Sweden met the age-old problem of prostitution with a new approach fifteen years ago using simple economics: target demand (buyers) rather than supply (sellers). This means that the fines and arrests are directed at those buying instead of selling sexual services. Restricting demand in this way subsequently lowers supply. Sweden went from having 2,500 prostitutes in 1998 to 1,000 in 2013. In addition, shame seems to make a difference.
With less demand for prostitutes, human trafficking naturally goes down too. Sweden estimated in 2010 that their annual human trafficking numbers ranged between 200 and 400 women and girls a year, in comparison to Finland’s range of 15,000 to 17,000. Sweden has nearly twice the population of Finland. Marta C. Johansson, author of a study on European criminal laws for human trafficking, says while Sweden’s laws don’t cover all the gaps, they are probably one of the main reasons for lower levels of sex trafficking.
The U.S. could benefit from similar laws. Purchasing and selling of sex is illegal, except in a few counties in Nevada, but the punishment for these crimes is applied unequally. Only three states have harsher punishments for sex purchasers. Statistics from an online legal database show that roughly nine prostitutes are arrested for every one customer in the United States. As of 2013, prostitute arrests ranged well over 100,000. About $200 million of tax dollars are spent on those arrests annually.
But clearly punishment for prostitutes doesn’t drive them out of the business, perhaps because they typically aren’t in it for economic gain. The New York Times cited a study of 854 prostitutes in nine countries, and 89 percent wanted to escape prostitution but felt they could not. What’s more is that 569 of those people “met the clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress equal to that of treatment-seeking Vietnam veterans and victims of torture or rape.” This challenges the commonly held belief that prostitutes are generally willing individuals and the crime consensual.
Sweden provides funds and social programs for prostitutes wanting to escape their situations. Economically, they focus on helping suppliers leave the business instead of punishing them. Past studies show that 1 percent of American women have worked as prostitutes. Adopting a version of Sweden’s social programs for prostitutes could do more for eradicating prostitution in the U.S. than minimal fines and short-term confinement, now the norm.
Some argue that laws like Sweden’s only force prostitution underground, restricting access to social resources. But Kajsa Wahlberg, one of the advocates for Swedish laws criminalizing the purchase of sex, believes that the aim of the law is to protect the many exploited women and girls involved in prostitution. While Sweden’s laws are not perfect, they do much to eliminate sex trade and offer help to sex workers.
Criminalizing the buyer seems to work. Laws that punish the prostitutes cause economic and emotional harm to the sex workers to be sure. But, an economic punishment seems to be a real deterrent for sex purchasers; perhaps more important than for prostitutes. What also seems to be important to the buyers of sex is the shame that awaits men when their names are publicized after having been charged with purchasing sex. The shame factor may be the main reason why Sweden’s laws have reduced prostitution and trafficking numbers.