It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country. – Raymond Chandler
Despite the existence of “truth in advertising” laws, the mind empowered by critical thinking never really expects a seller to be entirely truthful about his product; one expects, if not outright lies, a host of exaggerations, omissions, false comparisons and half-truths designed to make his product seem better to prospective buyers than those of his competitors. But when the sellers are politicians and the product is a political doctrine or platform, all bets are off and anyone who is not hopelessly gullible expects flagrant lies and malicious slanders against the sellers’ political rivals or anyone else about whom it’s convenient to lie. This is the case with the “Swedish Model” of prohibition; since it was first proposed in 1997, the model’s proponents have clearly stated that after it was imposed on Sweden they intended to export it to the rest of the world, much as communist countries used to try to export Marxism. In its burning desire to be seen as the moral voice of the world, Sweden has aggressively marketed its national brand and, as one might expect, has engaged in both egregious misrepresentation and outright lying to sell its product.
According to the Swedish sales pitch, their strategy has been a resounding success; it has supposedly reduced the rate of prostitution and sex trafficking and deterred clients without harming prostitutes in any way, and we are told that the great majority of Swedes (76%) enthusiastically support the ban. There’s only one problem with these claims: Not only are they untrue, several of them are actually refuted by studies within the Swedish government. In other words, though some of the claims are based in willful ignorance or distorted studies, others are outright lies. At an international conference entitled “Decriminalizing Prostitution and Beyond: Practical Experiences and Challenges” held in The Hague on March 3 and 4 of this year, Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren presented a paper entitled “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects”; it demonstrates, using extensive materials which include many from Swedish government sources, that the grandiose claims for the success of the “Swedish Model” are, to put it politely, full of meatballs.
The supposed reduction in prostitution is mostly claimed from a supposed decrease in streetwalking, which the Swedish government claims represented a whopping 33% of all Swedish prostitution (which would be twice as much as anyplace else in the Western world). But as regular readers know, streetwalking has been on the decline everywhere for many years now thanks to the internet and cell phones; Dodillet and Östergren shows that if there was a measurable decrease in streetwalking at all (which is not well-supported by the evidence), it was part of the same trend which has been observed in other countries. And even the Swedish government’s own National Board for Health and Welfare admits that it can make absolutely no supportable statements about what the Swedes are pleased to call “hidden prostitution” – i.e. escorting and the like, the vast majority of harlotry. As for sex trafficking (which has never been a serious problem in Sweden), just one year ago a Swedish police press release claimed that the ban had actually increased trafficking in Sweden by making it a more lucrative market, just as prohibition of drugs makes drug dealing more profitable. But in the glowing report on the resounding success of the ban released a few months later, the same police authorities had mysteriously reversed that position.
But certainly clients have been deterred, right? The threat of jail time has got to scare them, hasn’t it? Well, not exactly; Swedish judges are apparently far less impressed with the law than those who created it, and have not yet imprisoned even one man under the law, opting instead for fines. Dodillet and Östergren quote from a number of studies (including several based on interviews with sex workers) which conclude that most Swedish men are not at all deterred by the law (most especially not the ones who simply go to Denmark or Germany, where prostitution is legal). The government’s claim of deterrence is based on a single study whose unreliability will be clear to you when I report that it showed the number of men who had ever bought sex decreased by 41% between 1996 and 2008…which would have to mean that a huge percentage of those who had paid for it must either have died or moved out of Sweden, because even if they had not hired a whore since the ban that wouldn’t erase their previous experiences! Criminologists at Stockholm University pointed out that this is impossible, and that it’s much more likely that men are not answering truthfully for fear of prosecution.
What about public opinion, though? If 76% of Swedes think the criminalization of clients is a good idea, it’s at least democratic even if unjust. Except for one thing: the official government surveys are the only ones which show this supposed support. Every week there are numerous anti-ban columns and articles in the Swedish press, not to mention a host of activists, academics and bloggers. Almost 10% of young Swedish girls admit to having taken money for sex at least once, and a recent newspaper survey found that 63% of readers favored abolishing the sex purchase law. When the Minister of Justice, Beatrice Ask, demanded higher penalties for clients, a whopping 88% of readers disagreed, and a poll on the very popular Swedish online debate forum Newsmill found that 81% of respondents reported being “angry” about the law. Despite all this opposition, on May 12th the Riksdag (Parliament) voted to double the possible jail term for the law: the vote was 282 for, 1 against, 66 absent. Presumably many of the absentees were opponents who did not dare to vote against the bill; the one nay vote was from vocal “Swedish Model” opponent Frederick Federley. His speech, translated by Dr. Michael Goodyear of the Center for Sex Work Research and Policy, is well worth reading, as is the Dodillet and Östergren paper; they reveal the true ingredients of this snake oil the Swedes are trying to sell to the world.