European Parliament's attempt to reduce prostitution fails women

Ruth Jacobs – WNN SOAPBOX

Publications discussing Sweden's policy on prostitution
A book discussing “The Swedish Example” sits on a table alongside a booklet on the Gender Equality Index published by the EIGE – European Institute for Gender Equality. Image: European Parliament/Flickr

(WNN) London, UNITED KINGDOM, WESTERN EUROPE: The Swedish model criminalizing the purchase of sex has failed and is dangerous. The European Parliament should have rejected it. Some 560 NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and civil society organizations along with 86 academics and researchers urged the European Parliament to reject the report promoting the criminalization of the purchase of sex that was put forward by London Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Mary Honeyball in a plenary session last week in Strasbourg, France.

As the European Parliament has voted in favor of the report they’ve also put pressure on EU (European Union) member states to re-evaluate their prostitution laws.

In sound bites the Swedish Government has been spinning their sex purchase ban. It is known as the ‘Swedish model’ or sometimes the ‘Nordic model’. But it has not been adopted by all Nordic countries. In fact it has not proven to be a success. Research does shows that it has not reduced sex-trafficking or sex work. In addition Sweden police reports demonstrate it has pushed prostitution indoors with nearly three times as many Thai massage parlors now in Stockholm and the vicinity.

“In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlous in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale,” outlined the Swedish National Police Board. “At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlors in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450,” the National Police Board continued.

Mary Honeyball, who wrote the report recommending the Swedish sex purchase ban, is a labor spokesperson on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee. In her campaign she has said she wants a model that reduces prostitution. She also claims demand has halved in Sweden since the Swedish model has been put in place.

However this is untrue.

“Not surprisingly, the experiment has failed. In the thirteen years since the law was enacted, the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking. All it has to show for its efforts are a (contested) public support for the law and more danger for street-based sex workers. Despite this failure, the government has chosen to ignore the evidence and proclaim the law to be a success; it also continues to advocate that other countries should adopt a similar law,” outlined Ann Jordan in her report for

On Sunday 23 February I met Mary Honeyball at the BBC One TV debate show “The Big Questions that asked the audience whether it should be illegal to pay for sex. Clearly the inaccuracies MEP Honeyball was stating shows that she is misinformed – and misinforming others – about the actual outcomes of the Swedish model.

Until less than a year ago I too was one of those misinformed. But when I discovered the truth, the harm and danger it causes people in the sex trade, I could no longer support it.

I don’t believe every MEP who voted in favour of Mary Honeyball’s report was unaware of the Swedish model’s failure and danger. Some people coming from extreme religious or feminist standpoints, and in possession of the facts, are putting their views on morality before mortals and feminism before females. They support the Swedish model.

With Honeyball’s FEMM Committee pressing the Swedish model view that prostitution is violence against women the Members of the European Parliament did what they wanted to do – to be seen publicly in support of women.

“There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers,” says the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

“Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalization for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients,” added the Guidance Note.

As someone who had a traumatic experience of prostitution, mine is a standard narrative held up as an example of why the Swedish model may be needed. But actually my traumatic experience in the sex trade suffering being raped more than once and beaten once, every time while working alone and ending up an intravenous heroin and crack addict, is a prime example of why decriminalization is needed. I think it’s important to see where the Swedish model would have left a woman like me because that’s who this law affects – people in prostitution, not anti-prostitution feminists poring over theories or religious zealots praying for our perceived sins.

But it is important to know, I am not pro-prostitution.

My own experience of selling sex was traumatic. I know for my friends who were also in prostitution they suffered trauma too. But criminalizing clients would not have helped us. It would have put us in greater danger.

Under the Swedish model, as a former intravenous addict, I would probably have died from a blood-borne virus as harm reduction is not practiced in Sweden because it is deemed as ‘enabling’ drug use. Without access to clean needles people can lose limbs. So if I managed to stay alive I might be an amputee. I couldn’t get access to free condoms because with their illogical and highly dangerous position on harm reduction, condoms encourage me to sell sex. So if I was unable to afford to purchase my own condoms I would be at an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

These issues, as well as others, are most likely to be encountered by women working ‘on-street’ who are most often in poverty. This includes many who are suffering with addiction.

“The approach of criminalizing the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers are very vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, in detention facilities and elsewhere,” adds the UNAIDS Guidance Note report.

As a sex worker I couldn’t go to the police to report being raped or beaten if I lived in rented accommodations because my landlord would be forced to evict me. If I was working indoors I would be at greater risk of rape and other violence because I couldn’t screen my clients effectively. This is because they would be too afraid to give identifying information due to being criminalized. I would also be at greater risk of rape and other violence if I was working ‘on-street’ for the same reason – the criminalization of clients.

This means I would have to place myself in more out-of-the-way areas staying alone because groups draw attention. I would also need to protect potential clients from being detected by the police.

For the same reason again, I would not have time to negotiate before getting into cars to agree what I would or would not do. I would also not have time to check if the driver was slurring his words indicating he was drunk or on drugs or check that no one was hiding in the back of the car or that he wasn’t aggressive, etcetera.

I would have to have sex with more men to make the same money. And if I was really desperate for my drugs, or didn’t have enough money to pay the rent or buy food, I would end up seeing clients I would usually turn down agreeing to sex acts I did not want to perform.

Public vigil in London highlights killed sex-workers
A November 2013 street protest in London holds a vigil for those sex-workers who have fallen ‘through the cracks’ facing lethal violence throughout Scotland and England. The hard issues facing sex workers today in the UK will not be cured by adopting Sweden’s model to criminalize sex buyers, say the experts. Image: SWOU

“The law has been enforced almost entirely against clients of street-based sex workers but the government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect. They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and on line, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law,” adds expert Ann Jordan in her report.

