STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Selling sex isn’t illegal in Sweden, but buying is – a radical approach to prostitution that was ridiculed when it was introduced nine years ago.
Now, while Americans are preoccupied with the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution scandal, some countries are considering emulating the Swedish model, which prosecutes the client but views the prostitute as an exploited victim.
Officials say the approach has reduced the demand for prostitutes and reshaped attitudes toward the sex trade.
“We don’t have a problem with prostitutes. We have a problem with men who buy sex,” said Kajsa Wahlberg, of the human trafficking unit at Sweden’s national police board.
She said foreign law enforcement officials and politicians are coming to Sweden in droves to learn more about its 1999 law.
On Friday, Wahlberg met with police officials from the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal but where authorities have closed some brothels in a crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam’s red light district.
In January, a high-level British delegation came to study the Swedish approach as Britain reviews its own prostitution laws, which prohibit soliciting and loitering for sex, but not buying sex.
Norway’s government plans to propose a Swedish-style prostitution law after Easter.
Under Sweden’s so-called “Sex Purchase Law,” paying for sex is punished by fines or up to six months in prison, plus public exposure. A handful of Swedish judges have been caught up in prostitution scandals, including a Supreme Court justice who was fined in 2005 after admitting to paying for sex with a young man.
Pimps and brothel keepers are also prosecuted, but not prostitutes, because they are viewed as victims, treated as commodities in the sex trade.
While authorities judge the new system a success, critics question whether it has really reduced prostitution or merely pushed it off the streets into more isolated and dangerous surroundings. Wahlberg concedes that accurate statistics are hard to obtain, but estimates the number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped 40 percent from 2,500 in 1998 to 1,500 in 2003.
She says police know from eavesdropping on human trafficking rings that Sweden is considered bad business because of its tough stance.
“They are calculating profits, costs and marketing, and the risk of getting caught,” Wahlberg said. “We’re trying to create a bad market for these activities.”
Conscious of the international interest, Sweden’s government plans a thorough review of the effects of the law, expected to be ready next year.
Petra Ostergren, a writer who has studied prostitution for a decade, doesn’t think it has worked well.
“Sex purchases have not decreased, many young women sell sex temporarily over the Internet to fund university studies,” she said.
The Swedish law took effect at a time when many European countries were moving in another direction. Neighboring Denmark, for example, decriminalized prostitution in 1999 after quietly tolerating it for two decades.
Most European countries prohibit pimping and running brothels but tolerate prostitution and penalize neither prostitutes nor clients. Brothels are legal in Holland and Germany provided they have business licenses.
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