Book review: Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden

Book Review: Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden’ by Dr Jay Levy Ella Parsons April 2015

Internationally there is much discussion of Sweden’s prostitution law, which criminalises the purchase of sex. In 2014, the UK Parliament voted against such a measure when it was tabled as an amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill. It was also rejected by the French Senate. But in Northern Ireland and Canada, Swedish-style sex purchase bans were passed last year, and in the European Parliament MEPs voted in favour of such an approach.

Criticism of the ‘Swedish model’, or misleadingly the ‘Nordic model’ as it is sometimes called, has come from many quarters. Numerous academics, including Dr Jay Levy author of Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden, contend it has been ineffective in achieving its aims and has increased danger for sex workers.

Dr Levy spent several years living in Sweden, conducting research on the sex purchase ban for a PhD at Cambridge University. His book, Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden, is a thorough examination of the Swedish prostitution law, its effects and its actual aims, alongside what is purported by supporters of the legislation. With Sweden’s concerted efforts to export their model of prostitution law and countries, particularly in the European Union, pushed to consider the approach, this work is timely and essential reading.

The research for this book has been extensive. In his three and a half years of fieldwork, Dr Levy interviewed a wide range of participants, numbering approximately ninety, from sex workers affected by the legislation to individuals responsible for its creation. Boldly, a chapter on his methodology is included. This is especially pertinent given the controversy over previous studies on the Swedish legislation, which he and other academics have critiqued.

Beginning with an exploration into Sweden’s dark past of eugenics and social engineering, their history of legislating against groups deemed deviant and potentially harmful to the rest of society is reviewed. This includes their forced sterilisations that were taking place until quite recently, and their vagrancy and venereal disease laws that were used to control sex workers over two hundred years ago.

Sweden’s longstanding desire to mould an ideal society, Dr Levy asserts, is what led to their creation of a sex purchase ban. Sex trafficking was not a consideration of the law, though he says it “has since been marketed as a measure against trafficking”. Neither did abolitionist radical feminist discourse cause the law’s introduction, but he believes it has been used to justify it.

The focus of the prostitution legislation is not about protecting those to whom it pertains, Dr Levy argues, but about protecting ‘respectable’ society from them. He draws similarities with Sweden’s treatment of people who use drugs and HIV positive citizens. I was shocked to learn their approach to HIV prevention includes incarceration. When this has been enforced, sex workers have been among those targeted. Indeed, their mandatory contact tracing is a disincentive for sex workers to be tested.

HIV prevention within the sex worker community is further compromised by the sex purchase ban. Respondents from the prostitution units make this clear in their interviews as well as from the accounts of sex workers themselves. The book covers service provision and harm reduction, or the lack thereof, extensively, and rightly so.

Distinctions between the service provision of the prostitution units in Gothenburg and Stockholm to the unit in Malmo are noted. The Malmo prostitution unit is separated from sex work politics and provides a non-judgemental service, as service provision should operate, and offers harm reduction as well as exiting services. Diametrical to this is the approach of the other two units. They do not support harm reduction, claiming it encourages people to sell sex – an erroneous notion that Dr Levy believes has been caused by abolitionist radical feminist discourse. The methods of outreach at the prostitution units are scrutinised and a lack of condom distribution by the Stockholm and Gothenburg units is noted.

“If you as an adult need condoms, and you go to maternity care, okay, how the hell do I explain there that[…]I do need condoms, in a huge amount? . . . you can’t get free condoms as a sex worker.” – Pernilla, interview, 2011, sex worker (Internet escort) 

“They {the Stockholm Prostitution Unit} don’t believe really in the harm reduction work we do . . . really what we supposed to do [in their opinion is] to rescue people. – Interview, 2010, social worker, Malmo Prostitution Unit KAST 

“I think it might take longer to do something about your problems, if you get helped during the time.” – Interview, 2009, Stockholm Prostitution Unit 

Help from the Stockholm and Gothenburg prostitution units is reported to be conditional on ceasing sex work, which is counter-productive and can act as a deterrent for sex workers seeking to leave the sex trade. Dr Levy points out this insistence to stop sex work in order to access services is against the Swedish Social Service Act that states self-determination for citizens.

Outside of the three cities where there are prostitution units – which existed before the sex purchase ban was introduced – there are no other services for sex workers in Sweden. When the law was passed, even though it purports to be designed to help women leave the sex trade, Dr Levy states that no investment was made by the Swedish government in social care for exiting services.

As well as the shortfall in service provision geographically, there are no specific services provided by the government to sex workers who are not female. Although the law is meant to be non-gender specific, it was formed as part of the ‘women’s peace’ legal package and ignores male and trans sex workers. As opposed to Sweden’s practice, attention is drawn to them in this book and some beliefs expressed by those in favour of criminalising the purchase of sex are disturbing to read.

The stigma of being a sex worker is exacerbated by the law, and this work includes discussion on how sex workers are pathologised and discriminated against by service providers and wider society, vitally including sex workers’ own testimonies. Dr Levy assesses how the construction of sex workers as victims, lacking agency and suffering false consciousness validates their exclusion from political discourse and can result in deleterious effects on their personal lives.

Since the law’s introduction, the danger sex workers face has increased. One respondent, Lisa, who had never been raped as a sex worker before the law was passed, reported she had lost count of the times she had been raped by clients since. Reluctance to give identifying information because of the sex purchase ban has left many sex workers seeing untraceable clients. Reporting rape and other crime to the police can lead to sex workers losing their homes and for migrants there is the risk of being deported; these and other barriers sex workers face reporting crime are discussed.

“One police [officer] wouldn’t take my anmalan [statement/report] because he said ‘You’re a prostitute, and a prostitute can’t be raped, because you get money’.” – Lisa, interview, 2009, sex worker (street; escort; Internet) 

“We hear horrible stories all the time . . . they still have this old thing like you know ‘Whores can’t be raped, that’s bullshit’ . . . I have another friend that went to [the police], she got raped by a client, and the police actually asked her questions like ‘But did he pay you?’ Like if you paid her, it wouldn’t be rape.” – Interview, 2011, founder of Rose Alliance; sex worker 

“I don’t think a prostitute [would] look at the police as somebody that would help you. I mean, you will be afraid.”  Interview, 2010, politician – Social Democrats (former Equality Minister); Former EU Commissioner 

Although the book’s focus is Sweden, Norway’s sex purchase ban is also observed. Introduced at a time when there was an increase in Nigerian women selling sex on-street in Oslo, Dr Levy explains how it has been used as anti-immigration tool.

Conditions for the most vulnerable sex workers, those selling sex on-street, are known to have worsened in Sweden. This is explored and how the negative effects are seen by proponents of the law to be a positive outcome. Throughout the book, the myriad ways sex workers’ lives are made more difficult is painfully evident.

Dr Levy concludes that the law has caused sex workers harm and has failed in its aims to reduce levels of sex work and sex trafficking. His findings are congruent with research of other academics such as Petra Östergren and Susanne Dodillet. Furthermore, his observation of an increase in online sex work may be corroborated by the Swedish police board’s 2012 report of a significant rise in indoor sex work venues. Nevertheless, Sweden continues to attempt to export this model of prostitution law. While other countries consider importing it, their governments should take heed of the evidence of its danger and failure contained in this book, the most expansive research of its type on the so-called ‘Swedish model’.


Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden is available from Routledge, as well as Amazon internationally (UK link & US link), Waterstones, Abebooks and other retailers.