How the Swedish Sex Purchase Law moved the shame of prostitution from the women to the punters

Simon Häggström talks with Francine Sporenda about his work as a Swedish Detective Inspector in the Prostitution Unit enforcing the Sex Purchase Law in Stockholm. He now heads the Swedish Police Trafficking Unit, which tracks trafficking and pimping networks. He is the author of “Shadow’s Law: The True Story of a Swedish Detective Inspector Fighting Prostitution.”

Traduction Française | Deutsche Übersetzung

FS: The rationale behind the Swedish Sex Purchase law (sometimes known as the Nordic Model) is that prostitution negatively affects society as a whole. Can you tell me about this and how it is a magnet for all kinds of criminality?

SH: It is true that prostitution is a magnet for all kinds of criminals, but when we say that prostitution affects the whole of society, it’s not necessarily the criminal perspective that we talk about first, because prostitution causes damage, not only to the individuals involved in it – particularly the women that actually provide sex and the buyers – but to everybody in society.

When it’s legal to buy sex, something happens to how we look upon each other. Young boys are raised with the mentality that whenever you want to get laid, you just have to pay for it. Of course it does something to the way we view each other as human beings in general, but to be more specific, to how we view women – because they are seen as objects, as things that can be consumed. That’s why we believe prostitution is damaging to the whole of society.

FS: What do you say to the famous pro-prostitution argument that the law criminalizing the purchase of sex drives prostitution underground?

SH: I find this argument surprising, and I hear it all over the world except in Sweden. Outside Sweden, everybody is an expert about what happens when this law is enforced: “Oh, look what happened in Sweden, prostitution went underground and the police can’t find prostituted women anymore.”

My answer is: “Hey, I am police officer. I have been in the Prostitution Unit for 10 years, and prostitution is not hidden, we can find it. Just give me a cellphone, and I’ll show you where it is.”

I don’t really know where that argument comes from, to be honest. Of course, we’ve seen a shift in prostitution arenas. In the 1990s, most prostitution was out in the open, in the streets. But then the Internet revolution came and now we have apartments and hotel rooms, and that’s where prostitution goes on. But just because it isn’t in the public eye, it doesn’t mean that it has gone underground. We have our methods to find it and if the buyer can find these women in apartments or hotel rooms, so can the police. All I need is a cellphone.

Basically, this argument is just a myth, but it has become very widespread and my answer is: Don’t believe the myths, just talk to us, the people that actually work with the law, because we know. We know it’s a lie that’s been floating around – finding prostitution is definitely not a problem for us at all. We need only a couple of minutes to track down an apartment where prostitution takes place.

FS: I always found this argument absurd. For the sex industry to exist, the johns have to be able to find the women. And if the johns can find them, so can the police. It’s so obvious.

SH: Exactly and that’s why I always say that prostitution cannot really hide, because the traffickers and pimps have to advertise the women they sell. So these arenas, these websites where the women are being advertised, of course, the police can browse them like anyone else. I am so sick and tired of hearing this argument because it has nothing to do with the reality.

FS: Can you explain how – contrary to what its adversaries predicted – the Swedish law has made prostitution safer for women?

SH: That is probably the second most asked question when I am in another country or the second most common argument: “Look what happened in Sweden, because of the criminalization of sex buyers, violence against women in prostitution has increased.”  I hear it all the time, I suppose you’ve heard it?

FS: A lot!

SH: I am sure you must have. And we can categorically say that it hasn’t happened at all. Our government did an evaluation in 2010. It was led by a top lawyer, our supreme Chancellor of Justice, Ms. Anna Skarhed, and it came to the conclusion there is no evidence that violence against women in prostitution has increased.

That does not necessarily mean that women in prostitution in Sweden are not subjected to violence – they are, because being in prostitution is dangerous. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, if you are a prostituted woman, you will be subjected to rape, assault, robbery, etc. That’s the nature of prostitution but we don’t see any evidence that the violence has increased.

What I can say, and what I have seen from the testimonies, is that women in prostitution are actually safer in Sweden because the law itself puts pressure on the sex buyer.

You have to understand the Swedish culture and context, and the normative impact of this legislation. The law has been in effect for 20 years and it has affected the whole society. Buying sex is now one of the most shameful crimes you can be arrested for. If it becomes public, you risk losing everything: your job, your family, your whole social network.

When they take the risk of breaking the law, the buyers know that these women don’t risk any form of punishment, they know they have to behave because the police are just a phone call away. So it puts pressure on the sex buyers to behave, because they know the women can call the police without any risk to themselves.

