Legislation on sex work: Sweden Sex Purchase Law

Lilith Brouwers – 2017

Legal status of sex work:

There are multiple laws that criminalise or limit sex work in Sweden, the most well-known of which is the 1999 Sexköpslag  (Sex Purchase Law).  This legislation criminalised the purchase, or attempt to purchase, casual sexual services in exchange for any kind of compensation including alcohol, gifts, meals, or drugs.

At the same time, other laws criminalising or affecting sex workers themselves were not repealed and are still in effect. The Pandering Law prohibits promoting someone’s sex work or profiting off others’ sex work. The Aliens Act states that migrants who have the right to work in Sweden can still be deported if they do not support themselves “in honest ways”, which includes prostitution. There are also several laws stating that housing and hotels can not be used for sex work and that landlords have to evict a person thought to use a property for sex work. Swedish sex trafficking legislation has been amended in 2010, and proof that a trafficker had control over a sex worker is no longer required for a conviction. The current Swedish legislation is also referred to as the Sex Purchase Act, the Sex Purchase Ban, or the Swedish, Nordic, or End Demand model.

Sex work is officially not seen as work in Sweden, but as a social problem that stands in the way of attaining gender equality in society and needs to be abolished. Male and transgender sex workers are generally not discussed, and female sex workers are seen as victims or as unable to consent. However, when a buyer of sex is prosecuted, the sex worker involved is summoned to court as a witness rather than as a victim.

Effects of current legislation:

The Swedish government claims the Sex Purchase Law has caused a decline in the amount of people doing sex work, and has invested a significant amount of resources and money on exporting the ‘Swedish Model’ of legislation abroad. However, since there were no baseline measurements of sex work and sex workers in Sweden done before implementation of the law, the efficacy of the legislation in reducing sex work can not be measured. There is a consensus among most researchers that street based sex work declined for a while after implementation of the Sex Purchase Law, and that this number has since risen again. There is no evidence that the Sex Purchase Law has deterred clients from buying sex.

As reported by both sex workers and the government, the Sex Purchase Law has increased stigma on sex work and workers. This increased stigma is explicitly named as a positive result of the law by some officials, who believe that stigma can have a deterrent effect on entrance into sex work.

Since sex work is not seen as work, and is instead seen as inherently violent and damaging to both the sex worker and to society, Swedish legislators have stated that the adverse effects sex work legislation has on individual sex workers is worth it for the symbolic value of the Sex Purchase Law. These adverse effects include sex workers being harassed by the police, sex workers being refused help from social services if they don’t agree to quit sex work, sex workers being recommended not to report rape if they work voluntarily, social workers at a specialist Prostitution Unit refusing to help a suicidal sex worker uninterested in quitting sex work, condoms no longer being handed out to sex workers as part of outreach projects, and sex workers being outed at intra-organisational meetings.  Multiple sex workers had the custody of their children taken away because of their work, and in one high-profile case children were removed from a sex working parent and placed with a known abusive parent who later went on to kill their sex working ex-partner.

Although the Sex Purchase Law does not target sex workers directly, other laws governing sex work do. Migrant sex workers have been deported for ‘not supporting themselves in an honest matter’, even though their work is not illegal. Since it is illegal to provide premises for sex work, any landlord or hotel which is informed by the police that their tenant or client is selling sex is forced to evict the client. Sex workers have also been prosecuted under pimping legislation for working together in shared premises for safety, since sharing the rent is seen as profiting off each other’s sex work.

Critiques of Swedish sex work legislation:

A common critique of the current Swedish model of sex work legislation is that the government misrepresents both the efficacy and the content of the legislation. While the Swedish government claims that sex workers have been decriminalised and only clients have been criminalised, in fact no previous laws affecting sex work have been repealed. This means that sex workers are not able to work together for safety, can be evicted if their landlords learn about their work, and even their adult children can be prosecuted if they do not pay rent while living in their parent’s house.

Although the government claims that sex work has decreased since the introduction of the Sex Purchase Law, many researchers say that there is no proof of a decrease of indoor and online work, and estimates of the number of sex workers in the country have remained stable at around 2500. While the National Board of Health and Welfare states that they cannot say whether sex work has increased or decreased, the Sex Purchase Law is still presented abroad as successful in reducing the levels of sex work in Sweden. This is often criticised as an intentional misrepresentation of Swedish sex work legislation to other countries in order to export Swedish legislative models.

A second common critique is that Swedish legislators are more concerned with the moral stance they take in their legislation than with the effect the laws have on sex workers themselves. As a result of the Sex Purchase Law, street based sex workers are less able to negotiate with clients before they step into a car, since clients worry about possible arrests. Since there are fewer clients who feel safe seeing street based sex workers, these workers are less able to pick only clients they feel are safe and they may be pressured to offer services that are less safe. Indoor sex workers have a reduced ability to screen, since their clients are less willing than before the Sex Purchase Law to share their personal details. Finally, some claim that the most vulnerable workers are increasingly dependent on third parties like managers/pimps/agents, since it is more difficult to make contact with clients. Over all, many believe the Sex Purchase Law has made sex work more dangerous, especially for the least privileged workers.

Due to the increased stigma, sex workers are less likely to report violence and coercion to the police – since this can lead to police harassment, the loss of custody over children, or deportation. Likewise, clients are less willing to report any coercion they have witnessed, since this would require them to incriminate themselves. These negative and dangerous effects on sex workers’ lives are, when acknowledged by legislators, considered a price to be payed for the moral stance the law takes on gender equality and Swedish values.

A final critique is that sex worker led organisations have not been involved at any point in the creation and evaluation of Swedish sex work legislation.  Additionally, sex workers who are not cisgender women have been completely ignored in the debate. While the Sex Purchase Law is internationally promoted by the Swedish government as highly effective, the voices and experiences of the people directly affected by it are silenced and ignored.


Sweden’s abolitionist discourse and law: Effects on the dynamics of Swedish sex work and on the lives of Sweden’s sex workersJay Levy & Pye Jakobsson, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 2014, Vol.14(5), pp.593-607
Abolitionist feminism as patriarchal control: Swedish understandings of prostitution and trafficking, Jay Levy & Pye Jakobsson, Dialectical Anthropology, 2013, Vol.37(2), pp.333-340
The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects –http://www.petraostergren.com/upl/files/115299.pdf