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Shadow's Law: The True Story of a Swedish Detective Inspector Fighting Prostitution

Shadow's Law: The True Story of a Swedish Detective Inspector Fighting Prostitution

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Shadow's Law: The True Story of a Swedish Detective Inspector Fighting Prostitution

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Nov 28, 2016


The True Story of a Swedish Detective Inspector Fighting Prostitution Detective inspector Simon Häggström is head of the Stockholm Police Prositution Unit. Everyday, he meets those who inhabit the shadowy underbelly of Stockholm; the prostituted women, and men, who try to keep their business hidden and the punters who at all cost want to avoid being caught. Even though Sweden has a strict anti-prostitution law, business is thriving. Shadow's Law tells the true stories of the people Simon Häggström and his co-workers encounter every day; young girls facing dangers they did not foresee, seven foreign women working and living together in a one bedroom apartement, Lovisa, born into a life of drugs and prostitution, and of course, the men who buy sex. These are their stories as they have never been told before.
Nov 28, 2016

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Shadow's Law - Simon Häggström



On the first of January 1999 Sweden chose to become the first country in the world to criminalise purchases of sex, but not the act of selling sex. The legislation was highly controversial and received a lot of attention both nationally and internationally. The Swedes were quickly deemed out of their minds and panicky moralists by those who voiced their criticism against the innovative Swedish way of confronting prostitution.

Today, the world is no longer laughing at us. Several countries have introduced legislation similar to the Swedish one and a few others are currently discussing the possibilities of introducing such legislation. In addition, the European Union has even concluded that prostitution is contrary to the notion of human dignity and the principle of human rights, and as a result a non-binding resolution has been approved where the member states are encouraged to decrease the demand for prostitution by punishing the sex buyers and not those who sell sex.

At first glance the Swedish legislation on purchase of sexual services may seem both strange and laborious. At least that is what I thought the first time I was introduced to it. I wondered, how can you possibly criminalise only one of the parties in a crime that involves at least two people? Imagine if we applied the same way of thinking to other types of crime and for example criminalised the person who bought narcotics but not the one who sold it. Surely that would appear highly unreasonable and very inconsistent.

However, the reasoning behind the Swedish prostitution legislation is neither particularly complicated nor hard to understand. The principal thought is that prostitution is harmful not only to the people involved in it but also to society as a whole. Why?

According to the Swedish way of thinking it can’t possibly benefit the progress of equality and human rights in our society to allow humans in general, and women in particular, to be bought, sold and traded. When women are allowed to be reduced to commercial goods and even rated accordingly it affects citizens’ overall view on women.

The legislation on purchase of sexual services is certainly no moralistic law. Its purpose is not for the state to meddle with what people choose to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Neither is it a threat to sexual freedom. What it truly aims to do is to protect all the hundreds of thousands of women and children around the world who are stuck in the claws of human traffickers.

So why is it that this legislation is considered extremely controversial? Probably because it challenges a discourse on prostitution that has existed in our society for millenia. Old beliefs and sayings such as prostitution is the oldest occupation in the world, that boys will be boys or that prostitution is necessary to stop men from raping regular women have been prevalent arguments for hundreds of years whenever prostitution is discussed.

I have lived and worked in these environments for quite a few years now. After arresting hundreds of sex buyers, pimps and human traffickers and meeting many women and children who are being used in these situations I believe myself to have garnered a lot of knowledge about this particular world. The Swedish way of handling prostitution has not eliminated the presence of prostitution. There are still women who sell sex in order to finance their drug addiction. Women from the poorest parts of Europe are still brought to Sweden by human traffickers to be sold in apartments and hotel rooms.

But we have been successful in reducing prostitution and trafficking and in changing how people think about prostitution and what it really is. The legislation on purchase of sexual services has been a vital part of that work. From being legal up until 1999, buying sex in Sweden is now, 17 years later, one of the most shameful crimes you can get arrested for. Studies show that about 70 percent of the Swedish population are supportive of the legislation and there is a definite political unity regarding the legislation with all parties including the opposition parties fully supporting it.

