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However they ended up in the country, some women working as prostitutes in the Netherlands are being coerced. Majoor is no abolitionist, but her off-the-cuff estimate is even larger than that of the National Threat Assessment. “I think between 5 and 10 percent of sex workers are actually trafficked,” she says—which, given 20,000 prostitutes in the Netherlands, would mean somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people.
Academic evidence suggests that trafficking is exacerbated by legalization. A 2012 article by the scholars Seo-Young Cho, Axel Dreher and Eric Neumayer, published in the journal World Development , concluded that “countries with legalized prostitution have a statistically significantly larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows. This holds true regardless of the model we use to estimate the equations and the variables we control for in the analysis.”
This can seem counterintuitive—shouldn’t legalization reduce the role of force in the industry, since it allows more women to enter sex work legally? The explanation, according to Cho, Dreher and Neumayer, is that while more women enter prostitution voluntarily in a legal market, the increase in the number of clients is even greater. Demand outstrips supply.
Sweden, it seems, has figured out how to curb that demand. In 1999, it undertook what was then a radical experiment: banning the buying but not the selling of sex. The Sex Purchase Act was premised on the idea, common to a certain strain of radical feminism, that prostitution is fundamentally inimical to gender equality. “The legislative proposal stated that it is shameful and unacceptable that, in a gender-equal society, men should obtain casual sexual relations with women in return for payment,” stated a government review of the law in 2010. The penalties range from fines to six months’ imprisonment, though to date no violator has been locked up.
Studies suggest that the percentage of men buying sex has declined, from 13.6 percent in a 1996 survey to 8 percent in 2008. No one knows precisely how the law has affected the number of prostitutes in Sweden, in part because its passage coincided with the coming of the Internet, which changed the way the market works. Street prostitution is clearly way down. The Swedish Ministry of Justice estimates that it’s been halved since 1999, and walking around Malmskillinsgatan—a raised street in the center of Stockholm that’s as close to a red-light district as the city has—that seems like an understatement. At 10:30 on a recent Wednesday night, it was largely dead. There was a lone Thai massage parlor, but it had closed at 8:00. A storefront that looked like it was once a porn shop—a sign touted books, magazines and “video-show”—was shuttered.
After a half-hour of walking up and down the street, I finally saw a woman slowly strolling by in tattered tights. She told me she didn’t speak English, and a few minutes later I saw her walk off toward a nearby park with a man. A few more women appeared after that; by 1 am, I’d counted eight. “Before the law was introduced, on an ordinary night, you could have eighty women walking that street,” says Simon Haggstrom, the detective in charge of the Stockholm police’s prostitution unit.
To some extent, this is just a sign of sex work moving online and indoors, yet there are data to suggest that there’s still less prostitution overall than there would be without the law. The government review, for example, found more Internet prostitution in neighboring countries than in Sweden. It’s possible to conclude, it asserted, “that the reduction of street prostitution by half that took place in Sweden represents a real reduction in prostitution here and that this reduction is also mainly a result of the criminalization of sex purchases.”
Anecdotal evidence from websites where patrons of prostitutes trade advice and reviews back this up. On the International Sex Guide site, for example, a man planning a trip to Sweden asked for tips, only to be dissuaded by other posters. “Bros, don’t waste your time looking for anything. Mongering is illegal and totally dead in Sweden,” said one. (“Mongering” is slang for buying sex.)
The price for sex with a prostitute in Sweden, meanwhile, is widely understood to be the highest in Europe. “The minimum price here is 150 euro,” says Haggstrom. “Prices are higher because we have a much lesser amount of persons in prostitution compared to the legalized countries.” Not only do Swedish prostitutes make more money than their colleagues in other countries: thanks to lobbying by sex-worker activists, they also have access to the country’s generous welfare state, including sick leave and parental leave. And they’re safer than sex workers elsewhere: not a single prostitute has been murdered on the job in Sweden since the law was introduced.
So from a feminist point of view, what’s not to like? The answer, sex-worker advocates say, is all about stigma. “The Swedish model really ups the stigma,” says Pye Jakobsson, the co-founder of the Rose Alliance, a Swedish sex workers’ organization with approximately 150 members, funded by the Open Society Foundations and the Red Umbrella Fund. “And stigma affects absolutely everything.”
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