Now, while Americans are preoccupied with the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution scandal, some countries are considering emulating the Swedish model, which prosecutes the client but views the prostitute as an exploited victim.
Officials say the changed approach has reduced the demand for prostitutes and reshaped attitudes toward the sex trade.
"We don't have a problem with prostitutes. We have a problem with men who buy sex," said Kajsa Wahlberg, of the human trafficking unit at Sweden's national police board.
She said foreign law enforcement officials and politicians are coming to Sweden in droves to learn more about its 1999 law.
On Friday, Wahlberg was meeting with police officials from the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal but where authorities have closed some brothels in a crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam's red light district.
In January, a high-level British delegation came to study the Swedish approach as Britain reviews its own prostitution laws, which prohibit soliciting and loitering for sex, but not buying sex.
Norway's government plans to propose a Swedish-style prostitution law after Easter.
Under Sweden's so-called "Sex Purchase Law," paying for sex is punished by fines or up to six months in prison, plus the humiliation of public exposure. A handful of Swedish judges have been caught up in prostitution scandals, including a Supreme Court justice who was fined in 2005 after admitting to paying for sex with a young man.
Pimps and brothel keepers are also prosecuted, but not prostitutes, because they are viewed as victims, treated as commodities in the sex trade.
While authorities judge the new system a success, critics question whether it has really reduced prostitution or merely pushed it off the streets into more isolated and dangerous surroundings. Wahlberg concedes that accurate statistics are hard to obtain, but estimates the number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped 40% from 2,500 in 1998 to 1,500 in 2003.
She says police know from eavesdropping on human trafficking rings that Sweden is considered bad business because of its tough stance.
"They are calculating profits, costs and marketing and the risk of getting caught," Wahlberg said. "We're trying to create a bad market for these activities."
Conscious of the international interest, Sweden's government is planning a thorough review of the effects of the law, expected to be ready next year.
Petra Ostergren, a writer who has studied prostitution for a decade, does not think it has worked well.
"Sex purchases have not decreased, many young women sell sex temporarily over the Internet to fund university studies," she said.
A 46-year-old escort who is a vocal opponent of the law said it had left prostitutes more vulnerable to violence. "If a sex worker seeks to establish contact with a client on the street, and police are waiting around the corner, she's going to jump into the car without making a security assessment," she said.
The mother of two, known to the public by the pseudonym Isabella Lund, said authorities never consulted sex workers on the change.
The Swedish law took effect at a time when many European countries were moving in another direction. Neighboring Denmark, for example, decriminalized prostitution in 1999 after quietly tolerating it for two decades.
Most European countries prohibit pimping and running brothels, but tolerate prostitution and penalize neither prostitutes nor clients. Brothels are legal in Holland and Germany provided they have business licenses.
Marianne Eriksson said she was ridiculed by fellow lawmakers when she first proposed the change in the European Parliament in 1997.
"To them it was the most absurd thing they ever heard. Many of them roared with laughter," recalled Eriksson, who has since left Europe's elected multinational legislature to chair the Stockholm branch of the opposition Left Party.
Today, she said, she feels the Swedish model has "a very strong response" in other European countries, even if many of them ultimately decide against adopting it.
The view of prostitution as a legacy of a societal order that subordinates women to men is universally accepted among major political parties in gender-conscious Sweden.
The urge to set things right led Claes Borgstrom, Sweden's equality ombudsman, to propose that the country boycott the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany, because of an expected surge in prostitution during the month-long tournament. The idea was immediately rejected by the Swedish soccer federation.
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