The Swedish Law to Criminalise Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering

Ann Jordan
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In 1999, the Swedish government embarked on an experiment in social engineering1 to end men’s practice of purchasing commercial sexual services. The government enacted a new law criminalizing the purchase (but not the sale) of sex (Swedish Penal Code). It hoped that the fear of arrest and increased public stigma would convince men to change their sexual behaviour. The government also hoped that the law would force the estimated 1,850 to 3,000 women who sold sex in Sweden at that time to find another line of work. Lastly, the government hoped that the law would eliminate trafficking into forced prostitution and the presence of migrant sex workers.

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.

In 2010, the government released a report claiming that the law reduced street-based sex work, despite the fact that the report does not contain any evidence supporting the claim.

This resource analyses the English-language text of the report and demonstrates that none of the government’s claims are supported by evidence. It has four parts:

 1) a description of the Swedish law,

(2) a comparison of the government’s claims with the government’s evidence,

(3) the negative consequences of the law and

(4) a call for less politics and more evidence-based research and solutions.


You can download the 17 page document above. This resource is in English.

American University Washington College of Law

Centre for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law