The Magazine

The Swedish Way

A surprising model for Chicago's crackdown on prostitution.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MARK P. LAGON
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Improbable though it may sound, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, is taking a page from the Swedish welfare state in revising his approach to the problem of prostitution. Loudly applauding his eight-month-old experiment is End Demand Illinois (EDI), a coalition of nonprofits that aims to extend the reform statewide and eventually see it replicated across the country.

What Sheriff Tom Dart has done is shift enforcement resources from the supply side to the demand side: from arresting (and releasing and rearresting) forcibly prostituted women and girls to arresting pimps and johns and impounding their cars, while directing the prostituted females to social services. (Last week a U.S. district judge threw out another part of Dart's new strategy: a lawsuit against Craigslist for the hazard created by its online want ads offering "erotic" and "adult" services--some 13,000 ads a day.)

It is too soon to say what effect this policy reversal will have in the Chicago area. But supporters (including the nonprofit I head) point to the success of a similar reform in Sweden that already has a track record.

In 1999, Sweden criminalized the purchase of sexual services. Offenders face a fine or up to six months in prison, while pimps and other traffickers face incarceration for up to 10 years. Prostituted women, meanwhile, are not prosecuted but directed to social services designed to help them develop alternative means of support and recover from their dehumanizing experience. Some are provided legal services. Foreigners are encouraged to participate in trafficking investigations and prosecutions; those who decline are returned to their country of origin after 30 days.

The rationale, in the words of Thomas Bodström, a former Swedish minister of justice, was that "as long as men think they are entitled to buy and use women's and girls' bodies, human trafficking for sexual purposes will continue."

Within five years of the law's enactment, the number of trafficked persons in Sweden had declined significantly. In October 2004, Gunilla Ekberg, Sweden's top anti-trafficking official, wrote:

In 1999, it was estimated that 125,000 Swedish men bought about 2,500 prostituted women one or more times per year. Of these women, approximately 650 were street prostituted. [Since then], the number of women involved in street prostitution has decreased by at least 30 percent to 50 percent, and the recruitment of new women has come almost to a halt.

With demand dampened, the market for prostitution had to adjust. In the first three years of the new regimen, the number of prostituted persons in Sweden (population then 8.8 million) tumbled from 2,500 to 1,500, according to Ekberg. Compare this with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 prostituted persons in Finland (population 5 million) and 5,000 just in Oslo, the capital of Norway (population 4.3 million). Not surprisingly, Norway went on to adopt Swedish-style laws.

Sweden's apparent success has elicited some counterclaims. Some critics contend that in practice too few johns are being punished. Some health care experts have cited an increase in the proportion of prostituted women with sexually transmitted diseases. Marianne Eriksson, a former member of the Swedish Left party who held a seat in the European Parliament, observed, "The customers who used to buy sex occasionally have stopped doing so, but the 'regulars' are still there; they are the ones who are more likely to be violent." If true, however, these increased proportions exist within a significantly shrunken universe of prostituted females.

In the United States until recently, human trafficking was mistakenly assumed to be a problem primarily plaguing the developing world. With an estimated 14,500-17,500 people trafficked into the United States annually, however, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimating as many as 100,000 U.S. minors currently caught up in the sex trade, there has been a concerted effort to direct attention to our domestic problem.