The buyers know they have to behave, not because they care about the women, but because it’s in their own interest, because they care about themselves. And in order to protect themselves they know they have to treat the women well, they have to pay their money, and they have to behave. Otherwise, the police will come, and they will be arrested. And they will do anything to avoid that.

FS: Is online prostitution widespread in Sweden? (In France, it now represents roughly 70% of all prostitution and brings huge amounts of money to the prostitution sites.) What is being done about this?

SH: Many of these sites are international, and not Swedish. They are in different countries and you just pick your country flag, and you end up with ads from that country.

According to the Swedish legislation, these sites are illegal. As well as the Sex Purchase Act, we have tough pimp and trafficking legislation, which punish all kinds of supporting activities. So yes, these sites are definitely illegal but we face huge challenges if we want to shut them down because in Europe there are so many different languages, laws and views on prostitution. If the sites are on servers in countries where the activities are not considered criminal offences, we cannot shut them down. The activities have to be illegal in both countries involved.

It’s definitely a challenge for us and it makes me even more convinced that the European Union (EU) has to come to see these type of advertisements as illegal. But in the EU, there’s a discussion going on that separates forced trafficking from voluntary prostitution. It’s probably one of the most dangerous discussions we can have because in reality you can’t separate them – human trafficking will always pose as voluntary prostitution and you will never know what is what. Just because a woman says she is doing that by her free will, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case. We know the majority of women in prostitution are from Romania or Nigeria etc. and we know that they are victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution, but still we have this debate in Europe, with people claiming because of “sex workers rights” we should have regulated prostitution and must distinguish between forced trafficking and voluntary prostitution.

But as far as I’m concerned, about 9 out of 10 women that I meet are victims of organized prostitution one way or another. And it’s a huge problem for us regarding the escort sites, which means we can’t really do our job in the way we want to.

FS: I also noticed that these sites are very globalized. I read about a guy who owns some. He lives in the US, but the headquarters of his company is in Jersey and the servers are somewhere else. This makes it dfficult to go after them, because they are moving from country to country.

SH: Exactly. The Internet, the digital revolution, has done fantastic things for society. But there’s a downside to it as well, and if the police could shut down all the bad stuff that goes on out there – not just prostitution but drugs, terrorism and stuff like that – of course that would be a huge benefit for all society. But we can’t. This is the modern world, we have to live with it, but if all European countries would see prostitution for what it really is, that it is part of men’s violence against women and a form of modern slavery, we would have a much better chance of fighting this crime.

FS: You say that johns are ordinary guys, “men in suits,” married wth jobs and children, not poor lonely guys. They are afraid of being arrested and even call you the “angel of death.” You tell the story of a man you came across in a supermarket, shopping with his beautiful wife and kids. He was scared to see you because you had arrested him some time before for having a blow job from an 18 year old in the back of a car. You say a wife has a right to know if her husband is a sex buyer. When johns are arrested, what can be the consequences for them?

SH: You have to remember that in Sweden, the prohibition of the purchase of sex is not controversial, the majority of the population supports the legislation but I understand that what I take for granted here is something huge for people from other countries.

We have to take it from the beginning. The legislation was not introduced overnight. It came after a heated debate that started in the mid-1970s and lasted for 30 years. And when the law was introduced in 1999, it was the focus of a lot of attention and discussion at the national level.

Over the years, things have changed, and today, we have a political consensus on this law. All the political parties, including the opposition, stand behind it, and a majority of the population support it, which means it has had a normative effect on society. It affected people in the right direction, and I think that the average Swede today has quite a bit of knowledge about prostitution – in particular women and for a reason – because young girls don’t dream of selling sex when they grow up. So the average level of knowledge of Swedes on prostitution is quite high compared to many other countries, and it’s because of the Sex Purchase Act and that it’s been discussed for so many years.

Bearing this in mind, being caught by the police for buying sex, whether from a minor or an adult, is considered shameful in Sweden. I know that in some countries in Southern Europe, buying sex is just like going to the grocery store…

FS: In Germany also… It’s thoroughly normalized.

SH: Yes, it’s normalized. Football teams and supporters celebrate their soccer victories by going to a brothel. It’s a totally opposite mentality in Sweden. Here it’s something shameful. You don’t even brag with your friends. If you start bragging: “Oh, I bought sex yesterday,” probably your friends would say: “Hey, what’s your problem dude, can’t you get laid for free?” It’s something you don’t do, and if you do do it, you definitely don’t tell anyone about it. So it has consequences.