Unfortunately legislation does not work miracles overnight. The fight against human trafficking needs to keep going on several levels, and not just by changing laws. Furthering public knowledge about this issue in order to create awareness and providing resources through social services and voluntary organisations are all equally important if we are to help those who want to leave prostitution behind. I strongly believe that Sweden is on the right path and I am sure that this is the only way forward not only for Sweden but for the rest of Europe when it comes to fighting human trafficking, or what could be called modern slavery.

When I originally wrote this book for a Swedish audience I quickly came to understand that these matters can be difficult to explain and even harder to explain in writing. The English version that you are now holding in your hands is a slightly reworked version of the original Swedish book and has been adapted with an international audience in mind. I find that the terms prostitution and human trafficking are used so commonly in debates that it is very likely that we might forget that behind these words there are thousands of flesh-and-blood people who day and night suffer in silence. Therefore, I chose to focus each chapter of my book on real events from the everyday work of our task force. I believe that this will help the reader to understand more easily what prostitution really is about and what we are facing when the Swedish legislation on the purchase of sexual services is put into practice.

Finally, let me add that we who work with these matters in the Swedish Police force are not in any way claiming to be perfect and the work we do is not always enough. Much like other police forces around the world we grapple with limited resources and the consequent need to prioritise cases. I hope that this book, in an honest, simple and understandable way, can lead to a deeper understanding of our work and hopefully shed some light on a few questions about how the Swedish police are tackling prostitution and human trafficking.

Detective Inspector Simon Häggström

The Stockholm Police’s Prostitution Unit


Iremember life in my home country in the south of Europe as very chaotic. My childhood was marred by fear, maltreatment and sexual abuse. My dad would come home drunk in the middle of the night and beat my mum black and blue. I remember him throwing her head first into the wall. While she was crying and he stood there screaming with strands of her hair in his hands my siblings and I hid, paralysed with terror of what would happen next. I particularly remember one time when dad suspected that he was not the father of the baby mum was carrying. He grabbed a pair of tongs and tried pulling the baby out of her belly.

We lived in a small flat in the capital. My little brother and I got to live in the boiler room in the basement, since there was not enough space for all of us in the flat. Later, when my older sister moved out, we got to move in with the others upstairs. My little brother, who had suffered disability due to meningitis, was eventually sent away to a family in Sweden.

I remember that throughout my childhood I wished I had been the one they adopted, but for some inexplicable reason my mother kept me. As it happened I sometimes got to visit my brother in the summers. Every time I had to go back home I cried. I felt as if I was going back to hell on earth.

One day my dad disappeared and I remember feeling relieved. But the peace did not last for long. Mum started bringing home different men and some of them abused me sexually. They touched me and did what they pleased, without caring about me in the slightest. I knew mum would never believe me if I told her, so I kept silent and tried to hide the pain inside. Mum made up for her lack of love and care with a lot of material things. Over time I developed a sort of rebellious love-hate relationship with her. She in turn gave all her attention to the men who used me. I started doing drugs, to numb the pain and the fear of loneliness, and because of that I was placed in foster care in the north part of the country. That probably saved my life.

When I was 17, I moved to Sweden and met a man whom I later married. It was a stormy relationship that eventually ended in divorce. I started working as a waitress in a restaurant, while I was still staying in his old flat. At the restaurant I first got in touch with Vlad, who at the time was a friend of a guy I was seeing. Vlad was working in a rock club at Södermalm in Stockholm. In the beginning I thought of him as just a friend, but the more time we spent together the more I started to actually like him.

I was drawn to him because he was artistic, creative and adventurous. When I told him about trips I had made, he said that those were the exact countries that he liked too. When I showed him photos I had taken, he said that he was longing to visit the same places. He listened to me and he flattered me in ways that I now, looking back, realise were only means to lure me in.