The sex purchase ban does not work in Sweden.

But even if it did work there in a wealthy country with a small population and a small number of people in prostitution, it will not work here in the UK.

“Criminalization stigmatizes and marginalizes both domestic and migrant sex workers and it deprives them of the tools to protect themselves from violence and seek redress. It drives the sex industry even more underground, which results in less access to health, social and legal assistance for sex workers, and significantly lower chances to identify individuals who have been trafficked,” says La Strada International, a respected global network based in Amsterdam, Netherlands working to end global human trafficking.

They are not alone in their opinion. Human rights and global women advocates Mama Cash and the Global Fund for Women also agree. The measure to bring the Swedish model to the UK will not slow down sex-trafficking. In fact it may be the opposite.

There are 80,000 people in prostitution today in the United Kingdom, most in poverty and 70 percent single mothers. The UK government is not going to invest in the essential services needed by people seeking to leave the sex trade. They may throw a little money at the needs as a gesture, but that will be insignificant to what is required. It can be a start, but being realistic it will take an extremely long time.

These are seriously complex essential services. They must encompass help getting out of poverty, as well as help finding housing and help to get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction (most women working ‘on-street’ have addiction issues). Receiving counseling, trauma therapy (a high number of women in prostitution suffer post-traumatic stress disorder) and access to further education would also be needed. Women would also need training for life skills, help to get a new career launched and help to get children back from the public care system if they’ve lost them.

Clearly not every person will need absolutely everything on that list. But many will need a great deal and some, such as migrants, may require further services such as help with their right to remain in the UK, as well as English language classes. But these services will not work if they are forced on those who need them.

The reasons why women sell sex are complex. For all the women I’ve known it’s been financially driven.

While many of us have suffered abuse in childhood, services using tactics of coercion and manipulation are going to act as a powerful deterrent for those who do want to leave the sex trade. Forced exiting would have repelled me and all the women I knew during the time I was in prostitution. My charity publication of In Her Own Words… Interview with a London Call Girl with my dear friend Q who is no longer alive, has been thought by some abolitionists to argue in favor of the Swedish model.

But if you read Q’s words in the interview she was never going to have someone tell her to stop selling sex or tell her anything. She was fiercely independent. She was also the most wonderful person I have ever known and an amazing mother.

For sex workers who are mothers the Swedish model means that they would be at risk of losing custody of their children. This is because by selling sex they are deemed an unfit parent. This happened to Petite Jasmine who had the custody of her children given to the father, a man known to be violent who had threatened and stalked her. She was given no protection by the Swedish authorities.

In 2013 Petite Jasmine’s husband murdered her.

I do not claim the sex trade can ever be safe, but it can be made less dangerous. It can be made more dangerous though, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

Safer working practices, including women being able to work together in well-lit areas ‘on-street’ and a small number of women being able to work from premises together should be decriminalized as soon as possible. As research shows, whether ‘on-street’ or ‘off-street’, women are more at risk of rape and other violence when they are on their own and isolated.

The two women who were recently murdered in London were working alone: Mariana Popa who was working ‘on-street’, and in an area where a police crackdown on street prostitution was being enforced. Maria Duque-Tunjano was working alone in a flat (an apartment). Under decriminalization they might still be alive because they would have been able to work with other women for safety. Decriminalization also means sex trafficking victims do not need to fear arrest and being charged, which currently is an issue.

Jes Richardson, a sex trafficking survivor, was not able to turn to police for this reason. It was a sex worker who helped her escape. She is another woman formerly in the sex trade who is advocating for decriminalization.

“According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people may have fallen victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims discovered in Sweden depends largely on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the skills that exists within the police organization. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and differs from one year to another. Neither is it possible to identify (nor indeed to locate) all of the victims, mostly girls and women, who are mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance,” continues the Police Board report.

It is imperative that hard line policing approaches, which put women working ‘on-street’ in greater danger, are stopped immediately.

The most recent BBC Inside Out documentary on policing prostitution exposed the negative outcomes of police crackdowns on women sex workers. I do not believe anyone who cares about women and ending violence against women wants that. Many women selling sex feel they do not have any other options. So we need to reform our benefits system in the UK and end poverty so no woman has to sell sex in order to pay her rent so her family is not made homeless and ensure her children eat, or to heat her home and have hot water.

Some people cannot imagine those circumstances.

They are the ones who push for laws that will make those situations worse for women sex workers. I suppose they cannot imagine themselves living the same lives these women live now. They have no concept of what ‘worse’ is. I’ve described it here and I hope that’s been understood.

I stand in solidarity with those 560 NGOs and civil society organizations and 86 academics and researchers who also object to the Swedish model. And I urge other EU member states to not criminalize the purchase of sex as they reassess their prostitution laws. Cambridge PhD Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the criminalization with the purchase of sex, met with me in London at the end of 2013 to discuss his findings.

To see this video interview link HERE.


Ruth Jacobs is the author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from her own life. Ruth studied prostitution in the late 1990s and has firsthand experience of many of the topics she writes about such as post-traumatic stress disorder, rape, and drug and alcohol addiction. In addition to fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction, journalism and broadcasting for charity and human rights campaigning in the areas of anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking. Learn more about Ruth at and


©2014 WNN – Women News Network
WNN encourages conversation. All opinions expressed in WNN SOAPBOX belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of WNN – Women News Network. No part of text of  commentary (op-ed) may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN &/or the author. All other media is copyright of the owners and may not be used or reproduced without permission.