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Norway’s Difficult Choice in Prostitution Law

While Norwegian government prepares to revise the ban on buying sex in June, discussions on prostitution open up.
Norway’s Difficult Choice in Prostitution Law
Nordic countries’ laws prohibiting the purchase of sex are often depicted as ways to redistribute the guilt and shame of prostitution from the seller to the buyer of sex. Photo : David Selsky

In June, the five-year-old law banning sex-purchase will be evaluated by the coalition parties. The ban on the purchase of sex has been introduced in 2009 by the former coalition government. Neither of the current government parties, Conservatives (Høyre), FRP and Venstre supported the introduction of the law, but these parties now have a majority in the Parliament.

While the named parties’ politicians signal to remove the ban, a striking blogpost of a former prostitute has reversed the positive public support for the parties’ initiative.

For three years, Tanja Rahm sold her body. Danish citizen Tanja shared her experiences as a prostitute with Norwegian readers on Aftenposten.

  • I thought the debate around prostitution has faded away, so I thought I should write a post. There was no point to attack prostitutes, it’s them I will support - so I thought I would attack the buyers, said Rahm to Aftenposten.

In her article in a letter format addressing her former clients, she wrote that she never wanted to be with them even if she pretended to do so. Rahm dispelled the myth of the happy prostitute with detailed description of the hatred she felt about her job and the men’s attitudes.

She also wrote that prostitution cannot be a volunteer choice.

- I think that there may be a very small group that wants to do prostitution as a job. But most acknowledge that they really do it when they do not have any other choice, said Rahm.

Moreover Rahm advocated that a ban on buying sex will lead to fewer customers, and that men who are inclined to buy sex then would feel obliged to build healthy and normal relationships.

Rahm’s statements led to opening of chronic debates on prostitution policy in Norway and the region.

A Nordic Model for Prostitution?

Talking to Kilden, social researcher May-Len Skilbrei notes that there is talk of the ‘Nordic model’ for dealing with prostitution. Skilbrei, who recently launched her book Prostitution Policies in the Nordic Countries, describes the Nordic model as below:

"It is typically Nordic to criminalize only the customer when sexual services are bought and sold. This leads to a widespread belief that the Nordic countries put a negative focus on the buyers of sex and allow them to bear the burden of punishment, while providing help and support to the prostitutes."

When we look at the historical background of this common regulation, Sweden takes lead as the first country to introduce unilateral criminalization of the buyer, and helping the prostitutes.

There is wide variation among Norwegian police districts in approaching the street prostitution.

However, the implication of the same policy shows differences in Norway. For example, the various police districts enforce prostitution and human trafficking laws very differently,” explains the researcher.

“In Bergen, the police take an active role in identifying victims, while in Oslo they sit and wait for the social assistance measures to find them. This probably has to do with the difference in size of the two cities, but it also involves different ideas about how actively the police should work with the problem.”

Despite wide variation among the other Norwegian police districts, the view of prostitutes as marginalized, disadvantaged people is still predominant policy ground putting the spotlight on the customer rather than seller:

In this understanding of prostitution, it is clearly not the prostitutes who are the problem. Thus it became totally out of the question to criminalize the sale of sexual services. What is special about the Nordic countries is that they have been concerned with criminalization in general, but at the same time they have strongly opposed criminalizing the seller. Criminalization has been directed towards the buyer, and sometimes towards the pimp, according to Skilbrei.

To some, this approach runs counter to the worldwide trend: Most other European countries are moving towards decriminalizing pimping, as well as the buying of sexual services. They also argue that bans do not help decreasing the prostitution and on the contrary cause illegal activities in the sector. Legalizing the commercial sex industry is seen as a solution.

  • I hope the government dares to propose to repeal the ban. This is a very important issue for us, says Liberal representative Sveinung Rotevatn. If we see that there is a need to push the government to act, we will use our position in the Parliament and submit our own proposals, says Rotevatn. Conservative parliamentary leader Trond Helleland also thinks there are reasons to repeal the law. -

- Immediately after the law was introduced, street prostitution went down, but now it looks it has picked up again. This shows that the law has not had the desired effect, says Helleland.

Failed Examples from the World

But Lauren Hersh from Huffington Post reports that the legalization or decriminalization of the commercial sex industry does not reduce stigma, does not eliminate violence and fails to make things safer for people in prostitution. Hersh brings the example of the Netherlands.

In an effort "to put an end to the exploitation of people for the purposes of prostitution: human trafficking," the Netherlands introduced legislation in 2000, which legalized prostitution. For the last 13 years, the world has watched this important experiment to reduce stigma and violence. The Netherlands is a known destination for sex tourism and continues to experience the commercial sexual exploitation of children and trafficking in both its legal and illegal sectors.

In an attempt to normalize prostitution and "bring it out in the open," women are encouraged to register for tax purposes in the Netherlands. And yet, only a small number of women actually register. But the Netherlands is not alone in recognizing the huge failings in what was intended to de-stigmatize prostitution, to bring it "out of the shadows" and to reduce exploitation, according to Hersh.

In New Zealand, where prostitution and activities surrounding it were decriminalized in 2003, Prime Minister John Key has said this has not resulted in significant reductions in street and underage prostitution.

In a government report, women in prostitution also said that the deregulation of prostitution did not reduce violence in the sex industry and that "abuse and harassment of street-based sex workers by drunken members of the public is common.

Also, in 2001, German parliament, the Bundestag, with the votes of the Social Democratic Party/Green Party governing coalition in power at the time, passed a prostitution law intended to improve working conditions for prostitutes. Under the new law, women could sue for their wages and contribute to health, unemployment and pension insurance programs. The goal of the legislation was to make prostitution a profession like that of a bank teller or dental assistant, accepted instead of ostracized.

However, today many police officers, women’s organizations and politicians familiar with prostitution are convinced that the well-meaning law is in fact little more than a subsidy program for pimps and makes the market more attractive to human traffickers, writes Der Spiegel.

With all these conflicting arguments and examples from all over the world and the discsussion in the country, it will not be a very easy task for Norwegian politicians to continue or remove the ban in June.


- The prostitution arenas of larger Norwegian cities experienced an influx of Nigerian women from 2004 to 2008. This sparked an intense public and political debate whether or not to put in force a law making it illegal to purchase sex in Norway.

- In January 2009 it has been illegal for Norwegian citizens/people living in Norway to buy sexual services, whether in Norway or overseas. Buying sexual services is punishable with a fine and up to one year in prison. The Norwegian law prohibiting the buying of sexual services (sexkjøpsloven) came into effect, following the passing of new legislation by the Norwegian parliament (Storting) in November 2008. Soliciting and advertising are also illegal under the Norwegian Criminal Code (Straffeloven).

- One of the main arguments for the new legislation was to prevent the possibility of women becoming victims of human trafficking.

- In the Declaration on Cooperation with the coalition government between the four bourgeois parties, Frp, Høyre, Venstre and KrF had agreed the sex-purchase law to be evaluated. It is known that the Conservative Party, Progress Party and the Liberals will make it legal to buy sex.   

The Nordic Page January Issue
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Apr 2017

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