This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.
In Sweden on January 1 1999 it will become a criminal offence to purchase sexual services. This legislation — extraordinary by the standards of Britain and other European countries — marks a shift away from the liberal or libertarian attitudes of the past, and has been driven by a radical feminist analysis of prostitution and violence against women. How did it happen, and how will it work? Angela Beausang and Eva Hassel-Calais of ROKS, the Swedish organisation working against sexualised violence, report.
The new law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services is one part of a larger package of measures to combat violence against women. A bill was put before Sweden’s Parliament in February 1998. Three government ministries — Justice, Labour, Health and Social Affairs — were involved in producing legislative proposals, following an extensive inquiry into violence against women. Their proposals were intended to fulfil obligations undertaken by Sweden after the 1995 Beijing Conference on women.
When the bill was presented in February, the Swedish government office issued a fact sheet summarising and explaining it. The introduction says:
Sweden is by many regarded as a society in which there is a relatively high degree of equality between women and men. …In many areas, however, there is a considerable imbalance in the power relations between women and men. The most extreme example of such an imbalance is the occurrence of men’s violence against women. Despite several measures, particularly in recent years, thousands of women in Sweden are subjected to violence. …Violence against women is therefore an obstacle to the ongoing development towards equality between women and men. Violence against women is also a serious social problem. To take action against this form of criminality is thus a task which has been declared by the government to be given priority in the criminal justice system.
The legislation is wide-ranging. Apart from prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, it also includes new provisions on genital mutilation and sexual harassment; it criminalises ‘neglecting to report certain sexual crimes’ (e.g. rape, exploitation of a minor) and it introduces a new offence of ‘gross violation of a woman’s integrity’, meaning repeated physical and/or sexual assaults against a woman or child with whom the perpetrator has a close relationship. A feature of the new law is that it considers all abuse of women to be equally important, not excluding women who are prostitutes. Thus a pimp who assaults, threatens or coerces a prostitute he is living with will also be liable to be charged with gross violation of her integrity, and this carries a prison sentence of up to six years.
In addition the law specifies a set of preventive measures (e.g. supporting voluntary organisations which work to raise awareness of violence, collecting better statistics, investigating electronic monitoring of men who break injunctions) and proposes improvements to the existing support services for abused women. Implementing the new law will require the allocation of significant additional money for policing, prevention and support work — in 1998, 41 million Swedish kronor.
Marking Sweden’s attitude to prostitution
The measure which prohibits the purchase of sexual services will come into force slightly later than the rest of the law, in January 1999. This is how the government has summarised its intentions.
Obtaining casual sexual services (prostitution) against payment is to be prohibited. The punishment for this offence is to be fines or imprisonment for up to six months. The attempted offence is also to be made punishable. The offence comprises all forms of sexual services, whether they are purchased on the street, in brothels, in so-called massage institutes, etc.
This new prohibition marks Sweden’s attitude to prostitution. Prostitution is not a desirable social phenomenon. The government considers, however, that it is not reasonable to punish the person who sells a sexual service. In the majority of cases at least, this person is a weaker partner who is exploited by those who only want to satisfy their sexual drives.
It is also important to motivate prostitutes to seek help to leave their way of life. They should not run the risk of punishment because they have been active as prostitutes.
By prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, prostitution and its damaging effects can be counteracted more effectively than hitherto. The government is however of the opinion that criminalisation can never be more than a supplementary element in the efforts to reduce prostitution and cannot be a substitute for broader social exertions.
From sexual liberalism to radical feminism
The history that led up to the new law began in the early 1970s, when the Swedish government put together a Commission to investigate sexual crimes. At that time there was a liberal attitude to pornography, prostitution, incest and rape, and it was said that all restrictions should be ended. The Commission’s report proposed that incest should be decriminalised, that pimps should no longer be considered pimps, that the definition of rape should be very restricted and the penalties for it should be reduced. Sexual assault could be excused if the woman’s attitudes or actions prior to the abuse were ‘inappropriate’ in any way, so that women would become partly responsible for their own abuse.
This report provoked an outcry from women in Sweden. In 1976 over half a million women signed a petition protesting and criticising the Commission as being antiquated. This was a time when women were beginning to organise crisis lines and refuges, and speaking out on issues that had not been spoken about in public before. In the same year the author Maria-Pia Boethius published a book about rape, Skylla sig själv [‘having only yourself to blame’, or ‘it’s your own fault’]. As their numbers increased, women in politics became more influential and started networking around issues important to women. Women’s organisations, together with women members of Parliament, got together and demanded a new investigation. They succeeded! The new investigation went in the opposite direction: among other things, landlords could now be prosecuted for renting accommodation to someone who used it for prostitution.
