For Sale, but Not for Purchase: The Terms of Sex in Sweden

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The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who controls the sexual channel between nature and culture.

CAMILLE PAGLIA, Vamps and Tramps

We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.

VICTOR HUGO, Les Misérables

Stockholm, Old CityThe question I am interested in exploring today, came neither from a reading of Camille Paglia’s Vamps and Tramps, nor Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but rather an article that a colleague brought to my attention regarding Sweden’s approach to prostitution. The Women’s Justice Center dubs it “Sweden’s Prostitution Solution,” they explain:

In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the selling of sex…In addition to the two pronged legal strategy, a third and essential element of Sweden’s prostitution legislation provides for ample and comprehensive social service funds aimed at helping any prostitute who wants to get out, and additional funds to educate the public.

The novel rationale behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”

This and numerous other articles on the topic claim that with the thorough implementation of these laws, the number of John’s has decreased by 80% and the levels of prostitution by two-thirds. The approach has been adopted by Iceland, and Norway, and is being considered in a number of other countries as well. I begin with a quote from Camille Paglia, the oft referred to “anti-feminist feminist,” to remind us of the argument that the regulated and legalized version of sex work is the most feminist approach. What of the women in Sweden who are being put out of work because of these new laws? Is the legal language that “prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children” too victimizing? I came across this article in Salon, Prostitution in Europe: Legalize or Criminalize? This is the story they tell:

Protestors across the world…descended on Swedish embassies to rally against the government’s policy of criminalizing the purchase of sex — a law they argued had directly contributed to the death of a prostitute several weeks earlier.

Petite Jasmine, an outspoken Swedish sex worker, was murdered by an abusive former partner. He had been awarded custody of the couple’s children on the grounds that Jasmine’s profession made her unfit to be a parent.

Where do we draw the line between protecting women’s bodies and controlling women’s bodies? I do not claim to have the answer, though I do think the idea of criminalizing the purchase of sex rather than the sale of sex is moving in the right direction. Is consensual sex something that governments should be prohibiting? Can the exchange of sex on these terms ever be deemed fully consensual?


 —Caterina Gironda, Southern Editor


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