Norway’s Difficult Choice in Prostitution Law

Photo : David Selsky. 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.

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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.

FACTS

– 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.   

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