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The Criminalisation of Buying Sex: the Politics of Prostitution in Sweden

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2001

Department of Social Sciences, University of Loughborough


While there are feminists in other countries who would like to see the buying of sex made illegal, Sweden is indeed unique for having done so. Sweden's popular form of radical feminism has shown itself to be highly effective in mobilising support and creating a broad consensus on an issue which can be very divisive. This article outlines the Swedish debate about prostitution, to find out why legislation was passed which is barely on the agenda in other countries. While the strength and purpose of the women's movement was a key factor, others also played a part. The women's movement was itself rooted in a popular movement tradition that is particularly effective in influencing government policy. The link between drugs and prostitution provided both a rationale and a symbolic discourse for intervention. Fears about foreign prostitutes and liberal practices abroad played a part. Sweden's weak liberal tradition also made the advocacy of the liberal argument difficult.

© 2001 Cambridge University Press

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Acknowledgements: I am extremely grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding the study visit to Sweden which enabled me to gather the information on which this article is based. I also want to thank colleagues at Loughborough, Barbara Bagilhole and Jean Carabine for their comments on an early draft; Stina Jeffner and Jill Radford for their responses to the paper presented at a one-day conference on Women Risk and Social Policy (London School of Economics, 4 March 2000); and lastly, to Ylva ‘Elvis’ Nilsson for her help, insights and encouragement in the early stages of the research.