Sweden’s Abolitionist Discourse and Law: Effects on the Dynamics of Swedish Sex Work and On the Lives of Sweden’s Sex Workers

Levy, J., & Jakobsson, P. Sweden’s Abolitionist Discourse and Law: Effects on the Dynamics of Swedish Sex Work and On the Lives of Sweden’s Sex Workers. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 14(5), 593-607 (2014). Available at:

Findings from Advocating Opportunity’s “END DEMAND LITERATURE – DESK REVIEW” (Compiled by: Emily Dunlap, Komal Hans, and Donna Hoffman with contributions from: Kate D’Adamo and Megan K. Mattimoe):

“The Swedish criminalization of the purchase of sex has seemingly been used as a tool with which to displace public sex work. Assurances that the law will not be of detriment to those selling sex do not ring true, since Sweden’s abolitionism, as well as other laws and policies, has harmed sex workers themselves. In contrast to assertions that sex workers are protected from legal repercussion and authoritative interference by only the sex buyer being criminalized, there are reports that sex workers experience difficulties with the authorities, law enforcement, and have further difficulties with social services and in gaining access to service provision, fed by the discourses framing the sex purchase law.” (p. 1).

“Reports indicate an increased propensity towards riskier behaviors among some sex workers, with reports of higher risk sexual services being provided due to sex workers having less in the way of choice of client and bargaining power, as well as less negotiating time with clients who are fearful of arrest.” (p. 7) (emphasis added).

“Fear of police detection and prosecution has also resulted in clients being unwilling to leave contact information with sex workers by which they may be identified. Where many sex workers insist on obtaining such information for safety, those who are in most desperate financial need are not so well placed to pick and choose their clients with such care. Again, those who are vulnerable, ‘survival’ sex workers, are those most affected.” (p. 7).

“Sex workers report difficulties with evictions, immigration authorities, child custody and tax authorities.” (p. 11).

“Respondents who had sold or bought sex included 22 (cisgender) female sex workers (including five street sex workers, 15 escort workers and eight who worked in stripping), 2 two male sex workers, two transgender sex workers and four sex workers’ clients. Many respondents were interviewed due to their expertise surrounding sex work and/or the debates and discourses surrounding prostitution in Sweden; these included politicians, NGO workers, spokespeople for activist and rights organizations, police and healthcare and social service providers.” “Jakobsson draws here from a recent internet-based survey (Jakobsson and Edlund, 2014), with 124 respondents; 87.5 per cent sold physical sex, 4.2 per cent other forms of sex including striptease, phone sex and BDSM, and 8.3 per cent were former sex workers. In addition to the survey, 13 further respondents were interviewed (seven current sex workers (five cisgender female, two male)), four former sex workers (two female, one male and one trans) and two sex work clients.” (p. 4).

“In 1999, Sweden criminalized the purchase of sex, while simultaneously decriminalizing its sale. This piece of legislation ostensibly places the onus on the masculinized client, with the feminized sex worker supposedly protected from legal repercussion.” (p. 2).

“Those involved in street sex work are often resource poor (and thus less able to sell sex from indoor space, due to lack of mobile telephone or internet access, for example), with this type of sex work often marked by higher levels of alcohol and drug use in Sweden (Levy, 2014), and elsewhere (Cusick et al., 2009). The sex purchase law has thus increased the difficulties experienced by ‘survival’ sex workers, those who are most vulnerable and who most need the money from their sex work (Doezema, 2010).” (p. 7).

The dangers in sex work are exacerbated by Sweden’s lack of sex worker-targeted service provision and harm reduction initiatives. Harm reduction strategies are initiatives and interventions designed to decrease the harm that can surround sex work (such as the provision of condoms, safer sex-selling information, rape alarms and so forth; Rekart, 2005) without actively seeking to decrease levels of sex work.” (p. 8) (emphasis added).

“In short, there is no convincing evidence that levels of prostitution in Sweden have decreased since 1999 (also see Östergren and Dodillet, 2011; Socialstyrelsen, 2008). In these terms, the law is not a success. Moreover, there are reports of increased competition among those sex workers left selling sex on the street in the face of a reduction of clients willing to buy sex publicly for fear of legal repercussion (Levy, 2014; Östergren, 2004; Östergren and Dodillet, 2011; Socialstyrelsen, 2008). This has led to animosity between some sex workers (Levy, 2014; Socialstyrelsen, 2008), with reports of disagreements and conflict over clients, as well as sex workers stealing to acquire money previously earned from sex work (Levy, 2014).” (p. 5).