One night when I came home after an evening out with my girlfriends, I felt this urge to go and see Vlad. It was like an obsession, a force that was unpleasant and tempting at the same time. I thought: If I do not leave straight away something bad will happen – so I left. That night I felt as if I was hypnotised by him. I was certainly attracted to him but still feeling quite uneasy. Even this early on, something inside told me that he was evil, but I ignored that voice.

I had been planning a trip to Vietnam and I asked him to come along to give us a chance to get to know each other better. We laughed and had a good time, but he also made me do things that I was not fully comfortable with, like pushing the limits for what I was prepared to do sexually. When we came back to Sweden he moved in with me.

Vlad was complaining more and more and said that he did not enjoy his job at the rock club. He thought it would be enough with just me working, so that he could devote all his time to music. Today I can see how he was already manipulating me to get what he wanted, but in a strange way he made me feel intoxicated. He never told me, but with time I came to understand that he had dealings with the Mafia in his home country. He avoided certain places, talked about how we were not safe in Stockholm and blamed it on personal debts. Vlad painted a picture of a wonderful life abroad and since I was, after all, madly in love with him the thought of moving away together, far away from Stockholm, was enticing even for me. The only problem was that we did not have the money.

I remember the first time Vlad introduced me to the idea of selling my body, as in prostitution. He described it as a great opportunity for us to make a lot of money in a short time, so that we could make our mutual dream come true. He said he had experience from the porn industry and that he knew girls who sold themselves and enjoyed doing so.

Vlad knew exactly how to break down my resistance, one little piece at a time. I believe he used everything I had told him – things I had said in confidence – to get me where he wanted. He knew that it was difficult for me to set personal boundaries and to say no, because of the things that had happened to me as a child, and he used this to his advantage. The thought of selling myself was sickening, but I told myself that I could do it for a short period of time and that for us this was the only way.

The first time I sold myself it felt like I lost all dignity. I got 2 000 Swedish kronor for an hour, but the disgust, shame and distaste left me feeling entirely worthless. We started making plans for moving to Paris and by the time we left Sweden I was bringing home between 17 000 and 20 000 kronor a day for Vlad.

In Paris, Vlad rented a pricey flat for us and said that this was the start of our wonderful new life, but it was not long before our pockets were empty and Vlad forced me to upload pictures of myself on French escort sites too. I sold myself right there, in our own home, while Vlad waited in the street. Sometimes he dropped me off to sex buyers at a hotel or a flat. I felt like a toy, an object for disgusting old men.

During a holiday in Vlad’s home country I felt for the first time that I had finally found a place I could call home. We decided to move there and to build a house on a piece of land belonging to his family. He paid for the land and I was supposed to contribute by earning the money we needed to build the house.

But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. I was only allowed to stay in the country for 10 consecutive days. Then he sent me back to Stockholm again to work, two weeks straight, seven days a week. After that I went back home with the money for Vlad, only to then return to Stockholm and make more money.

I developed the skills of a professional actress. To Vlad’s friends and family, I was a model making big money abroad. To the punters I was the perfect, sexy woman you could fulfill all your sick fantasies with.

I was an illusion and I was living a lie. While Vlad was making himself a name in show business and spending our money, I was crying myself to sleep in Stockholm. Every time I returned home I gave him all the money I had earned and begged him to sign a paper that would make me part-owner of the house, but that always ended with a terrible fight. Sometimes he acted as if I had offended him, and sometimes he threatened me.

Even the sex buyers had their demands. I got hair extensions and a lip injection. I had everyone believing that I enjoyed what I was doing, and if I was crying only seconds before a punter arrived I quickly wiped the tears off my face and fixed my make-up. I had nowhere to relax and be myself, but I kept smiling and I played my part well. One second I could be having a fight with Vlad and before I knew it I was answering the phone with a soft, sensual voice when a punter called.

