Could Sweden's prostitution laws work in the UK?

Stockholm's red-light district is a world away from those in Britain. Some hope Sweden's prostitution laws could be used as a template for the UK. But can legislation ever completely protect women who sell sex?

After the killings of three prostitutes in the north of England earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron recommended a review of prostitution laws in the country.

Image caption Sex worker Naomi says Swedish authorities make it difficult for sex workers to operate

Campaign groups said UK laws effectively criminalised women, making them more vulnerable to attack and less able to seek help when things go wrong.

But in Sweden the law was changed in 1998, making it a crime to buy sex - but not to sell it.

But while a recent government-commissioned evaluation concluded the move had resulted in a 50% drop in the number of women working as prostitutes, the picture is by no means as simple as the figures would suggest.

Office blocks line the busy Malmkillnesgattan in Stockholm, which leads to a pleasant fountain surrounded by benches overlooked by a luxury hotel. But this is the city's red-light district.

Nicole has been working as a prostitute for 10 years, but does not work the streets.

She said she meets her clients on the internet and says the law has not deterred the men, but has stigmatised the prostitutes.

"I mostly work in high luxury hotels and apartments. I don't feel used. Sometimes I feel I'm using them," she said.

And while she admitted there have been scary moments during her career, generally she has little to fear because of the environment she works in.

"Not much can happen when you're sitting in a bar drinking champagne," she added.

Stockholm's Police Surveillance Unit has arrested 300 men for buying sex this year so far.

Detective Superintendent Jonas Trolle said the buyers were not dark shadowy figures but men in their 30s and 40s who were unlikely to re-offend.

But while the law makes it easier to pursue customers, he conceded on-street prostitution has probably fallen because of the internet, rather than simply the change in the law.

He added: "It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society - so even though we don't put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them."

Naomi, who is 39 and has been working as a prostitute for three years, meets clients on the internet.

Naomi is a man, but takes female hormones to stop her growing facial hair.

"I do it because I like it. I can be very choosy and check out my client's backgrounds so I feel very safe. [My clients] are middle-aged men, usually married. Kids. Usually Swedish… who wants to know if he's got any gay feelings?"

She says she does not feel pursued by the police but that other government departments make it very difficult for sex workers to operate - refusing even to accept tax when she tried to pay it.

"My contact with society in other ways is limited. If you go to social security, for example, you're stigmatised if you say that you work in sex work."

Image caption The Swedish government wants to provide more help for prostitutes

When its decriminalisation law was drawn up in 1998, the Swedish government said it wanted to send a clear signal about its views on prostitution - which it described as shameful and unacceptable in a gender equal society.

The Swedish chancellor for justice, and author of its review, Anna Skarhed said she did not view it as a failure that relatively few men - 648 in 10 years - had actually been convicted and that most were given a fine.

She said: "The important thing is to get people talking about it - society needs to ask is this something we want."

But Pye Jakobbsen, the president of the Swedish sex worker organisation Rose Alliance said the Swedish law has made life more dangerous for street-workers, because men will not hang around long enough for the prostitute to assess whether they feel safe leaving with them.

She said: "My main problem with the law is that it's marginalised street workers and foreign workers even more. For us indoor workers it's fine - in fact we make more money."

One of the main recommendations in the Swedish government's review was an expansion of social services to help women out of prostitution.

Linsen Lindstrom, a counsellor at the Stockholm prostitution unit helps about 60 prostitutes each week.

She said the law has not had an impact on problems of addiction, violence and exploitation she and other staff hear about each day.

"The law doesn't matter to us," she added.

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