The Swedish sex purchase law – from controversial law to international model

Sweden was the first country in the world to make it illegal to buy sexual services, but legal to sell them. Prostitution was to be seen as a part of men’s violence against women and therefore it became important to place the responsibility on the shoulders of the perpetrators, not the victims. In October, the Swedish Gender Equality Agency co-hosted a conference to highlight that the Swedish sex purchase law turns 20 years.

The background to the investigation that would lay the foundation for the Swedish sex purchase law was the growing sex industry which had organized itself in Sweden during the seventies. The secretary in charge of the investigation, the tutor and author Hanna Olsson, was present at the conference and shared how the issue about prostitution had developed into becoming a part of the conversation about men’s violence toward women.

Olsson shared the stage with Sven-Axel Månsson, professor in social work. He warned that the focus in the debate about prostitution had been displaced from the gender power analysis to the individual who makes an independent choice. Månsson highlighted the importance of combined actions in the work against prostitution; to solely work with the sex purchase law is not enough, it needs to be combined with social work.

“If there is no demand there is no prostitution.” – Åsa Lindhagen, Minister for Gender Equality

Women’s political wings’ central role for the passing of the law

It was a lot of pressure work from the women’s movement that lied the foundation for the sex purchase law being passed by the parliament. Women politicians tried to convince their male colleagues to speak positive about the law because they assumed more people would listen then.

– It is a fairytale about democracy, said Margareta Winberg, previous President of S-Kvinnor (the women’s wing of the Swedish Social Democratic Party), about the sex purchase law. Her party was against the law at first, but the women’s wing worked strenuously to change that direction and eventually succeeded. Together with Helena Vilhelmsson, vice president of the Centre women, and Cecilia Elving, President of Liberal women, Winberg described the big role the women’s wings have played and still play in these matters.  

The normative effect of the law has woken international interest

– If there is no demand there is no prostitution, said Gender Equality Minister Åsa Lindhagen in her speech at the conference and highlighted the importance of placing the guilt where it belongs and to do preventative work. 

She thanked the feminist movement for all the work that has made Sweden one of the world’s most gender equal countries and emphasized the sex purchase law as a particular great gain. A gain which has had a normative effect and decreased the demand in Sweden whilst it has grown bigger in comparable countries.

Since the sex purchase law was introduced it has woken great international interest. Seven countries have imported “the Swedish model”, France being one of them. One of the guests at the conference was Grégoire Théry from CAP (the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution) who described how France also has legislated about additional rights for victims of human trafficking, for instance the right to asylum. 

Sweden’s ambassador against human trafficking Per-Anders Sunesson compared Germany that has legalized prostitution, with Sweden and could confirm that there have not been any murders of women in prostitution in the country, compared with 70 murders in Germany. The demand has also increased with 30 percent in Germany so there are strong commercial interests again “the Swedish model” now when the country is looking at it.

How do we proceed?

The participants agreed that the Swedish sex purchase law is a great departure point, but that it is not enough. A lot more work is needed. The suggestions mentioned were among others more focus on preventative work. In conjunction with that a lot of participants, including the Gender Equality Minister, emphasized the harm of porn and its connections to prostitution.

A recurrent opinion was that Sweden should follow Norway and also forbid sex purchases abroad since 80 percent of the Swedes who buy sex do so outside the country’s borders. That Sweden should look at how France have taken the law further by including a wider social and economic protection, was another suggestion. 

Several participants called upon Sweden to take a larger role as a leader on the international arena in order to push the issues forward since the resistance is still strong against our interpretation of prostitution; that it must be understood as a part of men’s violence against women.

The day was arranged together with Sweden’s ambassador against human trafficking at the ministry for foreign affairs, The platform Civil Sweden against Human Trafficking, MEN, Roks, the National Organisation for Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Shelters in Sweden, Sweden’s Women’s Lobby and Unizon.

What does the Swedish Gender Equality Agency do to combat prostitution and human trafficking?

  • We have national responsibility for the coordination of the work against prostitution and human trafficking
  • We provide special support to actors working with these issues
  • We hold training courses to spread our knowledge
  • We work with a guide to help professionals who might encounter cases of human trafficking
  • We map the extent of prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes

Publication date: 5 December 2019

Last updated: 3 November 2021