To let go of these roles and stop pretending was never an option, because if you are not acting you run the risk of losing your regulars – and to have good regulars is your only safety net. Without them you could end up in life-threatening situations with new sex buyers that you do not know. It is all about minimising the risks and protecting yourself as much as possible.

One time, when Vlad was in Stockholm with me, we were arrested by the police and eventually convicted – him for procuring and me for complicity in the same crime. I had withdrawn cash on his behalf, through Western Union, from women who had paid to get their photographs uploaded on Vlad’s pages for sex adverts.

In custody I suffered a complete break down, but I still kept my mouth shut about everything Vlad had forced me to do all these years. I was afraid of ending up on the street and losing the only thing that mattered to me at this point: my home. But when Vlad was released from prison he acted more and more like the monster he truly was. He threatened to throw me out and to burn my stuff, and I realised that justice would never be served in his home country.

I became exhausted and depressed. In my darkest moments I was hoping for a punter to enter the room and just shoot me straight in the head, because that would put an end to all of this. I fantasised about someone beating the life out of me, because then Vlad might lose his hold on me and nine long years of mental and physical abuse would be over. I daydreamed of my own funeral and that became my safe place, away from all the bad.

One day I took what little I had, fled to Sweden and filed a report with the police.

The last couple of months I have fought hard for justice. I have spent every last ounce of my strength participating in hearings and telling my story over and over again. But, I have realised that justice is not something to be taken for granted. Many women in my situation are fighting to make the legal system believe they are telling the truth and all too often the battle ends in defeat.

Today I am almost back on my feet. I have a long way to go, but I am on the right track and I hope that one day I can help young women to not end up in the same situation as me. My biggest wish is to one day get restitution and I hope with all my heart that if there is a girl out there, about to walk down the wrong path, she will read my story and listen to my warnings and then avoid ending up in the hell that is prostitution. To her I would like to say: Do not believe in lies, listen to your gut and run as fast as you can when your heart tells you to.

People have to open their eyes and see prostitution for what it really is – a horrible, destructive illusion. It is a deceitful world through and through. An illusion for the woman selling herself, since the good life she hopes to find does not exist. An illusion for the man who is buying, since the escort he is meeting is not for real. She is pretending and he is choosing to believe a lie. But for the pimps and everyone profiting from prostitution it is a gold mine.

The book you are about to read is one of the most important ever written about this subject. It tells the real story of prostitution and I hope that many will grasp the severity of it. The work that Simon Häggström and his colleagues in the Prostitution Unit are doing is difficult but immensely important, since their work is making it possible for women to leave that life behind. Women who otherwise would have drowned in a sea of torment and never found a way to break free from the chains of prostitution.


Roxana, selling sex at Malmskillnadsgatan in Stockholm

In 2009 I was offered the opportunity to leave my position as a detective in the Narcotics Unit and take up work full time with prostitution instead, since street prostitution was increasing noticeably in Stockholm City Centre. I got to choose any partner I wanted for this assignment. I decided on Anna – a colleague whom I did not know personally, but who had a very good reputation among officers on patrol duty.

On a hot summer night in early July when Anna was paddling around the island of Kungsholmen in a kayak, she received a phone call. It was me, asking her if she would like to team up with me when she returned from her holiday and fight prostitution full time.

In August Anna and I were appointed by the Stockholm Police to push back the open street prostitution in the inner city of Stockholm. Back then we were two young, ordinary police officers with minimal experience. Both of us had a couple of years of service behind us since graduating from the Swedish National Police Academy, but we were now to work in a world that neither of us even knew existed. This was a huge challenge, and today I honestly do not understand how we managed. We more or less only worked night shifts, always putting in extra hours, and this in a miserable environment with everything that involves. But we liked it and the work we were doing seemed meaningful to us. We learned a lot and during this period we created the foundation for what would later officially become the Prostitution Unit.