In Sweden’s penal code prior to the new Violence against Women law, the main provision to counteract prostitution was a prohibition on procuring. An individual can procure, so can the editor of a publication that advertises sexual services, or someone letting property for the purpose of prostitution. Procuring with intent that includes grievous bodily harm, including forcing someone to take drugs, carries a sentence of up to six years in prison. The seduction of young persons is also an offence. The law as it is today — i.e. including a prohibition on purchasing sexual services — came about through a new investigation looking at men’s violence against women, and it followed more than a decade of feminist campaigning. In the 1980s, Kvinnofronten, a broad feminist activist organisation, had it on their agenda to fight for the criminalisation of men buying sex. ROKS [the national refuge organisation] had worked for the same thing from its inception (1984). They were joined by the rest of the women’s movement, against everyone else, but united. So it can be said that the women’s movement, alone, won this fight in the end.
The suggestion that buying women’s bodies should be made a criminal offence started a lot of different discussions. The Right-wing party thought it better to have government-controlled brothels; some people wanted to make selling your own body illegal, and some thought it was not worth criminalising any aspect of prostitution since it would only go underground. This threat has been repeated in the media, and some lesbians who claim an affiliation with women in prostitution and are interested in sadomasochism have tried to get discussion going, taking the libertarian position that Sweden is becoming regressive in its attitudes to sexual freedom.
Nevertheless, the new law commands wide consent in Swedish society. Women’s organisations and mainstream women politicians have agreed for years on the need to criminalise the johns rather than the women involved in prostitution. Women in the Social Democrat party lobbied for the new law at their last party congress. It is also relevant that prostitution has never been very widespread in Sweden. It is estimated that 2,500 women sell sexual services every year in indoor massage parlours, escort services, call girl services, etc., and that there are around 650 street prostitutes, about half of whom are addicted to drugs. Women in prostitution in Sweden appear to be unorganised and have not made a collective response to the new law.
Implementing the law
The government has allocated money to the police to start working around prostitution, and within the National Police Board a Rapporteur on trafficking has been formed, working with Europol. (Recently there has been an influx of Russian women into the north of Sweden and some men (pimps) are making a lot of money.) The new law states, however, that criminalisation is not a substitute for ‘broader social exertions’. The National Board of Health and Welfare has been charged with undertaking development work on questions about prostitution and violence against women. With regard to motivating and helping women to exit prostitution, which is also an aim of the law, there are women’s organisations working with prostitutes in several major cities. Some organisations also approach the men who buy sexual services.
Although we hope the law will be enforced, there may be some problems in practice. One problem is government leadership. Since the election that took place in autumn 1998, the cabinet has been reorganised, and we currently do not have a minister for Social Services — the man who was appointed left because it wasn’t interesting enough for him. The equality minister is also the minister for agriculture and is very busy with EU matters. When the government is asked about this, they respond that equality and equal opportunities are inherent in all political work (this is called ‘mainstreaming’). Right now it seems thin. In his most recent budget, the Prime Minister Göran Persson forgot to allocate new money for the national Rape Crisis Centre, for instance.
Some issues were left out of the legislation. A new Commission on Sexual Offences is going to review the legal provisions, e.g. whether the definition of rape should focus on consent rather than force, how rape should be treated in relation to children, and how the courts should determine punishment where sexual offences are concerned. A male judge has been appointed to chair this commission. Luckily ROKS has been appointed as one of the voluntary organisations in the advisory group.
According to Swedish law, a Swedish national can be charged in Sweden for offences committed abroad, if those offences are chargeable in the country concerned. But at the same time that Sweden is making it illegal to purchase sexual services, neighbouring Denmark is decriminalising prostitution. 5000 customers buy sexual services every day in Copenhagen alone: how many of them are Swedes, and how are the Swedish authorities going to handle this issue?
Sending a message
Even if there are some problems, the language of the new law is different from previous ones. It had the backing of three cabinet ministers and followed an extensive enquiry by a commission. This law sends a clear message. And, as with all the campaigns we have fought against pornography and other sexualised violence against women since the 1970s, its success has been due to all the women who stood united.