In origin as well as in consequence, Sweden’s landmark legislation—pushed through Parliament with great fanfare by feminist Social Democratic politicians—has had as much to do with the symbolic politics surrounding questions of Swedish national identity as with questions of sex or gender per se. In fact, the Swedish Prostitution Committee’s decision to implement the new law criminalizing clients emerged in tandem with heated social debates about whether or not Sweden should join the European Union. As the anthropologist Don Kulick has observed, “In the early 1990s … talk about prostitution had a subtext—in addition to being about the referent ‘prostitution,’ it was also about the EU and Sweden’s relationship to it.”25 In addition to confronting the blurred boundaries between public and private and licit and illicit sex that the emergence of the Internet seemed to represent, Sweden was confronting the immediate and literal blurring of national boundaries through the specters of Europeanization and globalization. The 1998 law criminalizing the purchase of sex aimed to stabilize cultural and geopolitical boundaries simultaneously.
Though the law officially prohibits the client’s behavior (a client who is uniformly depicted as white, middle-class, and computer- literate in the public relations posters), in many ways it is still the sex worker whose presence in Sweden is at issue—particularly the migrant sex worker. The national prostitution commission which ultimately recommended the new law was first established in 1993 to address a wide variety of concerns stemming from the “internationalization” of the new global order. Government officials were concerned both with an anticipated flood of migrants from the east in the wake of the recent Soviet collapse, as well as Sweden’s impending and controversial entry into the European Union.26 From its inception, one of the explicit goals of the commission was to seek a means to combat what they saw as the “free market” in sexual commerce advocated by the European “pro-prostitution lobby” and endorsed by the European Community Court. As Sven Axel Månsson, an outspoken member of the Swedish Prostitution Commission, cautioned: “A European Community member state cannot deny a foreign prostitute (from another member state) the right to work within its premises as long as prostitution is not il- legal or subject to other repressive measures in that particular state. As most member states have decriminalized prostitution, [this] … opens the way for a free movement of ‘sex workers’ within Europe.”27 In language which highlighted the fear of an incursion of foreign sex workers, the Swedish Prostitution Commission declared arguments for the decriminalization of the European sex trade to be “alien to Swedish principles.” 28
Although the new Swedish policy marks an important shift from a social-service to a criminal justice system approach (the equivalent of 1.5 million U.S. dollars were given to the police, while no additional monies were given to social service agencies to enforce the new law), it has been taken by many Western feminists to represent an instance of aggressive state intervention against the incursion of global forces of inequality.29
Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 149-151