Monday, January 13, 2003

Karin Grundberg

Sweden's prostitutes ply their trade on the Internet

STOCKHOLM — Chased off the streets by a 1999 law that made it illegal to buy sexual services, Sweden's prostitutes are turning to the Internet to attract clients, a recent government study found.

Mostly free, with unrestricted access, websites are on their way to becoming the favorite way to advertise and buy sexual services in Sweden, according to a social study conducted by country's second-largest city Goeteborg.

"Young girl of 21 seeks a generous man for a pleasant encounter at home or at a hotel," reads one online ad. "We have hundreds of girls who would like nothing more than to meet you. Send an email to get their phone numbers," reads another.

Ever since Sweden adopted a law on January 1, 1999 that criminalized the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services, street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by more than two-thirds, said Ann Wilkens, of the city's social services.

"Before the law, between 350 and 400 prostitutes were working the streets in Stockholm. Today, there are no more than 100," Wilkens said. Violators of the law face up to six months in prison.

But while the law's advocates congratulate themselves on decreasing prostitution on the streets, critics charge that the legislation has simply pushed it into the shadows and made life worse for the women.

Prostitutes now suffer more perversity and violence on a daily basis, Jonas Flink, the co-author of the Goeteborg study, told AFP.

"Women offering their services on the Internet are more exposed and vulnerable than the women on the street, who can discuss the various aspects of their work," Flink said.

"The women try to surpass one another in this form of direct marketing, so they accept things they would never dream of accepting (while soliciting on the street)" and obscenity and sado-masochism become the norm in the "private sessions," Flink said.

Stig Larsson, a professor of social medicine at Lund University and a defender of the 1999 law, disagrees.

Such a theory is "speculative. In reality, the determining factors (for abuse) are the madames and the drugs and neither one nor the other has disappeared," Larsson told AFP.

"Historically, one finds the worst conditions in street prostitution," Larsson said.

The adoption of the 1999 law in Sweden ignited public debate about prostitution.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of girls, mostly from the Baltics and Eastern Europe, have flooded into the region and so-called "apartment prostitution" has increased.

The plight of these women — whose exact number is difficult to assess — was illustrated in the celebrated 2002 film "Lilja 4-ever."

The film was inspired by the story of Dangoule Rasalaite, a 16-year-old Lithuanian teenager who jumped out of a Stockholm window to her death in June 2000, after being smuggled into the country a year earlier and forced to work as a sexual slave.

For his part, Larsson said that he expected the other Scandinavian countries to follow Sweden in outlawing payment for sexual services.

"Sweden is ahead in this matter thanks to its policies of sexual equality and social conscience," Larsson said.

Last year, equality ministers from the Scandinavian and Baltic states agreed to launch an international publicity campaign against prostitution.

A study published Sunday in Finland found that 55 percent of Finns believe that the sale of sexual services should be outlawed, while 48 percent said the same should apply to the purchase of such services.

Northern Finland has recently become a sex tourism destination for Swedes, who travel north to buy the services of prostitutes.

Prostitution is currently legal in Turkey and Germany.

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Created: January 21, 2003
Last modified: January 21, 2003
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