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Sweden's sex-trade law hits clients, not prostituted women

Turning the way Canada, the United States and many Western countries handle prostitution on its head, Sweden's innovative laws criminalize the buyers, not the sellers -- and according to a recent front-line report in The Independent, it's working.

A reporter following police on patrol on the small island of Skeppsholmen, to the east of Stockholm, where men flock to buy sex, talked to one undercover officer with the city's prostitution unity who said he had arrested more than 600 men under the new law. "We've arrested everyone from drug addicts to politicians," he told The Independent. "Buying sex is one of the most shameful crimes you can be arrested for."

In most Western countries, including Canada, the vast majority of arrests related to prostitution are women -- not the men doing the buying or the pimps doing the selling.

According to research I gathered for a book on sex trafficking, fewer than 60 men are convicted every year in Canada of the offence of “procuring” an adult prostitute, according to Statistics Canada. The latest available numbers show that the number of men charged with trying to obtain sex from a minor fell to 16 in 2009 from 35 in 2005.

Since 1999, Sweden's anti-prostitution laws make it illegal to buy sex and to sell someone else's body for sex. But the women forced into prostitution don't get jail -- they get help, from social services to medical treatment.

According to The Independent and other reports, that has led to a "70 per cent drop in business" -- and much more safety and aid for the women.

Known as the "Nordic model" for combatting prostitution, the Swedish law is quite different from "legalized" prostitution and is not to be confused with the system in the Netherlands and a handful of other countries which seek to regulate the sex trade.

De-criminalization of at least part of the sex trade is where Canada may be heading -- a policy hailed by some activists and sex workers as liberating and protective of women but decried by anti-trafficking advocates and some women's groups as an oppressive policy disguised as a liberal approach.

Back in 2010, a Toronto judge struck down Canada’s prostitution laws, saying provisions meant to protect women and residential neighbourhoods are endangering sex workers’ lives.

Later that year, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the landmark ruling, agreeing that sex workers should be able to conduct business in homes and brothels.

Now that case is in the hands of the Supreme Court, which announced late last year that it was willing to hear a government appeal of a ruling striking down the ban on brothels.

It will be one of the most important social policy decisions by the Supreme Court in years -- and it will likely unleash a stormy political debate in Canada and around the world.

As Norma Ramos, the director of the New York-based Coalition against Trafficking in Women has said: "“Legalization leads to an expansion of the sexploitation industry and protects no one. You don’t tax a human rights abuse; you abolish it.”

RELATED: Canadians are major customers in Cuba’s child sex market

Julian Sher is a foreign affairs and investigative journalist for the Star and the author of a recent book on child sex trafficking. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @juliansher.


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