Best Practices

In 1999, Sweden passed groundbreaking legislation that criminalized the purchasing of sexual services. The legislation was based on the notion that the prostitution perpetuates gender inequality. By stating that it is unacceptable for men to purchase women and children for sexual exploitation, Sweden’s law acknowledges that in order to resolve human trafficking and prostitution, a country must address the demand for prostitution.

Since the law was passed, street prostitution had been cut in half, fewer men state that they purchase sexual services, and Sweden is no longer an attractive market for traffickers to sell women and children for sex. Although the Swedish police initially criticized the legislation, they now confirm that it has been an effective deterrent to organizers and promoters of prostitution. Additionally, Sweden appears to be the only European country where prostitution and sex trafficking has not increased.

Perhaps the best way to measure the effectiveness of Sweden’s law is to compare it to neighboring countries, such as Denmark, where prostitution is legal. Although Denmark’s population is significantly smaller than Sweden’s, the scale of street prostitution in Denmark is three times higher than in Sweden.

The comparison can be taken further by noting the damaging effects of legalization. In 2002 Germany passed the German Prostitution Act, which decriminalized procuring for purposes of prostitution, widened the legal basis for establishing brothels, lifted the prohibition against promoting prostitution, and gave prostitutes the right to enter into contracts and receive benefits. A 2007 federal government evaluation of the law, found that Germany’s legislation failed to improve prostitution conditions and failed to help women exit prostitution. It also stated that, “prostitution should not be considered to be a reasonable means for securing one’s living.”

In the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal since 2000, the findings are equally grim. The 2007 government-commissioned Daalder Report found that the majority of women in the window brothels are still subject to pimp control and that their emotional well-being is lower than in 2001 “on all measured aspects.” The Dutch National Police Report adds: “The idea that a clean, normal business sector has emerged is an illusion…” In response to the negative effects of legalization, both Germany and the Netherlands are considering legislation that would criminalize the buyers.

The failure of legalization has promoted many countries to reevaluate how they are addressing prostitution and sex trafficking. In 2009 Norway criminalized the purchase of sex. A year after Norway enacted the law, a Bergen municipality survey estimated that the number of women in street prostitution had decreased by 20 percent and that indoor prostitution was down by 16 percent. The Bergen police reported that advertisements for sexual activities had dropped by 60 percent, and in Oslo, it was reported that many less buyers were on the streets.

The proven success of legislation that criminalizes the buyer without targeting the victim has convinced other countries to follow Sweden’s example. So far, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and France have all passed similar legislation. Countries are beginning to understand the relationship between human trafficking and the demand for prostitution. In addition, countries are realizing that in order to secure gender equality in society, prostitution must be addressed.