On Malmskillnadsgatan

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

In 1999, Sweden passed a law that made it a crime to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. It was the first law of its kind in the world, and is now sometimes referred to as ‘the Swedish model’. The Swedish government has been keen to export it. In 2009, Norway and Iceland adopted equivalent legislation. France passed a similar law at the beginning of December, and there have been calls for the UK to do likewise, not least since last month’s raids on sex workers’ flats in Soho.

If I’d seen them on a different street, the two girls having a cigarette – long hair, puffa jackets, jeans, boots – could have simply been waiting for the crossing light to turn green. But we were on Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm’s red light district. When I said I was a journalist, one of them rolled her eyes: ‘Not again,’ she said. There were more women further down the street; maybe I could try talking to them. ‘Business is good,’ said a Romanian woman who spoke no English but excellent Italian. ‘The law is bad for the clients but not for us and we’re not afraid of the police.’ But an older woman, a Swede of Kenyan origin I met outside the metro station, said the 1999 law was a disgrace: ‘The women here are normal women, they just have bills to pay. If you want them to stop, offer them something else to do.’

Angela Beausang, the chair of the National Organisation for Women’s Shelters (Roks), is in no doubt about the law’s positive effects. ‘Some claim prostitution went indoors,’ she said, ‘But it's not true because the police find them there too.’ She quoted a police officer: ‘If the johns can find the women, then so can we.’

Roks campaigned for the law to be passed in the 1990s. ‘There is no way you can work on violence against women and fail to notice that prostitution is a form of violence against women,’ Beausang said. ‘This is not an OK way of having sex. Men buy sex, they buy the right to use your body. And if they pay for you you have no option, they do what they want to your body... Don’t say “sex work”, it’s far too awful to be work... We now have Swedish people’s consensus that women are not for sale. This is a huge step forward.’

‘We've had few cases of trafficking in human beings in Sweden,’ Ann Martin, the head of Sweden's anti-trafficking unit, told me. ‘And we say that it’s because of the law that forbids buying sex.’ When I asked about the negative effects the law might have on sex workers, I was told they didn't really matter, or were even a good thing. ‘I think of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that's also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law,’ Martin said. ‘It shouldn't be as easy as it was before to go out and sell sex.’

The stigma, which is supposed to have shifted from sex workers to clients, seems stronger than ever. ‘For me, a woman who goes into prostitution is not a happy woman,’ Martin said. ‘Something happened to her. If you're a normal woman with a normal upbringing, it's not a step you take.’ Later on, she said: ‘I still don't get it, why a man who has a normal family life would go and see a prostitute. She might be trafficked. She might have HIV.’

The law has its opponents, too. Ulrika Westerlund, the head of RFSL, Sweden's leading LGBT organisation, said that it ‘has not been evaluated properly. Some sort of evaluation was done in 2010 by Anna Skarhead, the Chancellor of Justice. The report claimed that levels of street prostitution had fallen by half between 1998 and 2008, but it's now back to higher levels.’

‘It's very hard to say what the effect of the legislation is because it was introduced in 1999, which is almost the same time as the internet arrived in Sweden,’ Westerlund told me. The Skarhead report estimated there were 400 people in Sweden selling sex on the internet. But an RFSL investigation in 2009 found adverts from 200 different men and trans people in two months. ‘It's very naive to go for the official narrative. There's plenty of sex work in Sweden,’ Westerlund said. And the prices are the highest in Europe.

Pye Jakobsson has been a sex worker activist since 1994. She co-founded the Rose Alliance, Sweden's only sex workers' rights collective. She pointed me to the part of the Skarhead report that says: ‘For people who are still being exploited in prostitution, the above negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.’

According to Jakobsson and Westerlund, most sex workers in Stockholm don't go to the city’s Prostitution Unit, which provides counselling and health services. ‘A number of people that we interviewed said that they didn't feel that they had access to the services that are supposed to target sex workers because of the attitude of the people who work there,’ Westerlund said. ‘Their idea is that you come there and then say I want to stop.’ Jakobsson described the services offered as a ‘conditionalised rescue agenda’.

According to RFSL and the Rose Alliance, the Sex Purchase Act has had a negative impact on HIV prevention. The members of Stockholm and Götheborg Prostitution Unit don't hand out condoms when they do outreach in the street. ‘What kind of signal would I be giving women in the street if I handed condoms to them? What would I be telling them? That I only see them as prostitutes?’ Pia Turesson, from Stockholm's Prostitution Unit, told me. Attempts by the Malmö Prostitution Unit to hand out condoms to men buying sex were met with a national outcry from politicians and the press.

Sweden has a confused approach to harm reduction. It has draconian HIV disclosure laws and the highest rate of convictions for exposing other people to the risk of contracting HIV, but only recently introduced needle exchange programmes after the number of injecting drug users contracting HIV soared in one year. ‘Many Swedish politicians and decision-makers think that zero tolerance is the only acceptable approach,’ Westerlund said. ‘They are unwilling to do things that can be seen as contributing to make life easier for people who use drugs or are sex workers.’

She argues that Sweden is very bad at dealing with marginalised groups. ‘We have created this great country from what used to be an extremely poor country 100 years ago. If you conform or make yourself part of the system, everything works perfectly fine but if you are a member of a minority or behave in a way that means the majority of the people don't understand you, then it's different. How can you be transgender or a sex worker, how can you make those life choices?’ The forced sterilisation of transgender people was only stopped last year.

Last summer, a sex worker was murdered by her former partner. ‘Petite Jasmine’ was involved in the Rose Alliance, RFSL and the Swedish association for sex education, and had spoken out against the 1999 law because of the stigma she believed it created. Jakobsson and Westerlund said she had lost custody of her children to an ex-husband with a record of violent behaviour because she was a sex worker. He stabbed her as she was visiting her children. ‘For me, Jasmine's death is a very clear case of stigma kills,’ Jakobsson said.

There seems to be little space available to discuss the law. ‘There are not many types of feminism in Sweden,’ Jakobsson said. ‘It's as if I couldn't be a feminist and be against this law,’ Westerlund told me. ‘And I know that Swedish politicians are promoting it in ways that seem hard to say no to. Because it sounds really good. People are not evil. I'm assuming they're doing this because they think it protects women.’ But new voices have started to speak up. Hanna Wagenius, the 25-year-old president of the Centre Party Youth League is one of them. ‘We are a nation that dislikes discussion and loves consensus, and a nation that views itself as the conscience of the world,’ she told me. ‘But in this matter decisions were made over the heads of the people affected by it.’