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Zero Tolerance for Johns: How the Government of Sweden Would Respond to Spitzer

We have a suggestion for the new governor of New York, David Paterson. Why not enact a statewide zero-tolerance law for buying sexual services?

When Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1994, New York City was considered one of the most dangerous urban areas in the world. He introduced a policy of zero tolerance against crime and today low crime rates are a city trademark. As a hard-core crime buster, former Governor Eliot Spitzer earned the nickname “Mr. Clean.” Today, he is notorious for spending large sums of money on prostitutes.

Spitzer may have fought fiercely against organized crime, but organized crime, human trafficking and prostitution are closely linked.
In our country, Sweden, Mr. Clean would be facing six months in jail for buying sexual services. While soliciting sex is not a crime in Sweden, it is has been illegal to pay for sex here since 1999. With its focus on demand rather than supply, the Swedish law is unique.

If New York, one of the world’s greatest cities, could be inspired by the Swedish legislation, it would be a severe blow to the modern slave trade. The Swedish police support the law because they have seen the results. Human traffickers tend to avoid Sweden because it’s hazardous to do business here. The law has also made customers more cautious. Sweden’s National Criminal Investigation Department concludes that the law is a barrier against the establishment of organized cross-border prostitution rings.
The Department has called for raising the maximum sentence from six months to one year.

We don’t deny that there are prostitutes who are satisfied with their choice of profession. Perhaps the escort who worked for Emperor Club VIP, called Kristen in the media, wants to be viewed as a proud entrepreneur. But satisfied sex workers constitute a sliver in the dire world of prostitution. Most people caught in the business of selling their bodies are poor and traumatized youths. The gap between the demand for sexual services and women who voluntarily want to sell their bodies results in forced prostitution at the hands of organized crime. Few real-world prostitutes live the life of the Julia Roberts character in the popular Hollywood love story “Pretty Woman.”

We know what happens when society signals that prostitution is acceptable. Demand increases. The Australian state of Victoria legalized prostitution in 1984. Prior to legalization there were 40 brothels in the state, according to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. By 2004 there were more than 100 legal brothels, but the number of illegal ones had grown even more. A growing sex industry is a lucrative business that attracts criminals. Few Australian women want to work in the sex trade. Consequently the jobs are filled by migrants, often without work permits.

In Europe we see the same pattern. Germany legalized prostitution a few years back. Brothels in Amsterdam’s notorious red light district have been legal since 2000. Few German or Dutch girls plan on making a career selling their bodies to strangers. On the other hand, many poor girls from countries such as Moldova and Ukraine are lured to Berlin and Amsterdam on false promises. According to the European Union’s Police Agency, Europol, traffickers prefer business in countries with a well-developed sex industry. The reason is simple: low risk and high profit.

Sweden and New York could work together toward creating civilized societies in which the human body is not a commodity. Consider zero tolerance for buying sex services in New York, David Paterson. Without demand there is no supply.

Birgitta Ohlsson is a member of the Swedish Parliament for the Liberal Party. Jenny Sonesson is secretary general of Liberal Women of Sweden.

Zero tolerance for johns
By Birgitta Ohlsson and Jenny Sonesson, Stockholm
Wednesday, March 19, 2008


  1. “Sweden and New York could work together toward creating civilized societies in which the human body is not a commodity. Consider zero tolerance for buying sex services in New York, David Paterson. Without demand there is no supply.”
    So in other words, there are no prostitutes left in Sweden, right? The greatest test of a law designed to get rid of prostitution is that it actually does what it’s supposed to do. This law has been on the books for nearly ten years now, I would think that every single last prostitute in Sweden would have closed up shop by now. Yet I do a google search on “Swedish escorts” and come up with hundreds of hits.
    That would make this law a failure.

  2. Does the fact that no law has emiminated the crime it labels make that law a failure? eg murder, wearing seatbelts, drunk driving, domestic abuse, etc.

  3. Having worked with prostitutes when I was a stripper, I did not know of them to be happy. I also did not realize until becoming a stripper that prostitution and porn often comes next, and not because they enjoy it. A couple of them were immigrants too, I suspect illegal immgrants. I never saw so many women suffering with mental illnesses and drug and alcohol problems under one roof. And they all complained that they would gladly do something else for money. They felt stuck. Sevreal of them were single mothers with children. Prostitution is not glamourous, its a tragic choice.

  4. Why should johns be arrested and why should buying sex be a crime whilst selling them isn’t? I can’t think of anything that you could give away sell but not buy but maybe it’s because I don’t live in Sweden.
    So if a guy wants sex he can buy a women a lot of drinks and that’s fine (assuming she’s not drunk) but if he wants to cut out the middleman (the bartender) and pay her directly all of a sudden it’s a crime?
    Oh and if you want to blame all the johns for the sad state prostitutes go through then logically you should also blame anyone who buys from China for supporting sweatshops.
    Anyone who buys a blood diamond should also be held responsible under that logic.

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