We’ve seen this many times over the years – these men, when we arrested them, they lost everything. To be honest, it’s a relatively minor crime, you are not sent to jail, you just have to pay a fine. But still it has huge consequences when it comes to these johns’ lives. They risk losing everything, not only their marriage and their family but also their whole social network.

We had cases where people lost their jobs. Employers and bosses think that if you buy sex, you don’t value human beings and “We don’t want somebody who is representing our company who doesn’t value and respect human beings.” By buying sex, you have shown that you are not living up to that standard.

We have arrested all kinds of people, we have arrested doctors, we have arrested priests, we have arrested police officers, prosecutors, everybody, from all social classes, and the consequences are huge. If you are a chairman, or a company leader, or a famous person, the downfall is enormous.

A couple of years ago, the goalie of the Swedish national soccer team was arrested for buying sex from a Romanian woman. It got huge attention in the media; the coverage was massive. The media are pushing things forward by raising public awareness because they write a lot about arrested sex buyers. We don’t have the shaming system like they have in the US where they publish names and photos of the arrested johns – we don’t have that but we have this huge media coverage and I definitely think it contributes to raising public awareness.

A company just doesn’t want someone who has shown such a deep lack of respect for another human being by buying sex. In Sweden, that’s quite normal, we had politicians that we arrested and they had to leave their job that same day.

It’s difficult to understand if you haven’t been raised in Sweden, with the mindset since childhood that if someone buys sex, there is something wrong. Kids today are raised with this, they haven’t had any alternative because, as long as they can remember, the act of buying sex has been illegal. And of course the legislation had a deep impact on society. In your country, is it illegal to drive through a red light?

FS: Of course!

SH: Of course. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in a city, if it’s at 3 in the morning and there is not a single human being in sight. There is no other car that you can see, yet you will stay, waiting for the green light. Why? Because maybe, there is a police officer hiding somewhere and if the police sees me, driving through a red light, I would lose my driver’s license.

And it’s the same with the Sex Purchase Act. The law itself is influencing a majority of the population. Of course, we still have people driving through red lights, and we still have men buying sex, and we still have the police. But you have to understand that the legislation is important and the majority of the populaton follows the legislation. For those who don’t, the police do their job.

FS:  When they are arrested, johns protest loudly: “Don’t you have better things to do than to harass poor men who just want harmless sex?” How do these men justify their sex buying when they are arrested?

SH: There are a lot of different excuses. As I told you before, they come from different backgrounds, so they all have different stories. What they have in common is that they all think they are the victims. When they are arrested, they don’t ask any questions about the women. They don’t ask: “What is the reason she is here, is she a victim of human trafficking, how is she doing, etc.?” No questions like that at all.

The questions are all about them: “What’s going to happen to me, are you going to call my family, are you going to call my employer, will I go to jail, will the newspapers write about me, etc.?” Everything revolves around them.

And we always hear the same thing over and over again: that WE have ruined their life. I had one of these men two weeks ago: “Oh, if you just knew what you’ve done, not only have you ruined my life, you’ve ruined my children’s future, and you’ve ruined a successful marriage.”

They always put the blame on me. And this shows what buying sex is about: it’s 100% ego. It’s about YOU. It’s about you getting laid, it’s about you getting your sexual desires fulfilled, everything is about you. It’s not about something mutual, a mutual attraction, it’s not about two human beings, it’s about one human being. It’s about you getting what you want, and since the other person doesn’t want it, then you have to pay for it.

You can buy yourself into another human being who doesn’t even want to be close to you.  Having sex with the women, if it wasn’t for a lack of choices and a harsh background, you wouldn’t be able to pay for it. Prostitution is a matter of class, it’s rich people exploiting poor people. That’s so clear when I meet the women, and when I meet the buyers.

These rich men in Sweden, they pay for sex because they can, because they can afford it. And these poor women who came from Romania, Nigeria and so on, they end up in this situation because they have to put food on their table for their families and their children.

But of course, the men all have different excuses. We’ve had excuses like: “Oh my girlfriend is pregnant right now, we don’t have a proper sex life, I just do this in order to get laid, because she can’t really deliver right now.” Or “I am in a bad situation with my girlfriend, we had a fight today, she’s been really bad to me, so I just thought I had to do something else, see someone else.”

We have men say they don’t want to cheat on their girlfriend, so they buy sex instead. That’s a crazy argument. They believe that if they buy sex, it’s just mechanical sex, they are not really cheating because they just want the sex and nothing more. If they have a one night stand, or an affair with someone at the office, they see it as cheating because there is mutual attraction involved. But if they buy sex, there are no feelings, no emotions, it’s just mechanical, and they try to convince themselves that’s not cheating, it’s just loosening up your pressure.

