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Swedish Government Response to Prostitution

According to the WHO, prostitution is the exchange of money or goods for sexual services. Over the past decade, governments’ policies on prostitution have been contested both in academia and in popular debates. There have been approaches adopted by different countries, with a significant shift away from prohibition, towards legalization and decriminalization of prostitution. Understanding how countries regulate prostitution laws and adapt to the various models is critical for governments to observe. By analyzing the stances of the government, those involved in the sex industry, and the public, they can provide insight towards which approach other countries may find beneficial. Therefore, this paper will focus on the political implications of the attempts of various governments in regulating prostitution.

By passing the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, the Swedish government took an unprecedented approach, decriminalizing prostitutes but prohibiting the purchase of sexual services (citation). The Swedish Model is known as partial decriminalization which primarily focuses on the government’s stance regarding prostitution as intrinsically harmful to women and a hindrance to the government’s goal of achieving full gender equality (cite reliability of government source citation). Because the Swedish laws base their alignment on the underlying principle of the gender equality policy, the government approaches prostitution from a perspective of gender equality and human rights by prohibiting the purchase of sexual services criminalizing the buyers. The model recognizes prostituted women as victims who are unjustly treated due to their weaknesses and clearly reflects the government’s policy which desires to empower women to get out of prostitution.

The Swedish government claims that partial decriminalization has improved prostitutes’ rights and reduced the rates of prostitution (citation). The Social Security Scheme grants prostitutes access to welfare and health care as taxable workers. These programs assisted nearly sixty percent of Sweden’s prostitutes quitting the practice (citation). The reduction in demand for prostitution is another significant result of the Swedish Model. As the current legislation punishes buyers with huge fines and a maximum of twelve months in prison, men have become less inclined to buy sexual services. According to research from the Nordic Gender Institute, the number of clients in Sweden from 1996 to 2008 declined from 13.6 % to 7.9 % (citation). By focusing on the demand side through prosecuting buyers, it may be easier for Sweden to eliminate a market for prostitution.

Sweden’s current legislation is founded upon the public’s acceptance of the gender-equality policy, stressing the value that women are not commodities. A study in 2001 reported that over 80% of the population supported the law and the principles behind partial decriminalization (citation why it is relevant). As the law received significant support, Swedish public attitude concerning the Sex Purchase Act changed. Four opinion polls, Kuosmanen study, SIFO, Swedish branch of TNS, Custom Market Research, showed that more than 70 percent of those asked had a positive view of the regulation (citation relevant). Judging by the results of four opinion polls, the public’s view reflects the society’s support for the Swedish Model. Thus, the government cannot discount the influence of the gender equality policy in changing societal attitudes towards partial decriminalization.

Liberal feminists and some sex workers actively critique the law, arguing that it leaves sex workers stigmatized. Liberal feminists see prostitution as a woman’s choice to have sexual relations. A sex worker writes in the British Medical Journal, saying, “Prostitution is having sex for money, and neither having sex nor getting paid is inherently degrading, abusive, exploitative, or harmful. The problem is coercion, drug dependency, lack of choices, not prostitution itself” (Prostitution shake-up). Liberal feminists argue that Swedish law fundamentally infantilizes women by stigmatizing prostitutes through propagating stereotypical notions that women who sell sex are victims of prostitution. They object to the fact that the Swedish government did not consult sex workers or organizations regarding the law-making process. Because of the inability to voice their rights and partake in influencing government decisions, liberal feminists claim that prostitutes have been left powerless.

Due to the lack of women in Nevada during its settlement in the 1800’s, prostitution was considered a “vital commodity” which brought about a tolerant attitude towards the legalization of modern day brothels (citation history). In 1971, Nevada passed a law giving counties the ability to legalize brothels. Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, contends that the law on prostitution started out similarly due to the political culture of a libertarian system of government, which has legalized prize fighting, gambling, and divorce (Las Vegas Review study relevance). Though Nevada is the only state in the United States where prostitution is legal, it is subject to restrictions. The law permits prostitution in brothels in eight of the sixteen counties and does not allow any county with a population over 700,000 to license brothels (citation). This type of legalization, also known as the Nevada Model, decriminalizes prostitution in brothels, requiring government supervision with strict regulations.

The effects of legalization had an immediate impact as prostitutes had to undergo medical tests. From the perspective of those involved in the sex industry, the Nevada model has ensured their health and safety. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health reveals that of the combined 3,290 clients of forty different legal sex workers, not one received sex without a condom (Albert and Warner). This result was due to a new law established in 1986 which required the mandatory usage of condoms during sexual activities. Moreover, the Nevada State Health Department reported that there were no cases of HIV/AIDS found in legal brothels (citation). The regulation has taken the health of prostitutes seriously to make brothels a safe and clean place (Brents and Hausback 2005). The installation of emergency buttons and regular police inspections have been the main reasons why some prostitutes prefer to work in a licensed brothel as they feel a sense of safety and receive protection from violence (citation).

Since brothel owners consider prostitutes as “independent contractors,” they do not receive benefits of health care, vacation, retirement, or any other benefits full-time employees have. In response, prostitutes stress that regulation has discouraged them from getting licenses because they are left with about fifty percent of earnings after expenses, including boarding, maid services, condoms, and weekly medical checkups (citation). In addition to earning a meager living after paying all the expenses, they argue that the regulation fails to guarantee them unemployment insurances when fired (citation). While some view legalization as beneficial to prostitutes in regards to safety and health, others argue that the law imposes various obligations, overlooking violations of worker’s rights which benefits brothels and counties far more than individual prostitutes.

The Swedish and Nevada models are examples of government choices in regulating prostitution. While the Swedish government and its proponents reason that partial decriminalization has fulfilled the gender equality policy, improved sex worker’s rights, and reduced prostitution rates, liberal feminists and those against the law claim that it has left prostitutes powerless and stigmatized. The government of Nevada and those involved in the industry acknowledge the health and security benefits of the law; however, sex workers argue that imposing strict rules further reduces their rights. Ultimately, the importance of understanding the two models and their political implications is vital as it may help governments to decide on which type of model they may enact in the future.

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