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Sweden revisits prostitution law

Its tough stance is upheld as a model. But does it work?

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Clean streets: Pedestrians move through the city center in Stockholm. Legislation here in 1999 all but eliminated street prostitution. A recent resurgence, now more hidden, has led to debate about enforcement.

Newscom/File

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When Swedish public radio stations posted fake ads for sexual services on websites in May, they were swamped with almost a thousand inquiries.

The stunt would hardly have raised an eyebrow in most European countries, but in Sweden, where an antiprostitution law that targets clients has been in force for a decade, it prompted an uproar, as well as calls for stricter penalties for those who patronize prostitutes.

The country's pioneering "sex purchase" law – promoted internationally as a model for reducing human trafficking and prostitution – is under review this year. Although lawmakers and police want harsher sentences to deter clients, some sex workers' organizations and analysts claim the law is unworkable and fails to protect prostitutes.

"It has made Sweden a less attractive destination for traffickers, but the penalties are so low that the police have not prioritized the crime," says Johan Linander, a Center Party member of parliament.

Mr. Linander's party, part of Sweden's governing center-right coalition, wants stricter sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders and those who frequent prostitutes controlled by pimps or human traffickers.

In Sweden, it's not illegal to be a prostitute. But it is illegal to hire one. The law considers prostitution a form of violence against women. Visiting a prostitute is currently punishable with a six-month jail sentence. However, despite about 2,000 arrests, no one has been jailed and convictions have only led to minor fines – due mainly to difficulties with finding evidence and the low maximum penalty on the statute books.

"We need the real possibility of jail terms for the law to become more of a deterrent," says Detective Inspector Ewa Carlenfors, chief of Stockholm's antitrafficking group, which has successfully closed several East European prostitution rings.

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