The Swedish Model: Why partial criminalisation of sex work will not help sex workers or SA society

People all over the world are coming together to talk about sex work and how we could change the law to improve the lives of people involved in sex work. This is good news for sex workers and others in South Africa who have been advocating for years for our government to remove the outdated criminal laws we have on sex work and to develop new policies and law to protect sex worker rights. In recent years, lawmakers in Europe and other parts of the world have been talking a lot about The Swedish Model, a policy model first introduced in Sweden in 1999. This allows sex workers to sell sex without facing prosecution from the police, but their clients would be arrested and prosecuted for buying. This model is sometimes referred to as The Swedish or Nordic Model, partial criminalization of sex work, and partial decriminalization of sex work. The names might be different but the result is the same. People who buy sex are arrested and those who sell sex are encouraged into exit or rehabilitation programs. While this model is a bit better than the full criminalization of sex work in that it recognizes that sex workers are not criminals who need to be punished.

This legal model also creates harm. There are three main reasons where the model creates harm. Firstly instead of protecting sex workers as the model intended to, it has made conditions worse for many sex workers in Sweden. Studies have shown that the criminalization of clients limit sex worker strategies for keeping themselves safe in the following ways. It displaces sex workers to isolated areas. It makes it almost impossible for sex workers to rely on the police for protection. It makes it difficult for sex workers to screen and negotiate the terms of the transaction particularly with condom use.

Secondly instead of thinking about sex workers as workers, the Swedish Model assumes that sex workers are victims that need to be rescued. Sex workers’ clients, almost always men, are demonized and cause these criminals who need to be punished because they would like to have sex and they’re willing to pay for it. It ignores that many sex workers make an active choice to do sex work because it often offers them an income, flexible working hours, and independence in the context often characterized by poverty, hardship or lack of viable alternative options. Laws like this limit the freedom and livelihood of sex workers, portray clients in a bad light, and criminalize adult consensual sex.

Lastly, there is little evidence that the Swedish Model has worked. Although lawmakers in Sweden argue that it is a great success, studies show that not much has changed. Criminal laws like this can waste valuable resources that could be better used to make sex work safer by implementing sex worker labor laws and occupational health and safety laws. The Swedish Model does not protect sex worker rights and it does not make society safer. We should choose laws that will empower sex workers, improve their working conditions, and protect them and their clients against harm. We should choose laws that respect South Africa’s constitution.

We shouldn’t choose The Swedish Model. We should choose decriminalization of sex work.

Some resources for further information about the Swedish Model:

Produced by: Ayesha Krige for Sonke Gender Justice.
Collaborators: Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, Sonke and the  Women’s Legal Centre
Script by: Ayesha Krige
Additional input: Carole Vance, Stacey-Leigh Manoek and Marlise Richter
Funding by: Open Society Foundation of South Africa