Sweden's sex laws - do we really want them in Northern Ireland?

As a Stormont delegation heads to Stockholm this week, Finola Meredith hears how prostitutes there fear the state more than their clients and blame the legislation for the murder of a fellow sex worker

Red alert: Paying for sex in Northern Ireland would be illegal under Lord Morrow's Bill
Red alert: Paying for sex in Northern Ireland would be illegal under Lord Morrow's Bill
Pam Hunter, CEO of Nexus

If Lord Morrow gets his way, it will soon be illegal to pay for sex in Northern Ireland. The DUP peer's proposed legislation, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill – which is now before the Justice Committee at Stormont – contains 19 clauses, intended to update Northern Ireland's laws on trafficking and prostitution.

The inspiration for clause 6 of the Bill, which seeks to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, is the so-called 'Swedish model'. Lord Morrow has repeatedly argued that similar legislation in Sweden has led to a big decrease in human trafficking and street prostitution.

And his DUP colleague, Jim Wells, a prominent member of the Justice Committee appears to be utterly convinced. He refers to "very clear evidence that making it illegal to purchase sex has resulted in a halving of the number of men doing that in Sweden, making Sweden a very cold house for prostitution and trafficking". Women's Aid, which works with victims of trafficking, has added its support to clause 6 too, stating that "anyone buying sexual services is supporting sexual slavery and the degradation of human rights".

But what is really going on in Sweden? What is the reality of the situation for sex workers, the very people who are most directly affected by that country's prostitution policy; how has this legislation affected them?

And where is the evidence that banning the purchase of sex actually works?

Pye Jakobsson, from Stockholm, is a sex worker activist and former sex worker. She is the co-founder of the national organisation for sex workers in Sweden, Rose Alliance.

Jakobsson is unequivocal in her condemnation of the 1999 Sex Purchase Act. She says that, in treating women who sell sex as damaged, weak and exploited, sex workers have been reduced to victims by the authorities.

Abuse and discrimination has increased as a result, with frequent police raids against sex workers in their own homes.

'Police aim to catch the men, but it is Sweden's sex workers who really pay the bill'

"Prejudice from the authorities: that is what is worrying sex workers the most, much more than concerns about violence or sexually-transmitted infections," Jakobsson tells me.

"This law was never about making things safe for sex workers. At first it was sold as a tool for equality, now we are told it is to combat trafficking, but it is still the same law. There are deeper narratives at work.

"Sweden likes to see itself as the moral compass of Europe: so equal, so democratic, so responsible. But the truth is that Sweden has become a stranglehold for radical feminism; we only have the hardline feminists here, the ones who say 'evil men, poor women'. So the authorities are doing everything they can to catch the clients. But the people paying the price are the sex workers themselves."

Jakobsson says that more and more sex workers are being judged as unfit mothers and are losing custody of their children, sometimes with devastating consequences. Take the case of Petite Jasmine, a Swedish sex worker who was murdered by her ex-husband last July.

Jakobsson said at the time: "Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker.

"The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occasions; she was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her."

"Jasmine always said: 'Even if I can't get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker.. We will continue her fight.'

Petra Östergren, a Swedish writer and social commentator who has carried out extensive research in this area, paints an almost identical picture. She says that the law is "paradoxical, illogical and discriminatory", exposing the sex workers to stress and danger, making them feel hunted and stigmatised, and entirely overlooked when it comes to decision-making processes.

In Sweden, prostitution is regarded as a social ill, and a form of male violence against women.

"Law makers have not had the best interests of sex workers in mind," says Östergren. "We are seeing a misuse of power, where a group which is already marginalised is subject to a law that will affect their entire lives, in order to send a message to the general population.

"The sex workers are victims, not of their customers, but of the state. You see the similarity in their stories: they say that they have never been as humiliated by clients as they have been by policy makers."

Östergren explains that sex-workers cannot work indoors, or with others, or profit from the sexual labour of others, or advertise. So they are forced to lie in order to rent premises, and often have to pay exorbitant rent. They are constantly in fear of being found out, as well as fearful of having to work alone, without the safety and support of other sex workers.

Co-habiting with a partner is difficult because it it is illegal to receive any of a sex worker's income. Assessing clients is more challenging too: the clients themselves are on edge and negotiation has to be done fast, making it more likely for sex workers to find themselves alone with a dangerous customer.

And sex workers are more wary about seeking help from the police when they have encountered abusive men because they do not want to be forced to report the client. Östergren says that it is the most vulnerable sex workers who seem to be most negatively affected by the law.

On top of all this – and contrary to Lord Morrow's staunch belief – there is no evidence that the law criminalising clients is working, either in bringing down the number of people buying sex, or in reducing the numbers selling it.

As Detective Superintendent Philip Marshall – who takes the lead on human trafficking and organised prostitution for the PSNI – has already pointed out, the fall in street prostitution is largely attributable to sex workers switching to the internet to sell their services.

"The internet is what has changed the prostitution model here and that is also reflected in Sweden. It has seen a great reduction in the level of street level prostitution but there has been a corresponding increase in off-street prostitution."

What's more, the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention found little or no evidence that criminalising the buying of sex had any significant impact on decreasing trafficking for sexual exploitation.

And the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) reports that "the impact of criminalising the purchase of sexual services ... must be assessed in the light of all possible consequences. This includes ensuring that the measures taken do not drive victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation underground or make them more vulnerable, and also that they do not mobilise investigation units and prosecution authorities to the detriment of investigations of traffickers.''

For these reasons, and more, Amnesty International – which has worked extensively to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of trafficked victims – is calling for the removal of Clause 6 from Lord Morrow's bill.

Grainne Teggart, who manages Amnesty's campaign on this issue, warns of the potential risk to the human rights of vulnerable people involved in selling sexual services in Northern Ireland.

"We are also concerned that the approach of combining legal measures to address human trafficking with legal measures to address prostitution, both complex issues, will not be an effective nor appropriate approach," she says.

Nexus NI, which supports rape and sexual abuse victims, also wants to see Clause 6 go. It points out that "whilst we accept that people are trafficked to Northern Ireland for sexual exploitation, we recognise that trafficked victims and those who sell sexual services are two separate and complex groups".

According to Pam Hunter, CEO of Nexus (left), it's a case of going too fast, too soon. "There's no provision of support for women already in prostitution, or those who want to get out."

And the Presbyterian Church has raised its own concerns with Clause 6. In a submission to the Justice Committee, it said that the case had not been adequately made for a blanket ban on paying for sex. The church said that while it believed that prostitution is "an evil on our society", in the absence of any clear and coherent policy on dealing with the issue of prostitution, "we are not convinced that such a wide-ranging clause should be introduced into a Bill that is primarily dealing with human trafficking".

On Wednesday members of the Stormont Justice Committee will set off for a three day fact-finding trip to Sweden, in the company of prominent Swedish anti-prostitution campaigner, Gunilla Ekberg. It is to be hoped that, while there, they will make time to speak with those most profoundly and painfully affected by the Swedish law – the sex workers themselves.

Hitting human trafficking

* Lord Morrow's proposed legislation, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, contains 19 clauses updating Northern Ireland's laws on prostitution and trafficking.

* The law could set a minimum two-year prison sentence for trafficking or slavery offences.

* Lord Morrow said: "It sends a strong signal that human trafficking and slavery offences are deemed to be serious crimes. Two years is a sensible level to set a minimum sentence for such a heinous act."

* A total of 33 potential human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland were rescued in 2011/12.

* Lord Morrow's Bill is based on a 15-year-old Swedish law which criminalises anyone who pays for sex.

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