As the UK government prepares to publish a bill on human trafficking, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on gender equality has urged it to introduce a nordic model for dealing with prostitution – under which the purchaser, not the prostitute, is criminalised. UK MPs and pressure groups have also supported such a move. Evidence from Sweden suggests it could work – and could also help combat trafficking.
The Home Office says it has no plans to change the law on prostitution, despite growing pressure to fall in line with much of the rest of Europe by criminalising prostitutes’ clients.
Mary Honeyball, the European parliament rapporteur on gender equality, has called on the UK to follow the example of the Nordic countries and of France, where politicians have just voted to make it illegal to pay for sex. A coalition of UK parliamentarians and women’s groups has also backed her call.
And research from Sweden, where the purchase – but not the sale – of sexual services has been a crime since 1999, suggests the measure would work.
The study found street prostitution had halved in Sweden after the introduction of the new law.
Before the change, the research shows, levels of street prostitution in the capital cities of Norway, Denmark and Sweden were about the same. But by 2008, the numbers in Norway and Denmark were three times higher than in Sweden.
In 2009, Norway followed Sweden’s lead and introduced a ban on the purchase of sexual services. A study by the Bergen municipality showed that it, too, experienced a dramatic drop in levels of street prostitution when the legal change came into force.
The researchers also looked at whether criminalising the clients of prostitutes might simply have moved the activity off the streets into brothels and onto the internet. But they concluded it had not.
There was no evidence of a disproportionate increase in prostitution advertised on the web – a growing market in all countries in recent years. And there was no noticeable increase in the use of massage parlours or other ‘indoor’ settings, the researchers said.
The ban had also helped to stem the rise of organised crime in Sweden, the study found.
Although it was hard to assess the scale of human trafficking for sexual purposes, this type of crime was substantially lower in Sweden than in other comparable countries. The Swedish national police service had confirmed it believed the ban had acted as a barrier to traffickers considering establishing themselves in Sweden.