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     News: Importing policies

    Sexual PoliticsSwedish message
    Sep 2nd 2004
    From The Economist print edition
    Once Scandinavians came with swords; now they come with social policies

    IF POLICIES were commodities, Sweden would have a large surplus on its trade balance. This small nation of 9m people has already exported to Britain active labour market policies, a model for universal childcare, and a merged prison and probation service. A ban on smacking children, pioneered by the Swedes in 1979 and successfully sold to 11 other European countries, was, after a struggle, voted down by the House of Lords in July. None of these policies, though, is being marketed so aggressively as Sweden's policy of outlawing the purchase of sex.

    That Sweden should have developed Europe's toughest prostitution policies is odd, because the country used to be known for its liberal attitude to abortion, co-habitation and sex education. The law was changed in 1999, after ministers became convinced that the sex trade was upsetting the balance of power between the sexes. As Lise Bergh, state secretary for gender equality, explains: "We have come to see men's purchasing of women as a form of violence. It has nothing to do with sexuality."

    There were never many prostitutes in Sweden, thanks mostly to a generous welfare state. Anders Gripenlof, who works with the prostitution group of the Stockholm police, believes that, before 1999, about 250 women regularly sold sex. The new laws criminalise not them but their clients, 754 of whom had been fined by the end of June 2004. The laws seem to have worked as a deterrent. Mr Gripenlof believes there are now 50-100 prostitutes in Stockholm.

    Such successes as there have been delight the Swedes, four-fifths of whom support the change in the law. Not content with having won over domestic consumers, the Swedish government is now self-consciously engaged in a battle for Europe, with the libertarian Dutch on the other side. It even has a roadshow, which begins with a showing of the film "Lilya 4-Ever", about a trafficked Russian teenager, and proceeds with speeches from ministers, police inspectors and reformed prostitutes. Peculiarly, for a nation with such firm socialist traditions, the government has also teamed up with the White House to fund anti-prostitution campaigns in Europe. Britain's Home Office is highly impressed by Sweden's focus on the punter, and sees criminalisation as "definitely an option", according to an insider.

    Why are the Swedes so determined to spread the word? Partly it's pragmatism: the sex trade is global, and will disappear only if demand can be curtailed everywhere. Mostly, though, it is pure conviction. Sweden has long been conscious of its distinctive mission in Europe and proud of its marriage of capitalist freedom and socialist equality. Henrik Tham, a criminologist at the University of Stockholm, notes that Sweden touted its economic policies until the domestic economy ran into difficulties in the 1980s. Since then, it has marketed relatively cheap moral reforms.

    Sweden's exports are not all successful. Outlawing drug taking, another modern initiative, has fallen flat. Yet the record is mostly good. At the moment, Swedes are discussing women's quotas for the top levels of corporate management and trying to do something about what ministers call the "pornogrification" of everyday life-sexy advertisements, thongs being marketed to teenagers, and so on. Such initiatives may seem off-the-wall now, but if they are floated in Britain in a few years' time, don't be surprised.

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