New twist to old game

Shanghai Star. 2003-04-10

IT is 11:30pm, bone-piercingly cold and in the lonely shadows of Malmskillnadsgatan, the oldest game in the world is in play.

Women ply their trade and men reach for their cash in a street scene repeated on dark corners each night across the world. A few blocks away across Stockholm at five-star hotels along the frozen waterfront, businessmen pay up to 100,000 crowns (US$11,600) to sleep with their escorts.

The difference is that this is Sweden, whose authorities claim to have broken the back of illicit street sex - and made major inroads into eliminating prostitution altogether - through a "unique" law they want to export to the world.

Deputy Prime Minister Margareta Winberg has made speeches touting Sweden's legislation at the United Nations and in Washington. There have also been seminars in Paris, Moscow and across Eastern Europe and Finland, Norway and Estonia are said to be interested in the Swedish experiment.

In 1999 Sweden banned buying sex to decriminalize and protect the prostitutes themselves while threatening the mostly male clients with up to six months jail and huge fines linked to the size of their salary.

Four years on, it says the law has cleaned up streets like Malmskillnadsgatan and that it is worth spreading the idea. "In a way we are creating and exporting this legislation," said Winberg.

"Before the law there were many men every night circulating in cars in Malmskillnadsgatan, starting after work and going into the night. Now there is no street scene at all," said special government adviser Gunilla Ekberg.

Going underground

Others, however, dispute that.

"No, the law hasn't been successful, that's hypocrisy," said social worker, author and journalist Deanne Raucher who has worked with prostitutes and drug addicts.

"It's been made worse in a sense. Those who sold sex on the street have gone underground and wealthy men are still buying. I know of police chiefs, judges and parliamentarians who buy."

Ekberg maintains that Swedish law is also dealing a heavy blow to the trafficking of young women from Eastern Europe to work as prostitutes.

"These women are being raped five to 10 times a day ... women are not going to take that," she said.

She dismisses any idea that some women might want to enter the business, that women also buy male services and the industry has moved underground and onto the Internet.

"The myth of the woman who makes millions, puts it into shares and lives happily every after is as much a myth as the film 'Pretty Woman'," said Ekberg.

But despite the courage of the government's convictions and polls which indicate strong and widespread public support for the law, there remain nagging doubts.

On Malmskillnadsgatan a young blue-eyed blonde woman stands expectantly, her provocative clothes a visual beacon that soon attracts the attention of passing men.

The streetwalker is TV producer Linda Nyberg in disguise, researching a documentary. She says the law is a noble but flawed experiment and sex workers still haunt the street.

"It all looks nice, it looks clean and it looks good for the politicians, but the hell is still there," she said.

An escort called "Anna" says she advertises on the Internet and enjoys the work which provides extra income.

"The law is no good at all because it encourages prostitution to go underground," she said.

"There are maybe two or three serious escorts in Sweden, the rest are run by organized crime and the clients are often robbed and then they can't go to the police and complain."

Official statistics, however, indicate that the problem is in check.

The National Council for Crime Prevention says fewer than 100 men a year are arrested for paying prostitutes. Detective Inspector Kajsa Wahlberg, head of the national unit against traffick in women, says that in 1998 there were an estimated 2,500 prostitutes and that number is unlikely to have changed.

The problem is minor compared to much of the rest of Europe and while related violence occurs, the last report of a prostitute being murdered was in 1987.

"The Swedish buyer doesn't argue with the price, wants it done quickly and there is no violence. That's what Russian prostitutes working in Sweden have told me," Wahlberg said. "That's because the prostitutes don't mind reporting the men. If they lose customers, many others are soon lining up."

The irony is that despite the small scale of prostitution in Sweden - a country with a population of 9 million who live in one of the world's most egalitarian societies and who enjoy a very high standard of living - barely a day passes when a brothel bust is not featured prominently in the media.

Last year a student in her 20s left the national police academy after being discovered moonlighting as a call girl and using the school's computers to arrange trysts.

"Sweden is not a liberal country," said journalist Thomas Gustafsson who interviewed the errant policewoman before she went to ground. "The whole issue is so big because the feminists here are so strong and they have made it a key issue."

Criminologists however say street prostitution is returning.

"The law has resulted in hidden prostitution. We don't see it much on the streets, but it is increasing in the cities after initially going down after the law," said Dr Peter Martens of the National Council for Crime Prevention.

But Sweden's centre-left Social Democrat government, a champion of women's rights, says its commitment to fight prostitution and related trafficking remains unshakeable.

Included on the agenda for Foreign Minister Anna Lindh's visit to Britain this month were talks with her British counterpart Jack Straw on the war in Iraq - but the purpose of her visit was to attend a seminar on trafficking in women.

"It's important to meet Mr Straw, but even in wartime it's important to raise the issue of women's human rights," the minister said.

(Agencies via Xinhua)

Copyright by Shanghai Star.