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Is prostitution inherently exploitative? Or can it be improved to maximize freedom and equality for everyone involved? Western countries have been grappling with this question for years. While it's widely understood that prostitution is dangerous for sex workers when it's unregulated, there's also widespread disagreement over whether the industry can be reformed to protect and empower workers, or if it should be abolished altogether.
In an attempt at reform, some countries in Europe have legalized the practice and sought to legitimize the profession. In , Germany passed a law that mandated sex workers be treated like workers in any other industry, which allows them to sue for better wages and have full access to health insurance, pensions and other benefits. But today, abuse and sex trafficking remain serious problems in Germany.
The flood of sex workers has driven down wages and decreased working standards. Brothels in the country are booming. In , German magazine Der Spiegel deemed the well-intentioned law a troubling "subsidy program for pimps. But some Nordic countries, led by Sweden, have sought out unconventional ways to eliminate the sex work industry. A few years before Germany legalized prostitution, Sweden created a paradigm in which selling sex is not considered a crime, but buying it is.
This decriminalization model has produced some serious results in reducing trafficking and prostitution — but not without its fair share of controversy. The Nordic model: In , Sweden flipped the traditional onus of criminal liability away from sex workers: Paying for sex would be a crime, but being paid for sex would not.
In the decade and a half since the Swedish Sex Purchase Act took effect, prostitution and trafficking have declined dramatically. According to the Swedish Ministry of Justice, prostitution across the country has fully halved. The cost of purchasing sex in Sweden is estimated to be the highest in Europe.