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Last Updated: Monday, 21 January 2008, 14:07 GMT
Swedes argue over sex law
By Thomas Buch-Andersen
BBC News, Malmo

Prostitute (File photo posed by model)
Sweden criminalised paying for sex in 1999
Two women who claim they were sexually abused by leading Swedish politicians in the 1970s when working as under-age prostitutes are demanding that the state compensate them for the alleged abuse.

The demands for one million Swedish kronor (78,000; $155,000) come as the UK government studies Sweden's crackdown on prostitution.

According to Sweden's Sex Purchase Law - the Sexkopslagen - it is a crime to pay for sex, though selling sex remains legal.

Earlier this month the UK Home Office Minister, Vernon Coaker, visited Sweden to study the impact of the sex law. The trip was part of a six-month review of British policy towards prostitution.

Paying for sex is not currently outlawed in the UK. But trafficking people for sex, running a brothel, street soliciting and kerb-crawling are illegal.

'Torsks'

Since Sweden criminalised paying for sex in 1999, the number of prostitutes has dropped from 2,500 to 1,500 in 2002, according to government estimates. But the figures are disputed.

Underground profiteers, pimps and traffickers flourish and we would rather avoid them
Isabella Lund
former prostitute

Social anthropologist Petra Ostergren has studied Swedish prostitutes over a 10-year period.

"No-one knows if there are fewer prostitutes," she says.

According to her studies, prostitutes feel more vulnerable because they now have to operate secretly.

Other figures suggest that the number of women trafficked to Sweden has more than doubled, according to Kajsa Wahlberg, a detective inspector and Sweden's national rapporteur on trafficking.

Police are using surveillance cameras and CCTV footage to catch men who visit prostitutes and pay - or seek to pay for - sex.

Within weeks of such a visit a letter is sent to the "torsk" - Swedish slang for a male sex customer. If he does not admit to the crime he is taken to court.

In the city of Malmo, torsks have been fined up to 35,000 kronor (2,746) each, depending on their income. If the sex client is found guilty of other crimes, too, the sex sentence can mean extra time in prison.

Some of the more than 500 men caught breaking this law have told the media of their embarrassment and the impact on their marriage. In some cases, wives have discovered the police letters.

Geijer affair

Furthermore, the Sexkopslagen has changed the perception of prostitution in Sweden.

From being a business arrangement between a woman and a man, paying for sex is now seen as an abuse of women.

The change in perception has also rekindled interest in the so-called "Geijer Affair".

It erupted in 1977, when the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter revealed that the head of Swedish police had written a memo to the then Prime Minister, Olof Palme, warning that Justice Minister Lennart Geijer constituted a security risk because he was visiting a brothel also frequented by foreign diplomats.

Olof Palme denied the memo's existence and Dagens Nyheter retracted the story and apologised. But Palme's predecessor Thorbjoern Falldin said such a memo did exist. He also admitted that the memo mentioned himself and former Centre Party leader Olof Johansson. But Mr Falldin argued that the memo had to be full of errors, as he had never visited a prostitute.

While the woman who ran the Stockholm brothel, Doris Hopp, was sentenced to two years in prison for pimping, two of the prostitutes have now stepped forward and are demanding compensation from the state.

The two women were aged 14 and 15 at the time. They claim to have sold sex to named politicians and other civil servants.

While the Sexkopslagen does not criminalise actions in the past, the lawyer of the two ex-prostitutes argues that they were both under-age and that under-age sex was illegal at the time.

Justice Minister Beatrice Ask has said she is now looking into the case.

"It's clear that when people are worried and feel that they have been abused, then we will have to find a way to handle it and give the answers that can be found," she says.

However, Mrs Ask is making no promises: "This was a very long time ago and it will be difficult to sort this out, since some of those involved are no longer alive." Olof Palme and Lennart Geijer are both dead.

Ex-prostitute's revelations

While the sex law has intensified and widened the debate about prostitution, it is not clear whether it has helped women who sell sex.

Former prostitute Isabella Lund, 45, has gone public to speak on behalf of her former colleagues.

She argues that the Sexkopslagen might have led to fewer women working on the streets, but more women now have to work underground to avoid their customers being caught in the crime.

On her website, Ms Lund writes: "Sex workers in Sweden advocate decriminalisation and better working conditions, because underground profiteers, pimps and traffickers flourish and we would rather avoid them."

She argues that the strict sex law has made trafficked women even more vulnerable, as the trade has been driven underground.

Paradoxically, these are precisely the women the UK government wants to help, as it examines Sweden's experience.

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