Twenty Years Later, Data Show That the Swedish Model Harms Sex Workers

September 29/30, 2019

Twenty years after Sweden passed the Sex Purchase Act of 1999, the country hosted “Sex Work, Human Rights, and Health: Assessing 20 Years of the Swedish Model” in Stockholm. The conference brought together activists, researchers, and policymakers from around the world to discuss the impact of the 1999 law, which criminalized the purchase of sex (arresting clients) while permitting the sale of sex (not arresting sex workers).

According to a report released by the organizers of the conference, Sweden’s law has “contributed to [the] increasing stigmatization and vulnerability of women, and people of all genders, contradicting the proclaimed feminist-humanitarian principles of the lawmakers.”

Fuckforbundet, a sex-worker rights organization founded by and for sex workers, organized the conference and published the report “Twenty Years of Failing Sex Workers: A community report on the impact of the 1999 Swedish Sex Purchase Act.”

The report explains how sex workers’ living and working conditions have deteriorated since 1999 because of the Swedish government’s “widespread systematic attempts to eradicate the sex industry.” Rather than empowering women, the Swedish model increases the stigmatization and vulnerability of workers in a criminalized industry. This criminalization is particularly dangerous for immigrants and women of color.

Before the conference concluded, hundreds of activists marched through Stockholm’s streets to demand that the Swedish government protect sex workers. Protesters explained to reporters from PinkNews UK that criminalizing clients contributes to the stigmatization of those in the sex industry.

Notably, the Swedish government has yet to a systematic evaluation of the law. Despite this lack of research, the policy has spread to other countries, including Norway, Iceland, Finland, Canada, and Northern Ireland.

In 2014, a study commissioned by the Norwegian government concluded that sex workers in Norway today suffer from diminished bargaining power and increased safety concerns, instead relying more on abusive third parties.†

The results from Norway prompted Amnesty International to conduct its 2016 study of sex-worker rights, which recommended the full decriminalization of sex work in order to “respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers.” These findings have been backed up by scholars of multiple disciplines, whose work can be found on the “resources” page of DSW’s web site.


†Bjørndahl, U. (2012). Dangerous Liaisons. A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to.

Marchers carry red umbrellas, the international symbol of sex workers’ rights, at the Stockholm demonstration. (Photo: Twitter/SWARM)

The sex workers’ rights movement wants sex work decriminalized globally. (Photo: Twitter/SWARM)

The cover page of the report by Fuckforbundet

“End Demand” Doesn’t Work in Ireland

September 18, 2019

The Human Trafficking and Exploitations Act of 2015, mimicking Sweden’s end demand model, criminalized the purchase of sex rather than the sale of commercial sex in Northern Ireland. The hope was that targeting demand would cut back on trafficking. After years of aggressive implementation, the policy has failed to achieve any of its stated goals.

Sex workers know that criminalizing any part of their work will force them into unsafe and unstable work environments and limit their ability to negotiate. Three years after its implementation, the effects of the law were investigated by a research commission from Queens University Belfast. It was clear that this model neither diminishes trafficking nor supports the health and safety of workers. The findings of the independent review were presented by the UK Department of Justice on September 18.

The key findings of the study show that:

* The law has had little effect on the demand for sexual services. Sex workers reported a surge in business in the period following its introduction.

* Based on the premise that criminalization would end demand for commercial sexual services, there should have been a greater “tailing off” of sex worker advertising during the period following implementation. This has not occurred. Instead, there has been a 5% increase in the number of sex work advertisements since the law passed.

* Between 2015 and 2018, there has been an increase in the number of reports of violent crimes committed against sex workers on the Uglymugs.ie website. Assaults increased from 3 to 13, sexual assaults have gone from 1 to 13, and threatening behavior increased from 10 to 42.

* Sex workers have also been victims of higher rates of anti-social and nuisance behavior and reported higher levels of anxiety and unease.

* Only 11% of clients said that the law would cause them to stop purchasing sex, and 76% of those surveyed felt that it had no impact on the ease with which they purchase sex.

