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A Particular Kind of Violence: Swedish Social Policy Puzzles of a Multipurpose Criminal Law


This article explores the policy underpinning Sweden's 1999 ban on purchases of sexual services with a focus on the social and health service sectors and their role vis-à-vis people who sell sex. It argues that the rationale behind the ban is difficult to reconcile with legislation and practices beyond the merit of criminal justice. While an understanding of prostitution as “men's violence against women” may serve symbolic functions at central policy level, it can hardly guide local implementation without conflicting with core social policy principles. The article concludes that a there is a need to address the agency of people who sell sex, since denying or minimizing such agency may be counterproductive to the policy's own objectives.

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  1. In addition, the government presents its view on various matters in action plans and other policy documents that may include assignments to government agencies. These are referred to as missives (skrivelser) in this text. Where relevant, introduction of new EU-related legislation follows a different process.

  2. However, as demonstrated by Eriksson (2011), the radical feminist argument on prostitution as violence against women was less significant to the political process leading up to the passing of the sex purchase ban. Rather, this idea was gradually established through the policy on gender equality.

  3. The ban was introduced as a separate law and transferred to the Penal Code (2005) after minor revisions.

  4. Preparatory work exemplifies this as alcohol and drugs. Cases of conviction include cigarettes, a cab ride, and food. Liability may be established when payment has been promised but not yet made and when the person who pays is someone else than the consumer (GoS report SOU 2010:49).

  5. The penalty was raised to allow for a more nuanced assessment of aggravating circumstances such as buying sex from someone who suffers from a psychiatric disability, is under the influence of drugs, etc. (GoS bill 2010/11:77).

  6. That is, if a person does not consent to provide a sexual service, obtaining it implies a different crime. In legal practice, the moment when the parties have entered into an agreement has been defined as the point at which an attempt becomes a criminal offense. However, prosecutors and the police have found this point difficult to prove (GoS report 2010:49).

  7. Gross violation of a woman's integrity (Grov kvinnofridskränkning).

  8. The government decided to criminalize sex purchases despite professing to the principle of using criminal justice as a last resort only, i.e., ultima ratio (GoS bill 1994/95:23).

  9. This position was also restated by the 2010 Skarhed Commission, albeit in the deliberations and proposals section and not as a starting point for its evaluation of the sex purchase ban (GoS report 2010:49).

  10. The 1993 inquiry which partly provided the basis for the Kvinnofrid bill extrapolated the total number of sex vendors and unknown cases from estimates of individuals known to be active in street prostitution.

  11. These include exclusion because questionnaires are available in Swedish only, underrepresentation of varying groups in the different study samples, a specific aversion to answering questions about sex sales, and possible differences in how men and women respond to such questions due to the impact of gendered norms.

  12. The three surveys found the following numbers of male and female respondents who reported having been paid for sex: eight of 1,475 males (0.5 %) and four of 1,335 females (0.3 %) (1996 survey); four of 296 males (1.4 %) and five of 436 females (1.1 %) (2007 survey); and 21 of 2,488 males (0.8 %) and 16 of 2,583 females (0.6 %) (2011 survey).

  13. The 1998 Kvinnofrid bill denotes male sex purchases, partner violence against women, female genital mutilation, and sexual harassment as “closely related” (p. 19). The 2002 government policy plan for gender equality (GoS missive 2002/03:140) refers to prostitution as a form of “men's sexualized violence against women” (p. 11). The 2005 bill on gender equality (2005/06:155) defined “men's violence against women” by clustering the above topics with the problem of sexual objectification of female and male bodies in public spaces (advertisement, etc.).

  14. Since 2006, the government broadly defines gender equality as the objective: “Women and men are to have equal power to shape society and their own lives” (GoS bill 2005/06:155, p.43). Gender equality was previously defined as women's and men's enjoyment of equal opportunities, rights, and obligations in all areas of life (GoS bill 1993/94:147, p.15).

  15. For example, in 2004, Mona Sahlin (then Minister for Democracy, Integration, and Gender Equality), made the point that calls for reviews of the effects of the laws against assault, robbery, and rape are unheard of while arguing against the need for such a review of the sex purchase ban (Sahlin 2004).

  16. The preceding inquiry (Könshandeln, GoS Report 1995a, b:15), further claims that women are only exceptionally able to exit the sex trade without lasting injuries. It maintains that those who sell sex almost invariably develop mental disorders, suffer from poor health, abuse alcohol/drugs, and are often subject to theft and abuse. The damage done to the community is thought to lie in the ability of men to purchase sexual access to women to gratify their own sexual needs. The inquiry also discussed health- and crime-related costs.

  17. In the ensuing consultation process, most government agencies opposed criminalization of both clients and providers, while about a third of those consulted recommended criminalizing only the clients (Eriksson 2011).

  18. Thus far, it has only happened when the person who provided the sexual service was simultaneously subject to some other crime in connection with the purchase (GoS Report 2010:49).

  19. The Swedish Prosecution Authority, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed order of establishing from case to case whether a sex vendor should be regarded the injured party (GoS bill 2010/11:77).

  20. Under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act, compensation for criminal injuries may apply to any crime victim when the offender is unable to pay, remains unidentified, or money cannot be retrieved from private insurance.

