply serves to pull a veil of shame over prostitution as a whole, pushing it further into the discreet corners of society.
Reinforcing further stigmatisation of prostitution, both for buyers and sellers, is a problematic affair. Whereas previously statistical data was based on interviewing men who had admitted to engaging in prostitution, data since then has been inevitably skewed by the shame of the act, and the increased negative perception on those who engage in it. It would be ridiculous to suggest that less men admitting to purchasing prostitutes equates to a decrease – it simply means that the men in question aren’t stupid enough to make themselves complicit in illegal activity.
What does this all mean?
Akin to the criminalisation of drugs, and the debates circulating therein, any attempt to control human habits simply pushes the activity further into the shadows. We’re not saying this is something we advocate, but it does help to illuminate a recurring difficulty for 21st century society, in that by seeking to control human compulsions, society simply loses its grip on reality. A rise in alcohol price doesn’t necessarily mean less people will drink alcohol, and neither does a forced age limit. And this all leads to the bottom line: if people are willing to engage in these activities, they will find a way, regardless of what the law says.
Even Swedish law enforcement authorities have admitted that the legislation is not without difficulty. Kajsa Wahlberg, the national rapporteur on human trafficking, admits that telephone records shared by other countries have shown “that criminals are discussing amongst themselves, ‘Where shall we bring the women?’ They think Sweden is not a good country because the clients are afraid, you have to move women around, you can’t send them to the streets.”
Not Protecting Women
Therefore, whilst Sweden’s laws may profess to protect women, the criminals that ultimately underpin the industry do not. The logic is then fairly simple; to retain some level of control prostitution needs to exist in a form of open forum, unless we naively preclude that one day, somehow, human instinct will filter out through social decorum and the associated stigma of the deed. Rightfully, many groups have argued for a social and ethical shift in the perception of prostitution for all parties concerned. But even then we’re insisting on replacing biological compulsion with social persuasion – something that has been proven possible before, but only tenuously so.
At the end of the day, if campaigners want to see change, their argument needs to be based on more than the hypothesis that criminalisation would end demand. Ostensibly it would, and government statistics would no doubt reflect a drop, but it would inevitably lead to a disconnect between the perceived reality of prostitution and the actual reality. Demand would stay exactly the same, curbed only by the fear of getting caught or the fear of being stigmatised, but that persuasion is nowhere near as strong as biological (and mental) compulsion for female company.