At the 3rd Swedish-Dutch Conference on Gender Equality: Trafficking in Human Beings and Prostitution held on 6th December 2010, Birgitta Ohlsson, the Swedish Minister for EU Affairs defended the Swedish policy of criminalising the demand for paid sex, rather than the supply, as well as tackling issues of human trafficking and enslavement:
Human trafficking is a crime against humanity
I would like to start by saying that it is an honour and a pleasure for me to be here today and I would like to thank the Swedish embassy for bringing us together here in The Hague. Human rights, gender equality and crime prevention are high on the political agenda both in the Netherlands and Sweden.
Human trafficking is described by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. According to the International Labour Organization some 12.3 million people are enslaved worldwide today. That is about the same number as those slaves who were taken from Africa to America between 1525 to 1867. Regardless of whether the purpose is the sale of sexual services or slave labour, the scale of human suffering is great.
A large number of the victims are bought and sold by criminals to make large sums of money in prostitution. You all know this already. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here today. We do not know exactly how many victims there are worldwide trapped in prostitution. We all need to remember that we are talking about serious crimes and thousands of victims in many – probably all countries of the world.
Human trafficking for sexual purposes is profitable because a human being, unlike most products, can be sold several times. Perpetrators are often involved with other criminal activities. The link between prostitution and cross-border crime has steadily strengthened. Alongside the trade in arms and drugs, traffickers’ exploitation of people for sexual purposes is a part of the serious organised crime industry.
As human trafficking is almost always a cross-border crime, it is just as important to make sure that law enforcement and judicial cooperation over the borders is built on mutual trust and functions as smoothly as possible. Joint investigations and prosecutions, with the active involvement of EUROPOL and EUROJUST, have proven to be an important tool in practice. But this is not enough. We must reach beyond the borders of the EU, to countries from which the victims come and to countries through which victims pass en route to their final destinations.
At the same time we must look at ourselves, not least by working to reduce the demand for both sexual services and illegal labour. Sex is a source of joy and is important in most people’s lives. As a liberal I believe that the state should stay out of the bedroom, swingers meetings and sauna clubs. But the human body can not be regarded as a commodity among others.
The Swedish government’s position is clear: prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes represent a serious obstacle to social equality, to gender equality and to the enjoyment of human rights.
Studies show that it is mostly men who purchase sexual services. The victims are primarily women and girls. But men and boys are also being exposed to prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.
I don’t deny that there are prostitutes who are satisfied with their choice of profession. But satisfied sex workers constitute a sliver in the world of prostitution. Most people caught in the business of selling their bodies in the world today are poor and traumatized youths. Few real-world prostitutes live the life of the Julia Roberts character in the popular Hollywood love story “Pretty Woman.”
The gap between the demand for sexual services and people who voluntarily want to sell their bodies results in forced prostitution at the hands of organized crime. What primarily sustains both trafficking and prostitution is demand. In other words, the fact that people – mostly men – buy sex.
Prostitution is often called the world’s oldest profession. Defenders of the phenomenon assume that prostitution will always exist. Legislators often advance legalization proposals because they think nothing else is successful in legally addressing prostitution. However, there is a legal alternative. Sweden has drafted legislation recognizing that without demand, there would be a much-decreased supply.
Since 1999 buying sex in Sweden has been a criminal offence. This means that obtaining casual sexual relations in exchange for payment is forbidden, on penalty of a fine or up to six months’ imprisonment. Selling sexual services, on the other hand, is not an offence.
The law was initially questioned by policemen and many politicians. Today all parties in the parliament support it. The Swedish police support the law because they have seen the results. Human traffickers tend to avoid Sweden because it’s hazardous to do business here. The law has also made customers more cautious.
The law has been evaluated this year. The purpose of the evaluation was to investigate how the prohibition, which has been in force for over ten years, works in practice and what effects it has had on the incidence of prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden.
1. The evaluation shows that the ban on the purchase of sexual services has had the intended effect and is an important instrument in preventing and combating prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.