The data suggests that end demand policies are correlated with an increase in abusive behavior and violence directed at sex workers. This contributes to increased feelings of marginalization; it makes workers less likely to report violence and even more vulnerable to abuse by police. Lastly, the goal of eradicating trafficking has gone unrealized. The law has not affected the rate of human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

The Nordic Model has been erroneously heralded as the moral gold standard in combatting sex trafficking across the globe. Advocates for the Nordic Model aren’t listening to sex workers; they prefer to think of them as helpless, voiceless victims. Help DSW fight to end trafficking and promote health and safety for sex workers by decriminalizing sex work.

Decriminalization works. Let’s fight for it.

Katie McGrew and Dearbhla Ryan of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland are pictured at a candlelit vigil to end violence against sex workers. (Photo: Fergal Phillips/The Independent)

Could Britain Be Next?

August 26, 2019

What we can learn from public support of full decriminalization in the United Kingdom

There is renewed debate among Members of Parliament, unions, and human rights and anti-trafficking groups concerning sex work policy reforms. A study conducted by RightsInfo, a U.K. Human Rights Advocacy Organization, found recently that 49% of the British public would support decriminalization legislation. As the law stands, buying and selling sex among adults is not a crime in the U.K.—but the law does prohibit public solicitation, owning or managing brothels, or any organization between sex workers.

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP and chair of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, announced in July that she intended to table a bill that had been proposed. The bill would have amended the “complex, confusing and inconsistently applied” laws on sex work in the U.K. But current U.K. law is out of step with public opinion. Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes, a group that is dedicated to advocating for decriminalization, reports that the public is “horrified that sex workers suffer so much violence and understand that the prostitution laws, which force women to work in isolation,” increase the dangers that they face from clients, pimps, and others. In 2015, a poll conducted by YouGov found that 54% percent of the public would support full decriminalization provided it were consensual. The latest poll reinforces these findings, gauging more specific support for the decriminalization of “brothel-keeping” (49% in favor) and street prostitution (44% in favor).

Professor Teela Sanders, criminology expert at the University of Leicester, criticizes sex work laws in the U.K. that do not reflect the “more liberal attitudes towards sexuality” reflected by popular surveys. She suggests that “if politicians were brave enough to think about the impracticalities of current laws and how damaging they are, then there would not be a backlash.” Currently, about 72,800 sex workers live in the U.K. Laws “prevent sex workers from working together in safety … criminalizing vulnerable women [which] contributes to the underreporting of a wide range of crimes committed against sex workers and other community members,” says Dr. Rosie Campbell, OBE, from York University. In the last three years, there have been 186 prosecutions and 177 convictions for brothel-keeping, 54% of which were against women. In the same period, there were 915 prosecutions and 814 convictions for street solicitation. The majority of these convictions targeted women.

The U.K. example makes it clear that sex work law affects us all. Decriminalization is an intersectional issue that touches on body autonomy, workers’ rights, gender and racial equality, and public health. The role of government is to protect the rights, health, and safety of individuals and communities, not to criminalize and endanger consenting adults with false moral claims; popular opinion recognizes this. In the U.S., we have a long way to go. But we can look to the positive changes in places like New Zealand, and even the U.K., who have taken steps towards decriminalization, for our path forward.

Activists from the English Collective of Prostitutes demonstrate against legislation that coerces women into working alone in their Make All Women Safe campaign. (Photo: Jake Hall/Vice UK, 2019)

Statistics on sex worker and public opinion in the U.K. (Image: RightsInfo.org, 2019)

Mexico City’s Decriminalization Law Not Yet Implemented

Mexico City lawmakers voted 38-0 on May 31, 2019, to decriminalize prostitution in the nation's capital city. Rep. Temistocles Villanueva from the ruling center-left Morena Party says that the law is intended to help crack down on sex trafficking in the city, as well as recognizing that consenting adults have a right to engage in sex work.

Elvira Madrid, founder of a sex work rights group in Mexico, welcomes the change in the law. Other human rights groups also say that decriminalization will strengthen anti-trafficking public policy if appropriate legislation follows (Reuters, 2019). The law has not yet been implemented, but legislators are hopeful about results.

Asamblea Legislativa del Distrito Federal Ciudad de México