  21. Respondents who had previously sold sex reported a more positive view of prostitution than those who had not. The majority of sex vendors reported no drug use (86 % of male respondents and 81 % of female respondents). However, their drug use was higher than for nonsex vendors. Few sex vendors (none of the male respondent and 12.5 % of the female respondents) stated money for drugs as a motive for the most recent sex sale. There was no difference between female sex vendors and nonsex vendors with regards to childhood sexual abuse. However, male sex vendors reported a higher rate of childhood sexual abuse (Svedin and Priebe 2012).

  22. Sweden's 290 municipalities are responsible for the provision of social services, whereas the county's 20 county councils are responsible for health care provision. At central policy level, the National Board of Health and Welfare is the agency assigned to ensure quality aspects of these sectors across the entire country. This is expected to be achieved by providing supervision, information, maintenance of registers and statistics, and by setting both legally binding and recommended standards.

  23. In principle, consideration of specific groups entitled to provisions under the Social Services Act (Chapter 5) are secondary to the general right for all individuals who are unable to provide for their needs to be considered for assistance (Chapter 4, Section 1). Reflecting a similar sentiment, the Health and Medical Service Act does not specify groups of special provisions, with the exception of certain disabilities, generally dictating that priority should be given to those in greatest need (Art 2).

  24. The regulation can be applied to someone who has not yet turned 20 years old and the care must be terminated before she/he turns 21 years old (SoS 1997). The legal age of sexual consent under the Penal Code is 15 years.

  25. The individual circumstances surrounding the case determine whether there is a need for social services intervention. The selling of sex by a parent is not specified as neglect or abuse in welfare legislation (SoS 2011b).

  26. Furthermore, the Health and Medical Service Act includes a regulation regarding respect for patient's rights to self-determination and privacy (Art 2 a).

  27. The Social Services Act and the Communicable Diseases Act.

  28. So far, the NBHW has published three reports, Prostitution in Sweden 1998–1999, 2003, and 2007, all of which refrain from estimating the total number of people who sell sex in the country (SoS 1999, 2004 & 2008). The agency arranged two workshops in 2000 for the few social service units specializing in sex trade activities. The workshop themes were determined by the units themselves. In 2007, the NBHW was commissioned to inventory social interventions for people who sell sex. In 2008, 10 years after the Kvinnofrid bill, the NBHW was commissioned to both produce a training material for relevant professionals and evaluate the effects of sex trade-oriented work in the social services.

  29. A portion of this budget was allocated to work in collaboration with the Swedish Prosecution Authority.

  30. The Kvinnofrid bill launched a significant training program in the judicial as well as the welfare system which excluded prostitution. Additionally, provisions were added to the Social Services Act for female victims of partner violence (GoS Report 2005:66). The government mobilized all the powers of the NBHW in the area of domestic violence between 2007 and 2011, which included providing general recommendations and national inspections of social services.

  31. This lack of mandate also means that the units are not obliged to systematically document their work which complicates rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of their approaches.

  32. The prostitution units nonrandomly selected the clients of whom the majority claimed to have stopped selling sex before the intervention began. The study did not include a control group.

  33. Sex sales by men and teenage boys were surveyed by Svedin and Priebe (2004, 2009, 2012), Eriksson and Knutagård (2005), Kuosmanen (2008), Månsson (1998), Olsson (2007, 2010), Abelsson and Hulusjö (2008), and Statens Institutionsstyrelse (2011). Though much more limited, there is also data on sex purchases by women, e.g., Kuosmanen (2008); Svedin and Priebe (2011); Richert and Svensson (2009); Sandin et al. (2010); Larsdotter et al. (2011); and SoS (2008). In the 2011 population-based survey cited above only 0.1 % of female respondents aged 18-65 years (an estimated 2,900 women) reported having bought sex.

  34. For example, Hulusjö (2009) and Svennecke in Sahlin (January 24, 2008) and Westerberg and Ivarsson (March 3, 2009).

  35. According to Sweden's 2010 country progress report to UNAIDS, 18.5 % of sex-selling drug users stated that they used a condom when they last had sexual intercourse. Seventy-eight percent of sex buyers and 43 % of sex vendors reported condom use when they last bought/sold sex in the 2011 population-based survey (Government Offices of Sweden 2010; Svedin and Priebe 2012).

  36. The Addiction Severity Index Interview is utilized in most municipalities. The study included data on 13,893 clients interviewed from 2001 to 2008. Eighty-eight respondents (0.6 %) stated recent income from prostitution which may also be interpreted as income from another person's prostitution, i.e., pimping.

  37. In the 1996 survey, 42%of female respondents (n = 1,475) and 19 % of male respondents (n = 1,475) stated that women who sell sex ought to be criminalized. In the 2007 survey, 66 % of female respondents (n = 436) and 49 % of male respondents (n = 296) agreed that the sale of sexual services should be prohibited by law. In the 2011 survey, 65 % of female respondents (n = 2,583) and 37 % of male respondents (n = 2,488) agreed to the same statement (Månsson 1998; Kuosmanen 2008; Svedin and Priebe 2012).


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I am grateful to Professor Julia O'Connell Davidson and Sandra South for invaluable comments on previous versions of this article and Birgitta Resenius for helpful consultation while preparing it.

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Correspondence to Ola Florin.

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Florin, O. A Particular Kind of Violence: Swedish Social Policy Puzzles of a Multipurpose Criminal Law. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 269–278 (2012).

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  • Criminal law
  • Social policy
  • Gender equality
  • Victimhood
  • Agency
  • Radical feminism