2. The Inquiry concluded that prostitution in Sweden, unlike in comparable countries, has not increased since the introduction of the ban. The ban on the purchase of sexual services has also counteracted the establishment of organised crime in Sweden. Criminalisation has contributed to combating prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.
3. Prohibiting purchases of sexual services also has a normative effect. There has been a marked change in attitude to the purchase of sexual services that coincides with making it a criminal offence to buy sex. There is now strong support for the ban on purchasing sexual services in Sweden. The ban has proved to act as a deterrent to sex purchasers.
4. The Inquiry could find no indication that criminalisation has had a negative effect on people exploited through prostitution.
5. The Inquiry stresses the value and necessity of continued and sustained social work to prevent and combat prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.
6. The Inquiry also proposes that the maximum penalty for the purchase of sexual services be raised from imprisonment for six months to imprisonment for one year. According to the Inquiry, the current level of penalties for certain sexual purchase offences is not proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.
Norway and Iceland have introduced similar legislation. I hope more countries follow.
Some have argued that normalizing prostitution as work is good economic development policy. Let’s transform prostitution into sex work and pimps into entrepreneurs! But we must ask the question: who will end up in brothels? Your son or my baby daughter Stella? Most girls and boys in the EU don’t dream of becoming prostitutes. And most parents in the EU don’t support that kind of future career.
The sex industry in the EU has recruitment problems. As a consequence most prostitutes come from poor countries outside the Union, many of them staying in the EU illegally and many against their will. We know what happens when society signals that prostitution is acceptable. Demand increases. When few sell their bodies voluntarily – others are forced by criminals. According to the Europol, traffickers prefer business in countries with a well-developed sex industry. The reason is simple: low risk and high profit.
Some argue that we must make distinctions between forced and voluntary prostitution. But most clients do not stop to ask whether the women, the girl or the boy they meet in the brothel are forced into prostitution or whether they have been trafficked from abroad. It’s my firm believe that most consumers who buy sexual activities do not care enough about the distinctions between forced and voluntary prostitution or between child and adult prostitution. Without demand there will be no supply.
This evening I’m proud to participate as an actor in the documentary play “Seven” together with Dutch female politicians. The playwrights have collected personal interviews from seven extraordinary women. One of these women is Mu Sochua, the former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Cambodia.
She was co-nominated in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work against sex trafficking of women in Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand. Each year thousands of Cambodian children and women are forced into prostitution. Some children are sold by their own parents. Others are lured by what they think are legitimate job offers like waitressing, but then are forced into prostitution
I will now read a part of the play were Mu Sochua tells the story of a young victim called Mony.
“I ask victims of trafficking, when did you lose the soul? They say their souls left when the trafficker took them away from their families. That their souls are still in the rice field. When you are raped you lose your pralung – someone takes it away.
I’m working now with one of them, a girl called Mony. We go through the calling of the souls ceremony now for Mony. She has just been rescued from a brothel. We wrap her wrist with nineteen cotton strings for each of her souls and the entire time, she says almost nothing. She is only a kid – a beautiful child, that smile and everything. But she is lost. You can see it. Just by looking at her you know that she is soul-less. It is a form of emptiness, depression. When you ask about that moment, that painful moment when she was penetrated, forced – she just keeps saying: “I lost my soul. He took away my soul.”
Trafficking for sexual purposes profoundly violates human dignity and the right of individuals to decide over their own lives and their own bodies. I think that the suffering of these victims cannot be stressed too many times.
“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.”
This is a quotation from the famous French writer Victor Hugo who died in 1885 – more than a century ago.
I hope that more countries, like the Netherlands, will be inspired by the Swedish legislation. Reduced demand is crucial if the EU’s ambition is to finally abolish this modern form of slavery. It is clear to all of us that trafficking in human beings is a crime that cannot be tolerated in any form in Europe – or anywhere else.
Thank you for your attention!