In February 2014, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging member states to adopt Swedish-style prostitution laws, which criminalize buyers but not sellers of sex. It came in response to mounting evidence that full legalization has led to increased sex trafficking in the countries where it’s been tried.
“It’s evident in Holland and in Germany,” said Mary Honeyball, the British MEP who drafted the resolution. “When prostitution is legalized there is more prostitution.” The Netherlands legalized brothels in 2000, and seven years later, a governmental study found that prostitutes’ “emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects.”
Yet many advocates for sexual rights and health continue to favor legalization, insisting that it’s the Swedish model that has failed to make things safer for prostitutes. One coalition of anti-trafficking NGOs claimed that Honeyball’s resolution would stigmatize sex workers, depriving them of “tools to protect themselves from violence and seek redress.” The International Planned Parenthood Federation and the European AIDS Treatment Group both opposed it. Several UN bodies have called for full decriminalization, and Amnesty International is considering doing the same.
With both France and Ireland on the verge of adopting laws like Sweden’s and Canada rewriting its prostitution law, this is a debate with broad international implications. Journalist Michelle Goldberg travels to Sweden and the Netherlands to interview prostitutes, trafficking victims, NGOs, politicians and police in order to find out what these laws really mean for vulnerable people.