A green light for red-light areas

If you're male and well endowed, then the next time you're in Stockholm Mimmi would like you to call. “I'm an elegant sexy Swedish woman,” she tells visitors to her website, “that [sic] is turned on by seducing men...” The rate for each seduction is €560 per hour, so the large bulge needs to be in the region of the wallet.

I know what you're thinking. Didn't you read somewhere that Sweden had made the purchase of sex illegal, and that so successful had this policy been that the British Government was contemplating similar legislation in this country? Mimmi, therefore, shouldn't exist, let alone boast a blog in which you can see her completing the Gothenburg half-marathon dressed in lacy underwear. Mimmi, however, understands the law. “I am not selling sexual services,” she reassures would-be, er, friends, “but offer company and intercourse. Since it is very difficult to prove what two people are doing when they are alone in a room, meeting with me is relatively safe...”

In January 1999 the Swedes made it illegal to pay for sex (but not to sell it). The punishment for the crime of obtaining casual sex for compensation could be as high as six months in Scando-clink, though a fine would be more usual. The sex can be any kind of sexual act involving contact and encompasses homosexual as well as heterosexual encounters. To prosecute the (usually) male clients successfully, the Swedish police must produce evidence of a prior agreement for compensation - which need not be financial. The word “casual” here leaves open the intriguing possibility that men or women who pay their spouses for sex are deliberately exempted.

Mimmi's invitation indicates one kind of problem with the law. But the Swedish authorities are, nevertheless, evangelical about their unique policy; their representatives claim massive reductions in street prostitution since 1999. One often-used statistic - repeated in this country - is that by 2004 Sweden had only 500 street prostitutes, while Denmark, which is half the size, had between 6,000 and 8,000. And it could be, with the opening yesterday of the Suffolk murders trial and the current concern over human-trafficking, that the British people might support measures that would lead to such a reduction.

If it's true. But what literature I can uncover suggests that, at the very least, the Swedes are gilding the lily. Take the Danish comparison. The Danish figures turned out to be for all prostitutes, whether working on the streets or, as the vast majority do, working from home, massage parlours or visiting the clients. There are almost certainly thousands of them in Sweden. At her rates Mimmi probably never sets foot in a street, except on a fun run, but some academic studies, as well as all the organisations representing sex-workers, indicate that the laws have made prostitution in Sweden more dangerous and subterranean.[]

Even so, a number of Labour MPs have been so seduced by the imagined Swedish experience that they have co-sponsored an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would allow councils and police chiefs to set up zones in which persons buying sex could be prosecuted. And Labour's deputy leader and Minister for Women, Harriet Harman, has launched a consultation suggesting that an adoption of the Swedish system could “tackle the demand” that lies behind the sex trade. Their belief seems to be that there is something inherently bad and socially unacceptable about the purchase of sex, quite beyond the issues of trafficking and safety.

This was certainly the view the Swedes took in the run-up to their new laws. The study that gave a philosophical base to the changes, begun in 1993, regarded paid sex as automatically bad sex, which engendered in the purchaser an unhealthy attitude towards sex and women, allowing men to lose themselves in sexual fantasy without the need for genuine human relationships, and which allowed women to be objectified.

No man, the study suggested, could be a healthy, good man at the point of having paid sex, and no woman could possibly want to offer it if she were in possession of any half-decent alternative. To these reasons could be, and were, added a host of semi-extraneous objections: that paid sex spreads disease, that it encourages trafficking, that it is the last resort of women who are drug addicts or who have been sexually abused.

I don't buy it. We should have, and do have, laws already to stop trafficking, punish sexual abuse and to stop the sale of illegal drugs. Despite the rhetoric, it is of no use whatsoever to a woman who has been sexually abused in childhood to tell her that years later she may not offer hand-jobs for a living. And it is a fair guess that any Swedification of the law in Britain will drive the street prostitutes and low-income clients from their familiar haunts to God knows where, while leaving

London Mimmi and her brothers and sisters to offer their unprovable services to richer men on the internet. Overt offers of sex will be replaced by massages undertaken by “caring” or “friendly” masseuses (much to the detriment of genuinely caring and friendly therapists). The policing, of course, would be wonderful, especially if, like the Swedes, we eschew entrapment.

All to stop people having sex in a way of which we disapprove. Search my conscience as hard as I can, I cannot think of anything in principle wrong with a man or a woman choosing to pay for sexual contact, or to charge for it. As long as there is no coercion and no harm to others, I cannot see why I would be entitled to replace their judgment with mine. Experience - and the internet - suggests to me that there is enormous variation in human sexual appetites and interests, and that, yes, there are women who much prefer sex work to cleaning, and men who keep themselves afloat on the fantasies that they buy. I may not know why, any more than I understand why this gal is married to that loser, or why some women think running 13 sweaty miles in lace is attractive.

Oh, and Harriet. What do you think happens to that “tackled demand” once you've tackled it?

David Aaronovitch