By Evie Andreou
Other countries scoffed when Sweden passed laws in 1999 that criminalised buying sex from a prostitute. The idea was to tackle the demand side of the trade instead of penalising the often victimised sex workers themselves.
Ten years later, Norway and Iceland followed suit. The number of people buying sex in Sweden had been reduced by nearly a half. Sweden’s success in combating both the social ills of prostitution and human sex trafficking was down to more than legislation alone. The country also has an enlightened programme that provides counselling for people exposed to sex trafficking — and to those who use prostitutes.
The Swedish example could provide a valuable model for a small country like Cyprus, activists say. According to the existing law here prostitution is legal, but profiting from it is not. A clause was added last year which stipulating that a client could also be charged “if he has reasonable suspicion that the woman was a victim of trafficking”.
But there have been no convictions on these grounds since the amendment, says Androula Christophidou, head of Cyprus Stop Trafficking.
“We tend to acquit everyone. The law is good but we need to see it implemented,” she told the Sunday Mail.
And it needs publicity. “There are many people who have not yet understood that trafficking is a crime,” Christophidou said. Cyprus Stop Trafficking is trying to change this – it has been touring army camps for the last four years to raise awareness against prostitution and trafficking.
Prostitution is inextricably linked with human trafficking. Those coerced to provide sexual services to customers are mostly women and girls, but there are men and boys too, with all groups usually from developing or war-torn countries.
The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, stipulates that at 79 per cent, “sexual exploitation is by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking”, followed by forced labour.
According to UNODC’s report, human trafficking affects every country of the world, as countries of origin, transit or destination, or even a combination of all.
It is a highly lucrative business. The annual revenue generated by prostitution worldwide is estimated to be over $100 billion. Laws usually target women who get paid to offer sexual services – but that does not affect demand.
Although the legislation in Cyprus has been improved, critics say it remains vague and ineffective while police argue that making a case against those accused of buying sex is difficult.
Josie Christodoulou, the policy coordinator at the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS), says the phrasing of the existing trafficking legislation leaves room for ambiguity. She wants the penal code modified further to criminalise buyers of sex and to decrimalise women working as prostitutes, along with programmes to help women out of prostitution.
In other words, to do what Sweden has done.
“Because of the small size of the country, this can be considered as a good practice to implement, and it can work,” Christodoulou said. “It is because of Cyprus’ small size that messages such as ‘women and girls are not for sale’ should spread in all levels of society, from schools to the judicial and political levels,” Christodoulou said.
Swedish law stipulates that purchasing a sexual service even once, or even attempting to do so, is sufficient for criminal liability. It provides for fines or up to six months imprisonment.
“Instead of prosecuting those who sell sex services and further stigmatising them, we are focusing on the demand part,” said Lisa Green, the anti-trafficking coordinator for southern Sweden. “If we don’t have demand we won’t have prostitution and human trafficking. According to the evaluation of the sex purchase law in Sweden, it has proven to have good outcomes to protect women and children.”
Green and a Swedish sexologist, Ylva Gronvall, spoke at a conference in Cyprus last month on ‘International Best Practices in Combating Human Trafficking’. The gathering was organised by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Cyprus centre, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
“We offer advice to people selling and buying sex and victims of human trafficking. For people who are selling we offer counselling, and practical help,” Gronvall said. “If someone wants to contact the social services, if they need a place to stay, or if they want to go to a job agency, we help them get in contact with these services. We also offer free condoms and lubricants and guide them to be as safe as possible.”
Social services in Sweden’s three largest cities – Stockholm, Gothenborg and Malmö – have for the past decade also operated what are known as KAST groups, referring to those who buy sex. The aim is to motivate potential and active sex purchasers to change their behaviour.
“People who buy sex, come to us voluntarily, they seek help,” Gronvall said. “They have different reasons for seeking help, some of them are afraid of the law and the police, but most of them are afraid of other consequences, the stress is too big for them.”
Why those attending the groups buy sex varies greatly. “For all of them at some point it was about sex, but then how it develops, is very different. For some is a way of handling stress or other psychological problems, like depression, anxiety. For others is not being satisfied with their own sexuality,” Gronvall said.
More than half the buyers she meets are in a relationship, and many come with their partners. “They seek help after the wife finds out and they face being divorced”.
Green, meanwhile, added that in some groups there are more sex buyers seeking counselling than sex sellers. The publicity generated by revelations that the golfer, Tiger Woods, used prostitutes, encouraged many couples to seek counselling, she said.
“Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren who is from Sweden, was good looking and successful and raised the feelings of the partners, who were feeling they were ugly, or not good enough, but when they saw that hot Elin was in the same situation they started to see it differently. Also when Tiger Woods started talking publicly about this and sex addiction, it sparked a public debate here in Sweden and we started to talk a lot more about these issues,” Green said.
When Gronvall counsels sex buyers, she concentrates on how they can change their behaviour from now on, rather than why they do it. “We don’t focus that much on childhood but more on what kind of person they want to be, how they make life the way they want it be, how they want to look on women, how they want to treat women, and that is working very well and people want to change,” Gronvall said.