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But not everyone — not even every Swedish feminist — agrees the Nordic model is the answer. Inside Sweden, differing opinions on the legislation divide progressive groups that are often otherwise allies, and critics of the legislation say they are under pressure to conform to a rigid sense of political correctness.
And outside Sweden, health organizations and even some human rights organizations wonder if the Swedes actually have it all wrong.
There has not been any independent review of the Swedish legislation, but a 2010 government evaluation of the law cast it in glowing terms. Street prostitution had been halved, human traffickers had taken up with other countries because the law made it too difficult to work, and fewer men had reported buying sex, the report said.
But even the law’s supporters acknowledge that drops in street prostitution, which countries without similar legislation have also seen, are more likely related to the advent of the internet, where it's easier than ever to offer or find sexual services, than to the power of the Nordic model.
As for men buying sex, the government evaluation raised more questions than answers. Were fewer men actually buying sex in Sweden thanks to the law, or were fewer men admitting to being johns — and thereby outing themselves as criminals in a government inquiry?
Sweden's national criminal statistics paint a less positive picture than the government evaluation. The number of sex buyers has been going up since 2008 — increasing from 187 in 2008 and hitting a peak of 1,251 in 2010 before falling again, in 2012 and 2013, to around 550.
But were more men buying sex in spite of the law — or were more men getting caught buying sex?
Kajsa Wahlberg, the national rapporteur on human trafficking, said the rise in buyer numbers came after the government increased funding to target traffickers, and the prostitution enforcement arm of the police benefited from some of that money. That funding ended in 2011, and the numbers have again hit “normal” levels for sex-buying, she said.
But these wild variations make it difficult to know with confidence what the real number of men buying sex may be. In fact, on almost all fronts, “it's very hard to tell” how well the law is working, said Kristina Ljungros, of the Swedish Association for Sexual Education (RFSU). “We don't have enough evidence.”
Ljungros' organization is the preeminent national institution on sexual health, and has found the research so limited and “so colored by [differing] perspectives” that it has commissioned its own comprehensive research review to help craft an official position on the law; the group hopes to complete the review by October.
Whatever the statistics, Patrik Cederlöf, Sweden's national coordinator against prostitution and trafficking, feels confident that the country is onto something. “I was on the street when we implemented the legislation, so I have seen the before and after,” said Cederlöf. And though the numbers are a little loose, he thinks the legislation has worked. “There's still a lot of demand, a lot of clients, of course, but at the same time, I would say the situation is better here than in many other countries.”
That's especially true, many Swedish government officials say, if you look at figures for sex trafficking. The International Labor Organization estimates that the commercial sex industry makes up $99 of the $150 billion in worldwide illegal profits from trafficking. Recent research suggests that “abolitionist” countries where prostitution is fully legal, like Germany or the Netherlands, also have high levels of human trafficking. (The Netherlands fully legalized prostitution in 2000, and Germany in 2002, meaning that unlike in Sweden and other Swedish-styled countries, brothels and other third-party “exploitation” are also legal.)
Even the best research doesn't yet show that legalizing prostitution causes an increase in sex trafficking, and the underground nature of trafficking means good data is limited — so limited, in fact, that the Netherlands' rapporteur on trafficking wrote in a report last year that recent research advancing a connection was ultimately “inconclusive.”
But Swedish law enforcement authorities say they've seen it for themselves.
The ban on buying sex “has kind of saved us,” said Wahlberg. In telephone surveillance records shared by other countries, “we can clearly hear that criminals are discussing amongst themselves, 'Where shall we bring the women?' [They think] Sweden is not a good country because the clients are afraid, you have to move women around, you can't send them to the streets, and there are no brothels.”
All of that would mean traffickers make less money from each woman and need more time to make it. The numbers seem to support that, at least: Last year, Sweden identified only 40 cases of sex trafficking, according to the State Department's annual report on human trafficking, released in June.
It's not just the ban on buying sex that makes Sweden tough on traffickers. There's another law banning both exploiting sex sellers and benefiting materially from their exploitation.
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