[L]ately there's another favorite model. In 1999, Sweden made it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it—only the johns and the traffickers can be prosecuted. This is the only approach to prostitution that's based on "sex equality," argues University of Michigan law professor Catharine MacKinnon. It treats prostitution as a social evil but views the women who do it as the victims of sexual exploitation who "should not be victimized again by the state by being made into criminals," as MacKinnon put it to me in an e-mail. It's the men who use the women, she continued, who are "sexual predators" and should be punished as such.
According to this Web site for the Women's Justice Center, Sweden's way of doing things is a big success. "In the capital city of Stockholm the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of johns has been reduced by 80%." Trafficking is reportedly down to 200 to 400 girls and women a year, compared with 15,000 to 17,000 in nearby Finland. Max Waltman, a doctoral candidate in Stockholm who is studying the country's prostitution laws, says that those stats hold up. He also said the police are actually going after the johns as ordered: In 2006, more than 150 were convicted and fined. (That might not sound like many, but then Sweden has a population of only 9 million.)
For feminists like MacKinnon (with whom Waltman works), this sure looks like the solution: Go after the men! Take down Eliot Spitzer and leave the call girls alone! On the other hand, the group SANS, for Sex Workers and Allies Network in Sweden, doesn't like the 1999 law. The network says it has brought more dangerous clients and more unsafe sex, rather than the other way around.
Of all approaches to sex work, demand-side enforcement is surely the most incoherent (if just as surely the most morally satisfying). MacKinnon doesn't want to "punish" the victims; she just wants to criminalize the source of their income and let them deal with the fallout. This mirrors the "employer sanctions" approach to immigration enforcement, which polls very well among self-described liberals presumably concerned with the abuse of undocumented workers. But no one has yet managed to explain just how immigrants benefit when employers fear to hire them. In both cases, the remaining options seem likely to be less appealing: more sketchy johns, more dangerous jobs with lower wages. A blogger who claims to be a Swedish sex worker writes:
The buyers are 'worse' and more dangerous, and the women who cannot stop or move their business are dependent on these more dangerous men, since they cannot afford to turn them down as before.