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Effects of different legal measures

jeudi 31 octobre 2002, par Josefina Gamboa

Many of the women active in the debate on prostitution do share the view that prostituted women experience quite a high prevalence of violence and sometime extreme precariousness, often resulting in both physical and mental illness. The shared point of departure for these advocates is therefore to improve the situation and make life more secure for prostituted women. But as we now, the proposals differ a lot between different actors, seemingly wanting to address this same problem.

One set of actors actually end up making common project with the pimps, brothel owners, and buyers, in their demand for ’legalisation’ of the prostitution system, although the intentions are surely not the same ones.

"Legalising prostitution" : boosting the sex markets

While pimps and brothel owners undoubtedly are driven by the prospective of growing markets, more buyers, bigger business and more profit, the more ’women-centred’ advocates of this same proposal claim that making prostitution a legal profession will give prostituted women not only social rights, but also better ’working’ conditions, and better protection by the police.
Before exploring if these are realistic expectations it is important to be aware of the basic legal provisions in most European countries today. The meanings of different terminology might be clear for people familiar with the debate, but for the rest of us they are not necessarily very enlightening. At present, the selling of sexual services is not a criminal or illegal activity in hardly any European country. The buying of sexual services is only criminal in one country – Sweden. In all countries except Holland and Germany, pimping is illegal. In all countries assault and violence against the person is criminal. Most countries have legislation that criminalizes the buying of sexual service from minors. In some countries there are laws that control for example where sexual services can be bought and sold, but this is basically handled through laws relating to ’public order’.
This means that the issue when speaking about "legalisation" of prostitution is not about decriminalising an activity that until now has been illegal - since selling and buying of sexual services in most European countries are not criminal activities. What is at stake is whether one should, or should not, make prostitution into a legally recognised profession. Making prostitution a legally recognised profession would (in theory) allow prostituted women to participate in social security schemes, pension saving schemes, etc. National labour legislation would (in theory) apply with certain restrictions. So what it entails is rather a normalisation and institutionalisation of the prostitution system than removal of any illegality. However, it is important to know that the countries that have also legalised the running of brothels, have directly or indirectly de-criminalized pimping.
That this kind of legalisation would lead to the suppression of violence and insecurity for prostituted women is nothing more than assumptions or wishful thinking. It would still require that the police made it a priority to protect prostituted women from violent buyers and pimps. And why would this happen by making prostitution a legally recognised profession one could modestly ask ? The police would still have to have their political priorities changed, and given more resources in order to truly fulfil this task. Which is exactly the same problem as today.
And when it comes to the crucial point of expanding or decreasing sex markets (i.e. increasing or decreasing number of women in prostitution), it is quite clear that those countries that have chosen to ’legalise’, and thus normalise, the prostitution system have seen a growth in the sex market. This includes an increase in the numbers of brothels, increase in the numbers of prostituted women, and also an increase in women victims of trafficking. There are for example studies from the state of Victoria in Australia, which legalised brothels already in the 1980, which show that the number of brothels more than doubled in ten years. Illegal brothels tripled in numbers, which shows that those controlling the prostitution system prefer it to remain a largely clandestine activity. Trafficking in women and children to the state of Victoria has increased considerably more than in other states of Australia. Furthermore, the violence and insecurity for prostituted women is still there.

Criminalizing the buyer : reduced new recruitment of women into prostitution

Sweden is the only country in the world where the policy-makers have chosen to seriously try to reduce prostitution and sex markets by addressing the buyers, the men. In January 1999, the Swedish law criminalizing the buying of sexual services came into force. The debate before the adoption of the law was intense and some concerns were raised about the difficulties to implement such a law. It was said that police investigation would be a hard job, and that the proofs would not be sufficient for convictions in court, etc. Feminists and other supporters of the law informed the doubters that rape within marriage was also difficult to ’proof’ in court cases, but that no one questioned this law on these grounds. The police, and especially those investigators working on crimes related to prostitution (against pimping mainly), were luckily more positive than their colleagues in the extremely male dominated Swedish courts. Because, as any new law, it would require that the police develop their investigation methods, and that court officials develop an understanding of the phenomena as such – in this case prostitution, and especially the buying of sexual services.
Today the Swedish law is largely accepted, not only by the justice system, but also by the public opinion. When it comes to critics from other countries, the Swedish law is mostly targeted on ideological grounds by people that do not want to see a suppression of the possibility for men to buy sexual services when they feel like it. However, some of these critics also base their arguments on the claim that the law is unsuccessful in its implementation.
The fact is that police reports show that there has been a considerable decrease in street prostitution in the whole country. The numbers of sex-buyers have strongly decreased, and the recruitment of new women into prostitution has decreased as well. Sweden has also become less attractive for traffickers. In other words, the effects basically correspond to the policy-makers intentions.
The law is, as are all laws, also normative in the sense that it is a strong signal to men that women’s bodies are not for sale. The changing of mentalities and normative stands are just as important in order to push back the prostitution system, and to decrease the number of women exploited in prostitution. In a recent public opinion poll, 81% of Swedes stated that they were in support of the law. The gap between women and men, were only a few percentage points.
There is still prostitution in Sweden, and it might even be true that a smaller part of the street prostitution moved ’underground’. But while it could and should be discussed in which ways the different forms of hidden prostitution should be targeted, the positive effects are important enough for the Swedish government to pursue its line of action to target the demand side in the prostitution system.

What about a harm-reduction perspective ?

As a final reflection, one could ask whether it is too much to ask that policy-makers adopted a harm-reduction perspective when it comes to the legal measures taken in the field of prostitution and sex markets ? This perspective is well established in other policy areas such as sustainable development, transport polices, and health care. If one would approach the issue of prostitution from this perspective, it is clear that one of the most important aims must be to reduce the new recruitment of women into prostitution. Of course one should not exclude awareness raising campaigns among women everywhere about the dangers of prostitution and trafficking. But the most effective way to stop new recruitment seems of course to be to reduce the sex markets as such. From this perspective, the legalisation and institutionalisation of the prostitution system completely detrimental, as it have proven to expand sex markets. The Swedish law has on the contrary shown that efforts to suppress the buying of sexual services, coupled with a refusal to liberalise the sex market, have had positive effects in reducing the number of new women recruited into prostitution (both from Sweden and women trafficked into Sweden).


Malin Björk - october 2002

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