British Columbia

What Canada can learn from Swedish and German prostitution laws

Germany has decriminalized the entire sex industry, while Sweden has decriminalized the sale of sex, but still prosecutes those who would purchase it. Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom and Ingeborg Kraus discuss how these models are working.

Sweden has decriminalized the sale of sex, while Germany has decriminalized the entire sex industry

A sex worker waits on Malmskillnadsgatan street in central Stockholm, Sweden. It is illegal to purchase sex in Sweden, although it is legal to sell it. (Reuters)

After the Harper government introduced new prostitution legislation in December 2014 amidst heavy criticism, the Liberal government promised to review the legislation.

But experts are still divided on what should change.

Canada's current legislative scheme follows the Swedish model, where it is illegal to purchase sex, but its sale is permitted.

But some advocates are calling for a complete decriminalization of the sex industry — as has been done in Germany.

Germany: complete decriminalization

Ingeborg Kraus, a psychologist and trauma expert based in Germany who works with sex workers, says this would be a mistake.

"It is a catastrophic situation ... women earn less money and the sex has become more perverse."

Kraus says in the 15 years since Germany decriminalized the sex industry, conditions for women have deteriorated, leading to conditions that have fuelled human trafficking.

"No German woman will work in those conditions anymore ... 95 per cent working in prostitution are women coming from the poorest areas in Europe."

She says the sex workers she sees are not just depressed, they're traumatized.

"We need the Swedish model," she said.

The Swedish model

Sweden became one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize the sale of sex in 1999.

Detective-Inspector Simon Haggstrom, the head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, says the laws have largely been successful even though nearly 70 per cent of the population was initially against it.

"We've had a lot of challenges," he said. "The biggest challenge was getting the police to actually enforce the legislation."

But attitudes slowly changed, and now his unit is tasked with arresting as many sex purchasers as possible.

He specifically points to the connection between prostitution and organized crime.

Ingeborg Kraus, a psychologist and trauma expert based in Germany, and Det. Insp. Simon Haggstrom, head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, are on a Vancouver panel speaking about the prostitution laws in their respective countries. (Charlie Cho/CBC)

"Sex buyers are the crucial sponsors of human trafficking ... By striking on the sex buyers and reducing the demand, you cut the source of income for human trafficking."

He says the legislation has been a success.

"What we've seen in 17 years is a huge change in the mindset of the Swedish population," he said. "I would definitely say it's working."

Sex workers' rights

One of the strongest criticisms of the Swedish model is that the law reduces the agency of those who want to willingly engage in sex work on their own free will.

But Haggstrom says they are a small minority within the sex industry. 

"The absolute majority of women ending up in prostitution are victims of poverty, sexual abuse, mental illness and drug addiction, and those are the ones we should have laws to protect."

Kraus adds German legislation was premised on the goal of strengthening women's rights and eliminating the discrimination against sex workers.

But she says it has largely failed.

"The attitude [towards sex workers] has changed, but the attitude of the sex buyers also changed. They don't feel guilty anymore. They think it's their right and they want more and more."

Kraus and Haggstrom speak at a panel Tuesday, Sept. 20, 7 p.m. PT, at the Orpheum Annex called "International Approaches to Prostitution: Germany, Sweden & Canada." 

With files from The Early Edition

To hear the segment, click on the link labelled How prostitution laws work in Sweden and Germany and what Canada can learn