Looking back on one particular event it strikes me how inexperienced we really were and what complicated life stories we encounter every single week in our line of work. That prostitution itself many times is a symptom of something else, for example poverty, sexual abuse, mental health problems or drug addiction, is made clear by this event I believe.


Like so many times before, Anna and I are posted at Malmskillnadsgatan, wearily keeping an eye on one of the grayest and gloomiest blocks in Stockholm. Malmskillnadsgatan together with the intersecting street Mäster Samuelsgatan is a well-known area for open street prostitution in Stockholm and therefore one of our regular working places.

It is late in the evening on a Thursday and the capital is slowly falling asleep, but not here. On this street the activity is intense and the trade is going on at full speed. Lone men are walking, cruising in cars and occasionally even biking. All walks of life seem to be represented. Some men are dressed to impress, in expensive coats and high-end suits, hiding in the back seats of circulating taxis, drooling with curiosity.

Others appear to have walked straight from their tragic dwelling at Sweden’s number one drug nest, Sergels torg, a plaza just around the corner from here. They are dressed in washed-out shirts and worn-out jeans, their hair unkempt and a couple of them even carry backpacks, often containing tools intended for criminal purposes. But even if their looks and backgrounds may vary these men have one thing in common: They are all here to check out tonight’s supply of women for sale. And they all have the same entitled expectation of not having to leave this place alone and empty handed.

A tense and weary woman whom we do not recognise shuffles down the street heading in the direction of Brunkebergstorg, pushing a stroller in front of her. When the drug addicts push around strollers or trolleys they are usually filled with various bits and pieces: lost and found clothes, freshly pinched goods waiting to be sold, and, if you look closely, maybe some hidden, smaller zip lock bag containing illegal, white powder.

The woman stops. She starts talking to a man whom we have been observing for a while, since he has been walking up and down the street for nearly an hour now. The conversation lasts a couple of minutes, and ends with the man leaving in a quick and noticeably stressed manner. The driver of an old, decayed, brown Saab, who has been waiting for his turn, now pulls up next to the woman. An older man winds down the window while the woman leans forward, one hand on the stroller. After only a few seconds of conversation the man shakes his head, winds up the window and leaves. Something is not right. Why are the punters rejecting her? Is she too expensive? Too haggard? Too obviously on drugs?

The woman lingers, still holding on to her stroller. A few minutes later another punter approaches her. A heavy-set late middle-aged man, dressed in jeans and a grey jacket. A big, ugly-looking scar runs across his right cheek down to the corner of his mouth. He is watchful and keeps looking nervously over his shoulder. I study their conversation, quite bored. I presume it is the same type of exchange as usual, meaning the one about prices and services.

The woman turns towards the stroller. The presumed sex buyer observes her curiously. She starts looking for something in the sleeping compartment of the stroller and with both arms she lifts up a baby. My gaze instantly turns from sleepy to alert. The woman is laughing and rocks the baby back and forth while she keeps talking to the man. I cannot believe it. A young woman, most likely a drug addict, at Malmskillnadsgatan talking to a punter – with a baby in her arms.

– She’s got a kid in the stroller! That’s enough, I’ve had it! I rave and throw myself out of the car.

I am so angry that I cannot even hear what Anna is saying.

I slam the door shut and jog down the street. I rip out my police badge, which I keep on a silver chain around my neck. First, I turn to the man who looks quite scared and I tell him I will be calling both his wife and his employer if I ever see him here again. He disappears down the street in the blink of an eye and will probably think twice before coming back to Malmskillnadsgatan.

Now I turn my full attention to the woman. She is the one I am really angry with. I begin a so-called korrigeringssamtal, which means reprimand, but in this case it is more of a telling-off beyond compare. I am using my toughest police authority approach. As if the woman in front of me is a hooligan in the middle of a violent soccer derby between two teams with known, aggressive supporters. I refuse to release her from my gaze.

