As more countries look to adopt Sweden’s model of reducing prostitution, experts warn that the Scandinavian country’s success in curbing the industry may be overstated, according to a report by the Washington Times. One major problem is that the government has narrowly focused its prostitution figures on streetwalkers, despite the fact that many sex workers have turned to the Internet to ply their trade. This oversight reflects a broader struggle among governments as they attempt to address a rapidly changing sex industry that has increasingly moved online.
Sweden has long been celebrated for its “Kvinnofrid,” or protection of women, prostitution law, which has sought to curb the industry by targeting male clients and pimps rather than women. Since the law’s passage in 1999, Sweden’s government has touted its plummeting prostitution rate, with official statistics counting only 300 prostitutes as of 2008, down from 730 in 1999. But experts say the number of sex workers in the country is actually much higher, according to the Washington Times report. Part of the discrepancy is that the government’s figures do not account for prostitution that takes place off the streets, including on the Internet.
A similar drop in prostitution arrests has been seen in the U.S., with Department of Justice records showing a 50 percent drop in arrests from 1990 to 2011, when 57,345 people were arrested on prostitution-related offenses, according to the Fiscal Times. Though the statistics did not break down arrests between streetwalkers and online escorts, the transformation of prostitution as more sex workers turn to the Internet is seen as a major factor in the lower rate of arrests.
The DOJ released its first study of the sex industry in the U.S. back in March, which polled a wide range of prostitutes and pimps across many different venues, including massage parlors, brothels and escort services. The study showed that many prostitutes prefer to make transactions over the Internet because they can charge higher rates and are at lower risk of arrest or assault. The department said it hoped the study could help law enforcement better understand the trade given the newer business models being employed by the sex industry, reported NBC.
Law enforcement has slowly begun setting its sights on the booming online sex trade. The FBI conducted a high-profile sting on the Silicon Valley-based online escort site MyRedbook.com back in June. The owners of the site were charged with money laundering and facilitating prostitution. The arrests worried many sex workers, who said that they relied on the site’s vetting tools to screen potential clients to ensure their safety and warned that the deeper underground the industry went, the more dangerous it was for everyone, reported CNN. Despite these fears, police are generally less inclined to go after prostitutes online because the costs of such operations tend to be higher than doing street prostitution roundups, according to the Fiscal Times.
As law enforcement grapples with its strategy of addressing prostitution in the online age, the challenge may be compounded, as many people who would not normally consider prostitution have entered the industry because of the ease of Internet transactions. “The Internet is augmenting the sex market by bringing in women who would not have entered the sex market without the Internet,” said Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor University who conducted a survey of 700 sex workers in the United States and Canada, according to the New York Times.
The shift online has also shed light on an industry that has long operated in the shadows, according to the Economist, which compiled data from around the world regarding online sex work. The wealth of data available online now makes it possible to analyze the industry, which, as it turns out, operates in ways that are remarkably similar to other service industries.