Has demand for prostitution declined in Sweden since buying sex was made illegal?

[Guest post by Wendy Lyon ]

Last week [Thursday 27 June 2013] the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended that legislation be introduced to prohibit the purchase of sexual services. In a press release, Committee Chair David Stanton TD says “The Committee finds persuasive the evidence it has heard on the reduction of demand for prostitution in Sweden since the introduction of the ban on buying sex in 1999.”

Supporters of this proposal have also claimed that demand for prostitution has declined in Sweden since sex workers’ clients were criminalised. The Turn Off the Red Light campaign states on its website that “Practice shows that this approach reduces demand for prostitution and incidences of trafficking for sexual exploitation.” But what does the evidence actually show?

Earlier this year, the Swedish police published a report into their own ability to investigate the offences of purchasing sexual services and sex trafficking. The report includes statistics on these offences from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention – which show no evidence of a downward trend. The table below, from page 14, reveals the available data on the offence of “purchase of sexual services”:


The middle column shows the number of reported cases, while the right-hand column shows the number of convictions, summary prosecutions and “waivers of prosecution” (which, as explained in this Eurojustice report, is roughly equivalent to Ireland’s adult caution scheme). There are no figures from before the law was introduced, for the obvious reason that there was no offence to report. But it’s surprising to see significantly higher numbers for the most recent years, if the law really has the deterrent effect claimed by its supporters.

What about human trafficking for sexual exploitation? Those statistics are on page 13, and the pattern is somewhat different:


Here, the data only go back as far as four years after the law was introduced, making it even less clear whether the legislation itself had any effect. The figures themselves show no pattern, going up and down and up and down again; it is, once more, simply impossible to draw any conclusion from them about the law’s impact on sex trafficking into Sweden.

Another table on the same page is also worth looking at: the number of recorded incidents of “pandering”, or pimping. Here, the figures also show a generally upward trend since 1999, which at least indicates that demand hasn’t decreased enough to make this crime unprofitable:


These figures may also suggest a reason for the low rate of trafficking prosecutions in the previous table. The report states that “Det är relativt vanligt förekommande att åklagare väljer brottsrubriceringen koppleri istället för människohandel för sexuella ändamål”, which translates to “It is relatively common for prosecutors to choose the crime of pandering instead of sex trafficking”. Thus, at least some of the numbers in this table could just as validly appear in the “sex trafficking” table instead – meaning the amount of “sex trafficking” detected is actually higher than the previous table shows.

Of course, the tables could not be taken to reflect the full extent of these offences. Human activity is always difficult to measure precisely, and even more so where the activity itself is illegal – for obvious reasons. It could be that the Swedish authorities have become better at detecting the offences, while the actual number of offences committed has remained stable or even decreased. But the Turn Off the Red Light campaign and the Oireachtas Justice Committee claim that the number actually has decreased. If evidence of this decrease exists, why is it not reflected in the data held by the Swedish Council for Crime Prevention – the body responsible for keeping track of trends in criminal activity? What alternate source are the TORL campaign and the Committee relying on for their assertions?

It is true that the Swedish police themselves have sometimes made the same claim. But the same question of evidential basis arises. In fact, a recently-published statement from the Swedish police casts serious doubt on any such claims, because it makes clear that the police have no real idea what’s going on in the world of internet prostitution, now believed to be the largest sector:

Most of the sex trade is now conducted via the Internet. None of the inspecting authorities have a complete picture of the scope as they are not engaged in any continuous or structured reconnaissance online. (“Merparten av sexhandeln bedrivs numera via internet. Ingen av de inspekterade myndigheterna har dock någon fullständig bild av omfattningen eftersom de inte bedriver någon kontinuerlig eller strukturerad spaning på nätet”.)

In sum, the official data on purchasing sex and sex trafficking in Sweden give no indication that either offence has decreased – and/or that it continues to decrease – since buying sex was criminalised. The Swedish police themselves admit to being unaware of the extent to which commercial sex is being transacted online, the largest sex industry sector. It may still be true that demand actually has decreased since 1999 – but it could equally be true that it has increased. The available facts simply don’t justify a conclusion one way or the other.