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STOCKHOLM — If you want to trade money for sex, Stockholm’s red-light district is likely to disappoint you. Empty and quiet at nearly 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday evening, its central street looks more like a small city's business district buttoned down after hours than an illicit sex market.
The nearly half-mile long Malmskillnadsgatan Street begins at the bay that rings Sweden's parliament building, crosses over a glowing shopping plaza, and ends at a cluster of high-rise offices and a subway stop. There, two middle-aged women with short skirts, long blonde hair, and light puffer jackets emerge and stroll slowly toward the water. When they run into a young man, they light cigarettes and chat him up. An hour later, they're still talking.
In Sweden, all that chatting could make the young man a criminal. In the fight to stamp out transactional sex, the Swedes have flipped the prostitution paradigm on its head. Here, prostitution is perfectly legal. Women (or men, for that matter) can sell all the sex they want. It's only illegal for a man — and it's almost always a man — to pay for it.
“This is really difficult for people around the world to understand,” said Olga Persson, the secretary general of the Swedish Association of Women's Shelters and Young Women's Empowerment Centers. “I can see that in the eyes of people when you talk about it.”
Persson believes this arrangement protects women, challenges gender stereotypes, and puts society on a path toward reducing violence against women. Supporters of the law say it has reduced street prostitution, helped curb sex trafficking, and shifted the social shame that has always stigmatized transactional sex away from women and on to men.
The 15-year-old law has been copied in Norway and Iceland; Finland and the United Kingdom have adopted a modified version. But this year, the approach now known as the “Nordic model” has seen its influence skyrocket. The European Parliament — where just four years ago “people were actually laughing about the Swedish legislation,” said Persson — endorsed the model in February. A French Senate committee this week is considering a bill based on Sweden's law, after the lower house approved it in December. Ireland has been considering the Nordic model as well, and this week Canada is holding hearings into whether it should jump on the Swedish ship.
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.
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