What is the Sex Buyer Law?
The Sex Buyer Law is a highly effective legal framework for preventing commercial sexual exploitation. It has three key components:
- The buying of sex acts is criminalised
- The selling of sex acts is decriminalised
- Support and exiting services are provided for those exploited through prostitution
The Sex Buyer Law was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has been shown to be highly effective in reducing demand for prostitution and making the country in question a more hostile destination for traffickers.
Underlying principle of the Law
The Sex Buyer Law recognises that the exploitation of people through prostitution and sex trafficking, most of whom are women and girls, ultimately only occurs because there is currently a demand from a minority of men wanting and willing to pay for sex. If there was no demand, there would be no ‘supply’. As the European Union (EU) Commissioner for Home Affairs has stated, “only by addressing demand for all forms of exploitation can we can begin <to> address trafficking in human beings… we cannot address the sexual exploitation of victims (the overwhelming majority being girls) without addressing the users.” (1)
The approach provides formal recognition of prostitution as a barrier to gender equality and seeks to have a normative effect: changing public attitudes by challenging the belief that it is acceptable to treat women and girls as sexual objects by paying them for sex.
Purpose of the Law
The Sex Buyer Law is designed to:
- Reduce demand for sexual exploitation – by making it a criminal offence to pay a person for sex.
- Support people exploited through the sex trade – by completely decriminalising the sale of sex acts and providing comprehensive support and exiting services.
- Transform attitudes – by challenging the belief that it is acceptable to treat women and girls as sexual objects by paying them for sex acts.
Evidence of its effectiveness in reducing demand
Sweden: adopted the Sex Buyer Law in 1999
- Street prostitution in Sweden halved between 1999 and 2008 and there is no evidence women were simply displaced to indoor prostitution or prostitution advertised online (1). During this period, the number of women in street prostitution tripled in Denmark and Norway where purchasing sex was legal at the time (2).
- The number of men paying for sex in Sweden has declined. In 1996, 13.6% of men reported buying sex. By 2008 this figure had dropped to 7.9%. (3)
- Public attitudes have changed. While the majority of the Swedish population was opposed to the law before it was introduced, three surveys have shown that a decade on from its adoption more than 70% of the population fully support it (4).
- According to the National Criminal Police, Sweden has become a more hostile destination for traffickers (5).
Norway: adopted the Sex Buyer Law in 2009
- The prostitution market has reduced. Systematic field observations of the street prostitution market in Oslo reveal it has shrunk by 40%-65% since the law was adopted (6).
- Norway has become a more hostile destination for traffickers. An evaluation of the law’s impact reported: “A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers…The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.” (7)
Ipswich, UK: adopted a similar approach in 2007
In 2006, five women involved in prostitution at the time were brutally murdered in Ipswich by a sex buyer. In response to these appalling crimes, Suffolk Constabulary joined with local agencies to end street prostitution in Ipswich. Suffolk Constabulary took a zero tolerance approach to kerb-crawling, diverted women involved in prostitution away from the criminal justice system and instead worked with local agencies to enable women to access support and exiting services. These three elements are the fundamental pillars of the Sex Buyer Law.
An independent evaluation of the Ipswich/Suffolk Prostitution Strategy for 2007-2012 (EVISSTA 2) by the University of East Anglia concluded there has been, “clear and sustained success in terms of: Eliminating kerb-crawlers from the streets (Tackling Demand)” (8)
An economic analysis of the strategy also found that for every £1 spent as part of the Ipswich/Suffolk Prostitution Strategy, there were savings of £2 to the public purse (9). By shrinking the prostitution market Ipswich’s strategy reduced the associated financial burden on the criminal justice system and social support system. However, the police have been prevented from tackling demand for off-street prostitution because the act of paying for sex is not illegal.
(1) English summary of the Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services (1999-2008), Swedish Ministry of Justice, 2010. See also: Max Waltman, “Prohibiting Sex Purchasing and Ending Trafficking: The Swedish Prostitution Law,” 33 Michigan Journal of International Law 133, 133-57 (2011), pp. 146-148.
(2) European Women’s Lobby, 2014
(3) ‘Demand Change: Understanding the Nordic Approach to Prostitution’, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia, 2013
(4) European Women’s Lobby, 2014
(5) Evaluation of the ban on purchase of sexual services, Ministry of Justice, Government Offices of Sweden, 2 July 2010
(6) ‘Evaluering av forbudet mot kjøp av seksuelle tjenester’, Rapport nummer 2014/30, VISTA ANALYSE
(7) ‘Evaluering av forbudet mot kjøp av seksuelle tjenester’, Rapport nummer 2014/30, VISTA ANALYSE
(8) Evaluation Research Report for Ipswich/ Suffolk Prostitution Strategy 2007-2012: EVISSTA 2, University of East Anglia, 2012
(9) Evaluation Research Report for Ipswich/ Suffolk Prostitution Strategy 2007-2012: EVISSTA 2, University of East Anglia, 2012