– How can you do this? Bring your baby along to Malmskillnadsgatan when you’re picking up punters? What’s wrong with you? Are you out of your mind? Do you understand what you’re doing? Show me your id… NOW!

The woman is terrified. Repeats time after time:

– I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I continue to rant at her. I’m going to send a report to the Social Services Office. To the Prison and Probation Service. I’m going to file a report with every instance she has ever had dealings with, telling them what a horrible mother she is. How dangerous she is to her daughter.

The tears are streaming down her face. She leans forward, buries her face in her hands. And pleads.

– Please, don’t hit me.

Wait. What am I doing? My bad conscience stabs me like a knife in my chest. I turn around and see Anna who has now caught up with me and is standing a few meters away. She shakes her head and looks at me in a way that tells me it is time to take not only one, but ten steps back.

That was my first encounter with Lovisa. Far from a successful one and definitely one that I am not proud of. I was young and new to the job. Stupid and immature with very limited knowledge of the choices a woman who is forced to sell her body to even survive is faced with. I can assure you that had I met Lovisa for the first time today, my approach would have been very different. At the time, I had until very recently been working in the Narcotics Unit in the crime-strained area of Sergels Torg, where we had very low tolerance for bad behavior. If you did not behave you were locked away or removed from the city centre. In my juvenile eagerness to save the world I fooled myself that the jargon that had proved to be efficient with hardened criminals could be applied in the same manner to women who sold sex on the street when I found that they did not behave appropriately. Never have I been so wrong. We have certainly learnt a lot throughout the years, particularly when it comes to finding the correct approach in these matters. But even if the thought of my first encounter with Lovisa today makes me feel like the worst person in the world our relationship actually got better over time. It developed past the standard way of behaving for two parties on different sides of the law, which would usually be constant snapping and dislike. Instead it grew into something deeper, one of those strange relationships that can only happen between a police officer and someone on the other side.

Eventually, both Lovisa and I came to terms with the fact that it was probably best to bury the hatchet, since we would continue to be in the same place as the other – no matter what we thought about that. We met night after night at Malmskillnadsgatan for a couple of years and as time went on and we got to know each other better, something close to friendship developed. A friendship with barbed wire dividing it.

Even though our first contact was a horrible experience for Lovisa, we eventually provided her with a sense of safety, on one of Stockholm’s darkest streets. Feeling safe was something Lovisa had never experienced, and she loved it. With the police present no punters could harm her, she told me. But as much as she actually liked us she also hated us, because no matter how much we cared for her we were also messing things up for her. We were the ones who arrested her buyers, seized her drugs, took her to the police station for urine samples when she was high on drugs, wrote reports to the Social Services about her condition and called attention to her need for immediate care and drug rehabilitation treatment. As an officer in the streets you were hated one day, loved the next. You just had to get used to it.


Late Wednesday evening. I step out of the car and carefully close the door behind me. Anna, my colleague, stays behind. She is on the phone with a woman who has contacted us, horrified at having discovered that her husband is buying sex. The phone call will take a while, so I leave Anna to it and instead I start walking towards my target. The woman, standing about fifty meters away, is acting in a way that is worrying me. Her eyes are lifeless and distant, her legs are slowly but steadily collapsing, but the very second that she is about to fall to the ground she wakes up again and stands upright. She starts fidgeting with her phone in slow motion. Then the same procedure is repeated. Her legs collapse, her eyelids get heavier and heavier and she disappears into a haze.

Lovisa. 24 years old. Tall, skinny, dressed in skin-tight black jeans and a purple knitted sweater. Blonde. In her mangled face you can see the remains of what could have been an ordinary, undamaged young woman. Several times I have thought about how beautiful Lovisa could have been if she had had a normal life. If it had not been for the heroin. This terrible, evil powder has got her in its claws and it has slowly distorted her inside out, and turned her into something completely different than the woman she could

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