Another explanation is: “I have fantasies I can’t relieve and when I told my girlfriend, she told me that I could pack my bags, so I go to a woman I can pay for it.” There are lots of different excuses but all these excuses have one thing incommon: it’s 100% egoism.

FS: Don’t you think that another thing these men have in common is a basic contempt for women?

SH: Absolutely. The vast majority of men in Sweden are not buying sex so you have to wonder about what it is that unites the sex buyers – and I think it is a disrespect for other human beings in general, and towards women specifically. They don’t respect human lives and they don’t value women as equals. They believe that women are something that can be consumed.

FS: Are there johns’ schools in Sweden and what do you think of them?

SH: We don’t have johns’ schools in Sweden, we don’t have this concept at all, unlike in the United States. What we have is the BOSS project (BOSS stands for Buyers of Sexual Services). It’s an integrated social service where we have therapists, social workers and counseling for men who’ve been caught by the police, or who’ve referred themselves because they realize they have a problem. There are quite a few men in Sweden attending the program but they enter it voluntarily, unlike johns’ school in the US where you can be sent – that’s not the way it’s done in Sweden.

You can join this program if you are motivated and if you come to realize: “I have a problem with sex addiction, I can’t stop it all by myself, I need to get help.” Or if you get caught by the police and you realize your whole life is shattered, you can join the BOSS program. But if I arrest someone in the street, and tell him about the BOSS program, if he says: “No thanks, I am not interested, I just want to pay my fine,” I cannot do anything to put him in that program. But johns’ schools are definitely something that I want to see here. I want to see that these men are not just fined but are also sent to a johns’ schools. That would be a great thing. Not just as a punishment – but because you have to stay for a week and listen to survivors, you have to gain some knowledge about this. I definitely think it would be a good thing.

FS: According to some prostitued women, two things make being a prostituted woman much harder: pornography and punters forums. Can you comment?

SH: Pornography is something we are talking about way too little here in Sweden. We talk about prostitution and have done for many years. But like prostitution, pornography influences the whole of society in ways we can’t even imagine. The average age of starting to watch porn in Sweden today is somewhere between 11 and 12. I am 36 years old, and I remember when I was 15, the kids watched porn, but the porn has become so much worse.

Today, when I talk to kids in college, and I tell them: “When I was your age, my parents told me porn was bad.” Today I say the same thing but now, porn is a thousand times worse than it was when I was a teenager.

I definitely believe that for young people growing up today, it’s a public health issue and it’s not being adressed as it should be. You can talk to any police investigator specializing not only in prostitution but in sexual crimes. We all say the same thing: when we go through perpetratrors’ computers, what we see is pornography, pornography, pornography. All the time. Of couse, it affects you, and the whole of society, when pornography is setting standards of what is normal sexuality.

What happens in a society where teachers and schools have backed down because they don’t know how to handle sex education? Pornography has become the forum where young people are looking to educate themselves. It’s a tragedy and of course it has a direct impact on the world of prostitution.

And we can see that, just by looking at the prostitution ads. How are these prostituted women advertised? They are advertised like porn stars because the traffickers and pimps know that 100% of these buyers are watching porn movies on a daily basis. And what are the messages they are sending? “Come to us, then you don’t just look at these movies, you will be able to do all the things you see in them.”

So I totally agree with these women claiming that pornography is a nightmare if you are in prostitution, because that’s what we see all the time. An average prostitution encounter today, it’s just taken directly from a porn movie. If you want to do all these things you’ve seen in a movie, who do you go to? You go the ones who cannot afford to say no. Because another woman, she can say yes, but she can also say no. But the problem is that in prostitution, we have thousands of women who can’t say no. They are not allowed to say no because they have to survive, they have to provide for their family.

About pornography, it’s just the beginning, I am afraid to say I see a very dark future ahead of us because the generation that was brought up with hardcore porn movies in their cellphones, are now becoming adults, and I think we will see a lot of bad things coming out of this pornified generation.

This interview was originally published in French on the Révolution Féministe website.

5 thoughts on “How the Swedish Sex Purchase Law moved the shame of prostitution from the women to the punters

  1. Thank you for sharing this, the questions and responses are so respectable and understandable and I will be quoting this and sharing it a lot when people try to use backwards arguments ‘for’ legalizing prostitution. It’s so bad here in the USA. I’m glad it touched on how bad this pornified generation has become. I hope we can see sense and make reforms soon.

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