Ever since Sweden adopted a law banning the purchase of sex in 1999, they have been lauded worldwide for their methods, and many countries have considered adopting what has become known as this ‘Swedish model’. The idea behind it is to protect sex workers from exploitation and to reduce sex trafficking, which is why a similar law has just been adopted in Northern Ireland (NI). Yet alongside suggestions that this is a positive step, there is also the possibility that the law is actually more harmful than helpful, as it puts sex workers at more risk by driving trade further underground, making sex work even more risky, and not listening to what sex workers may actually want.
The idea of punishing the buyer might sound good from the outset, because it would reduce demand and therefore reduce supply, either via sex trafficking or any other means. The idea may also be that making purchasing sex a riskier business would put buyers off, therefore once again reducing demand to reduce supply. Neither of these ideas have conclusively come to fruition in Sweden, but facts and figures on whether sex work and sex trafficking have reduced are incomplete. This is because not all types of sex work are accounted for in different reports, and there is also the fact that raising prices might make sex trafficking a more lucrative business, thus encouraging it rather than preventing it.
Surely though, if demand dries up, then sex workers are at least less likely to encounter exploitative clients. According to a study published by the Sex Worker Open University last year, it seems that this also has not been the case. Interviewees in Sweden pointed out that the law against purchasing sex has made it harder to judge the client before a transaction for any possible problems which may arise, from violence to the risk of STIs, because discussions have to be carried out more hurriedly and often involve the client being in a more agitated state. This report also states that the law has resulted in prices being lowered and competition becoming higher, meaning that sex workers find it harder to sustain themselves and often must accept riskier situations in order to do so. If this is what Sweden intended, then it has worked, but it certainly does not seem like sex workers are being protected under this law. There is no reason to think that any of these problems would also not arise in Northern Ireland.
And have the people involved in the trade even been fully consulted? It seems not, because if they had been then perhaps the new legislation might have been approached in an entirely different way. According to a survey commissioned by the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland this year, it appears that the majority of sex workers are actually opposed to the law which has just passed. 85 per cent think that it would not reduce sex trafficking, while 61 per cent thought it would make their work less safe. Moreover, only 16 per cent of clients said that the law would make them stop trying to pay for sex. It seems the ‘Swedish model’ has not worked, and it is absurd that the law has passed in spite of its shortcomings elsewhere. It is also strange to try to prevent trafficking in such a roundabout way as punishing the buyer and putting the seller at more risk – surely, it is the trafficker you should tackle first, and the seller who needs protecting more actively.