Going Swedish – my article for Progress

Labour Party

On Saturday I wrote an article for Progress Online for International Women’s Day. You can read the article below, or go to the original post by clicking here.

International Women’s Day this year came on the heels of a big few months in the battle to end the ‘oldest profession’. France, Ireland and Northern Ireland have made moves towards changing their prostitution laws in the last year. All three are looking to shift towards the Swedish model, whereby it is the buyer (invariably the man) who is criminalised, with the sale of sex made legal.

Moreover, Germany has appeared for the first time to be willing to re-evaluate legalisation, and the British parliament, which has traditionally had a muddled position, has shown signs of going Swedish. An all-party group on the subject, chaired by Gavin Shuker MP, concluded that current laws ‘prioritise the gratification of punters at the expense of often-vulnerable women and girls’. The current law fails to address the problem of demand, and as a result it sustains the status quo.

The process has been helped along by my own report, recommending the Swedish model, which was passed by the European parliament in February. With countries as far away as Canada weighing up the merits of the Swedish model, it appears a genuine international shift is taking place. At long last governments are taking sustainable and ambitious steps.

For me this process is essential in the effort to bring about a world where women have a genuinely fair crack. With the sex trade overwhelmingly populated by women, the existence of prostitution is an affront to the battle for gender parity. It is a totemic issue; a persistent and uneasy monument of the economic and physical dominance of women by men. As a delegation of nearly 80 academics wrote in an open letter to members of the European parliaments last month:

The prostitution system is a reminder of continuing inequalities between women and men: the gender pay gap; the sexualisation of female bodies in popular culture; the histories of violence and abuse in both childhood and adulthood that underpin many women’s entry into the sex industry.

The alternative to the Swedish model is blanket decriminalisation. This has a degree of support – including from some sex workers’ groups – as a means of regulating the sex industry better. Advocates say it would prevent prostitution being ‘driven underground’ and therefore make it safer.

This claim is undermined somewhat by the case of Germany, perhaps the most controversial example of decriminalisation. Since legalisation there in 2001 there has been an explosion in prostitution levels. So-called ‘super brothels’ now operate on the country’s borders and there are reportedly around 400,000 sex workers (compared to less than 50,000 in neighbouring France). Just 44 of these have registered for benefits, suggesting the supposed ‘regulation’ of the industry is something of a myth. The effect has been simply to ingrain prostitution and normalise the inequalities which sustain it.

I hope that by International Women’s Day 2015 the number of countries to have ‘gone Swedish’ will have increased, and we will be approaching the point of critical mass where the Swedish model can become accepted as the norm. To protect women everywhere we must go beyond sticking plaster solutions and look to root causes.

6 thoughts on “Going Swedish – my article for Progress

  1. Thanks to Mary Honeyball for her leadership on behalf of women’s human rights in advancing a new and enlightened legal remedy against prostitution.
    I am happy to note that she uses the word inequality (not the weaker “inequity”) in describing the devastating effect of prostitution on the lives of individual women and on the status of women everywhere. The Swedish model law is a powerful repudiation of current laws that have long protected pimps and punters.

  2. > The alternative to the Swedish model is blanket decriminalisation.
    I don’t think the model followed in NZ, Victoria(Aust), NSW and Queensland constitute blanket decriminalisation.
    There is also the Danish model, which criminalises only third-parties.

  3. I have long moaned about Mary not mentioning the NZ approach, so I am posting a few links with some important quotes:


    Indigenous women the world over are particularly targeted for prostitution. In Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, and Taiwan, studies have shown that indigenous women are at the bottom of the race and class hierarchy of prostitution, often subjected to the worst conditions, most violent demands and sold at the lowest price.[31] It is common for indigenous women to be over-represented in prostitution when compared with their total population.

    This is as a result of the combined forces of colonialism, physical displacement from ancestral lands, destruction of indigenous social and cultural order, misogyny, globalization/neoliberalism, race discrimination and extremely high levels of violence perpetrated against them.[31] The Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, an abolitionist organization in Canada, has specifically noted that because the prostitution of Aboriginal women results from and reinforces such extreme hatred of Aboriginal women, no regime of legalisation (which will expand the industry and entrap more women) can be safer for Aboriginal women. Prostitution can only further harm Aboriginal women.[29]


    “In its 2008 “Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003” the committee provided further information on many of the cases and background of sex work in New Zealand. The Report also addressed issues raised by ECPAT New Zealand and the Stop Demand Foundation, and the claims made by those supporting the Manukau City Council (Control of Street Prostitution) Bill 2005 .[35]

    “The researchers described this process further in a 2010 book, titled “Taking the crime out of sex work- New Zealand sex workers’ fight for decriminalisation” [84] It was written by Gillian Abel (a senior public health researcher and lecturer at the University of Otago, New Zealand), Lisa Fitzgerald (a public health sociologist and social science lecturer in the School of Population Health, University of Queensland), and Catherine Healy (a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective). The book includes the results of interviews with over 700 sex workers, and concludes that the decriminalisation has had positive effects for the prostitutes safety and health. [85]”

    I think most NZers are unclear about the effects of the PRA, except that it seems to be safer. This is in line with the last conclusion above, but note that one of the authors is from the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective.


    “If the UK were to follow the example of legalised brothels, such as in New Zealand, Amsterdam and Australia, what do we expect would happen to this so-called industry? Is it not common business sense to assume that when an industry is legalised and promoted, when it can freely advertise and set up anywhere in our towns and cities, that it will therefore grow, that it will expand? And, if the industry grows, who will fill the new ‘vacancies’ that will be created? More women, children and men in prostitution; we have to ask ourselves if that is the sort of outcome we want.”

    In the wiki’s re NZ, the figures are unclear, but not four-fold as one groups suggest.

  4. The oldest profession in the world is also the oldest pretext for outraged moralizing & unrealistic law making.

    Paid sex for money is impossible to eradicate.

    Its better to concentrate on keeping the business clean, safe, consensual & inconspicuous by legalizing it, alike Germany & Australia.

    Criminalisation forces prostitution into the underworld & makes it harder to tackle abuses like trafficking & under age prostitution.


  5. If it is possible to eliminate prostitution the swedish model is certainly not going to be that.

    I have continued my researches into the NZ situation: the most socially deprived area in NZ is South Auckland, with a large racial mix. If you applied the Swedish model there it would be an open invitation to organised crime and especially gangs, which once established are always difficult to eradicate, even when you change the law which sparked it off, witness Prohibition in the US. Not only that, but indigenous groups will suffer especially from an underworld scenario.

    To my mind there is still a problem with street prostitution, and the South Auckland local authorities have tried to get bye-laws to control street prostitution. Manukau Local Board, in South Auckland, was opposed to the Reform Act from the start: I am not clear what groups are involved here. If it is Pacific Island churches they may well be anti-gay as well.

    Attitudes can certainly changed to a greater or lesser extent by banning Page Three or perhaps putting it to the back, and banning ‘sexy’ advertising, models on car bonnets etc.

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