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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Sweden’s prostitution solution Add to ...

Here in Canada, most progressive people hold an enlightened view of prostitution. Since fighting it is futile, we ought to legalize and regulate it. Legalizing prostitution would destigmatize sex-trade workers and increase their safety. Hey, maybe they’ll even start signing up for dental plans!

Sweden went another way. In 1999, it passed a law to criminalize the buyers of sex, but not the sellers. Sex-trade workers were encouraged to report abusive clients to police, and given assistance to help them find other lines of work. (Or, in the case of migrant women who’d been trafficked, to return home.) The law is not unlike Canada’s new law, which has been widely derided as unworkable, unconstitutional, dangerous to women and hopelessly reactionary. But then nobody ever accused the Harper government of being progressive.

So how are things going in Sweden? Pretty well, it turns out. Last week, a thick report published by a government agency in Stockholm found that street prostitution has been cut by more than half since 1995. Other studies also indicate that the sex trade has shrunk substantially.

In Stockholm’s red-light district, “there’s hardly anyone there,” says political science professor Max Waltman, an expert in prostitution policy at the University of Stockholm who spoke to me by telephone. Nor is it true that the street trade has simply moved indoors. Prof. Waltman estimates that the total number of sex workers in the country has dropped from 3,000 in the mid-1990s to about 600 in recent years.

At first, public opinion over the new law was sharply divided. Its biggest support came from the greens, the feminists and others in the left-left wing. But today, it has overwhelming public support. Many Swedes view prostitution not as a choice or a moral offence, but a form of male violence against women. They compare it to serial rape and slavery. Last year, when Amnesty International said it planned to lobby for legalization, Swedish women’s rights organizations were outraged.

Nadine Bergquist is a volunteer with Rosenlundstodet, a small group of women who help get prostitutes off the streets. “We think it’s a great law, very necessary, crucial,” she told me. “The women who’ve left prostitution say that without this law, it would have been very much harder for them.” She dismisses the notion that the law stigmatizes them. “They were stigmatized already.”

Across the bridge from southern Sweden is Denmark, which chose to go the other way and decriminalize prostitution. The two countries form a sort of natural policy experiment. By 2007, according to Prof. Waltman, Denmark had about 15 times more prostitutes per capita than Sweden did – many of them migrant women trafficked from Romania and Nigeria. Now that Sweden is a hostile climate for traffickers, they tend to stick to more lucrative countries.

Iceland and Norway – two other progressive, feminist, northern countries – have adopted the Swedish model. But in Canada, the ideologies are flipped. Here, conservatives applaud the Swedish model, while progressives, academics, feminists and the media overwhelmingly ridicule it.

Prof. Waltman, who has been following Canada’s debate closely, thinks these people are seriously wrong. Decriminalization is a failed experiment, he argues. “When the German parliament decided at the end of the nineties to decriminalize, the idea was to make prostitution safer. Women would sign onto social security, and they would be destigmatized, and they would work in brothels and be safe.”

But no one signed up for social security, the sex trade was not destigmatized and brothels, he says, are not particularly safe. Worst of all, prostitution has exploded. “Most women are obviously not doing it by choice,” he says. “Most of them have been profoundly traumatized and want to get out. If you legalize it, it’s legalizing slavery, because they have no real choice.”

That’s the argument that sticks with me. I honestly don’t care if Terri-Jean Bedford operates her house of pain out of her nice suburban bungalow. Most sex workers aren’t her. Nor are they strapped co-eds working toward their masters’ degrees. They’re women at the bottom of the heap, too often aboriginal, who’ve been badly damaged and believe they have no other options.

As Ms. Bergquist says, “Anyone who believes there is such a thing as a happy prostitute should walk down the street with us one night and look these women in the eye. And then I’d like to see if they still believe that’s true.”

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