The Swedish Model
The first law which officially made prostitution in Sweden illegal was enacted in 1734, and specified punishment for the offense by whipping, forced labor, and imprisonment. For the next two and one half centuries Sweden wrestled with the prostitution within its borders which no law and no threat of punishment seemed capable of eliminating. In the late 1830s the government of Sweden established brothels in Stockholm in the hope of the state gaining control of prostitution but by 1841 the experiment was recognized as a failure and abandoned. The Swedish government continued to outlaw the practice officially, but tolerated its presence.
In Swedish cities areas were set aside where there was a tacit agreement that prostitutes would not be harassed by the police and local authorities. Brothels remained illegal and there existence was winked at as long as they were located in acceptable areas and were not otherwise troublesome. Throughout the twentieth century a series of commissions and studies began to shift the focus on prostitution from the prostitutes to their clients. Several committees reported that the men who solicited prostitutes were a danger to society, since they had uncontrollable desires which led them to break the law. These attitudes led to the development of what is now called the Swedish Model.
When the Swedish government arrived at the conclusion that the real cause of prostitution was not feminine immorality but was instead masculine demand they changed the laws regarding prostitution. The Swedes made the selling of one’s body for sexual services legal. Therefore the prostitute commits no crime when solicited for sex with another person, if the choice is made of their own free will. However the purchasing of sexual services from another was made illegal, shifting the criminal act to the person requesting the service for money.
The law was created to be compatible with Sweden’s gender neutral policy towards all its laws and society in general. Theoretically the role of purchaser could be of either gender as could be the role of seller. In practice the law places the burden of committing a crime on males soliciting prostitutes, a reversal of the patriarchal laws affecting prostitution in most other countries. The law was reinforced by increases in police budgets to help enforce it and the police use of undercover officers to initiate early court cases. Convictions were hard to come by and although the police and other officials reported a visible downturn in open prostitution, many opined that the practice had simply gone underground.
The Swedish Model was marketed aggressively by the Swedish activists who helped create it in the other Scandinavian countries and in France, The Netherlands, and other European countries. Although several countries adapted the model to meet their own circumstances, there is little concrete evidence the Swedish Model reduced either prostitution or the violence sometimes associated with it in Sweden or any other country. Whether the law has been successful or not depends on the person making the report. Defending the decision to make the purchaser guilty of a crime was explained by the Swedish government as the seller of the service, “…is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires.”