Criminalising the Client: Institutional Change, Gendered Ideas and Feminist Strategies

Criminalising the Client - publication cover image

In 1998, Sweden was the first country in the world to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, but not the sale of sex. The law represented a new prostitution regime that problematised power relations in prostitution as inherently gendered and hierarchical and made the male buyers of sexual services responsible for the act of prostitution. The Swedish case is critically important to the study of gendered institutional change and has been of empirical interest and global debate.

Using the feminist institutionalism approach to the analysis, Criminalising the Clientoffers new insights to the Swedish case and provides a new analytical framework for micro-level analysis of institutional change that addresses the struggle for meaning, institutionalization of new gendered ideas, and the (strategic) actions of feminist actors.

We invited the author, Josefina Erikson (Uppsala University) to tell us more about the study. The book is part of the Feminist Institutionalist Perspectives Series (Rowman Littlefield International).


Sometimes radical shifts occur which alter existing rules and norms in society in a way which have major implications for gender equality. When Sweden criminalised the purchase of sexual services in 1998, without criminalising the sale of sex, such a crucial shift took place. The new law was a manifestation of a new way of perceiving and approaching prostitution; power relations in prostitution were seen as inherently gendered and hierarchical and (male) buyers of sexual services were made responsible for the act of prostitution.

Recently there has been a renewed interest in the Swedish case since several countries have followed suit and criminalised the client; for example Iceland (2009), Norway (2009), Canada (2014), Ireland (2014) and France (2016). The point of departure of my book is that the Swedish client criminalisation constitutes an instance of gendered institutional change. Regardless of normative considerations—the ban has received critique as well as praise— the ban is indeed an intriguing case from a gender perspective. The case is thus not only topical and of great interest in itself, it can also provide new knowledge into the dynamics of gendered institutional change, for example it gives the encouraging insight that radical change can in fact be the result of gradual, slow moving processes.

Inspired by feminist institutionalism [1] and frame analysis [2] (the book develops a novel analytical approach to gendered institutional change that can account for gendered ideational changes as well as actors’ strategies, and the interaction between ideas and actors.The usefulness of this new analytical approach is demonstrated in a rich empirical analysis of the Swedish political process between 1970s and 1998 when the client was criminalised. Over the course of these years the ideas of client criminalisation developed from a marginalised idea expressed by a few individuals, into a new institution (set of rules and norms). Our story begins when the demand for criminalisation was first raised outside parliament by feminist organisations, and it continues inside the parliament as women legislators from different political parties repeatedly advocated for criminalisation. While the resistance in parliament initially was strong, these new ideas gradually gained broader support and influenced actors’ understanding and strategies in favour of increased support for client criminalisation. Important steps included the creation of a consensus that prostitution was a problem in itself, the introduction of a gender perspective, and support for a causal story “blaming” clients. During the same period, the established social understanding of prostitution as a structural socio-economic problem rooted in poverty became more and more questioned. In the end feminist strategies played an important role for the final outcome.

The book’s main empirical finding is that the sequencing of frames—whereby the institutionalisation of an overarching abolitionist frame needed to be prior to the institutionalisation of a gendered frame— was decisive for the outcome in various ways. For example, it delimited the resistance. Another key factor for the final outcome was the commitment of female MPs from various political parties, including non-socialist parties, who worked across party lines in coalitions and the use of discursive strategies, for instance broad inclusive problem framings.

My work does not support previous claims that demands for client criminalisation emerged in the 1980s and had radical feminist roots [3]. On the contrary, the demand for client criminalisation arose from other sets of ideas and actors. For example, the demand to criminalise the purchase of sexual services was, from the very beginning, framed in terms of an unequal and hierarchical gender relation in the act of prostitution, although it was not framed as violence against women. In addition, women within a number of political parties were the most prominent advocates, not radical feminists.

In terms of theory, the book furthers our understanding of gendered institutional change in general and more precisely in demonstrating the endogenous process by which an individual idea becomes an institution. Various mechanisms at work within processes of gendered institutional change have been identified, of which sequencing, consensus concerning the framing of the problem, and gendering of the discourse appear to be the most important. In respect of strategies for promoting gender-equitable change, the findings indicate that lessons from other institutional contexts as well as inclusive framing strategies are significant. Finally, the development of a dynamic frame analysis is an important methodological contribution to feminist institutionalism insofar as it specifies analytical tools for analysis of gendered institutional change at the micro-level.

The book inspires scholars to bring in the role of ideas in the analysis of gendered institutional change and encourage a continued theorization on how gendered ideas and institutions interact.


[1] Krook, Mona Lena, and Fiona Mackay. 2011. Gender, Politics and Institutions:Towards a Feminists Institutionalism. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palsgrave Macmillan; Mackay, Fiona, and Georgina Waylen. 2014. “Introduction: Gendering “New” Institutions.”  Politics & Gender10 (04):489-494.

[2] Schön, Donald A., and Martin Rein. 1994. Frame Reflection. Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books; Lombardo, Emanuela, Petra Meier, and Mieke Verloo. 2016. “Policymaking from a Gender+ Equality Perspective.”  Journal of Women, Politics & Policy:1-19.

[3] Dodillet, Susanne. 2009. Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970- talet. Stockholm/Sala: Vertigo; Ekberg, Gunilla. 2004. “The Swedish Law That Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services. Best Practices for Prevention of Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings.”  Violence against women10 (10):1187-1218; Gould, Arthur. 2001. “The Criminalisation of Buying Sex: The Politics of Prostitution in Sweden.”  Journal of Social Policy 30 (3):437-456.