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The latest on Norway’s sex purchase ban

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I happened to notice today that the 2012 annual report by Pro-Sentret, Oslo’s official “help centre” for sex workers, is now online. This is the organisation whose Dangerous Liaisons report was so badly misrepresented by prohibitionists recently, so I thought it would be interesting to see what they’ve had to say in the wake of that report.

Unfortunately it’s only available in Norwegian, so I had to run it through Google Translate. I don’t really have the time to, or think I can, add much to what the report itself says so I’m just going to C&P below some of the report’s more notable findings. Anyone who thinks I’m cherry-picking is welcome to do the same exercise themselves, but one thing I’ll tell you now: in absolutely no way does it provide support for those prohibitionist claims. Not that I think that’ll stop them from trying to twist it to say that it does.

Excerpts below, still in pristine Google Translate state. I did fix a couple words that would have rendered the translation incomprehensible, but I’ve left the grammatical errors intact.

INTRODUCTION

…there is no reason to believe that there has been a reduction in the prostitution market in the past year. On the contrary. Much suggests that the Norwegian prostitution market remains fairly stable in terms of the number of people who sell sex, nationality and how prostitution is organized.

TRONDHEIM

More recently, it revealed new venues for prostitution in Trondheim by bars and restaurants are increasingly being used. Police have had an advisory role in relation to the establishments that have been most affected. In an extended period of supervised police downtown tanning salons. They found that these frequently used as a venue for prostitution. Police went out with warnings to holders and noted that it was put into action to impede prostitution on tanning salons (staffing, warnings monitoring and so on).

Police in Trondheim has marked a change in relation to the nationality of the the prostitute. They reported that several women from economically distressed countries Greece and Spain, and frequent prostitution market in Trondheim. There is also a large increase in terms of Romanian prostitute. Police believe that these activities can be organized.

Nigerian

The Nigerian women prostituting themselves mostly on the streets. In 2009 we had an expectation that the proportion of Nigerians on the streets would reduced when buying sex ban was a reality, as Nigerians basically have few rights in Norway and thus would make it harder. However, we have seen an increase in the Nigerian contingent in total during the last three years, while the number who have availed themselves of outpatient follow-up, decreased. This is still the largest group that uses the outpatient services.

In 2012 there were 80 people from Nigeria who received long-term social care support. We believe that the reason why women do not leave the country depends on the (lack of) opportunities they have elsewhere in Europe. There is rarely an option to return to poor Nigeria, and in Italy and Spain where they have resided for several years, is no other than prostitution due to the financial crisis. And prostitution pays enough more Norway than in the south of the continent.

Norwegian

Many women have found other ways to establish contact with customers after the ban on purchase of sex was introduced as well as due to increased competition from overseas on the street. Many have gained regular customers as they make arrangements with the phone or online instead of establishing contact with them in prostitution district. Some have found it necessary to finance its drug use through crime, such as theft and sale of illegal drugs.

Eastern Europe

Pro Centre still has contact with a large group of women from East European countries. In the early 2000’s, these were the largest foreign deployment Until the Nigerian women took the prostitution market a few years later. Many predicted that the Eastern European women would flood the market when the first EU eastward enlargement was a fact. This did not happen. EU enlargement created opportunities for regular employment for many. When the EU included Bulgaria and Romania we thought the same would happen to the women there. This has not been the same degree, and one of the reasons may be that many of women in prostitution from these two countries is Rom-women who are not in the same degree eligible for our regular labor market.

A large proportion of the Pro Centre users have come to Norway by a third party and pay a backer / pimp / agent to work here. Some of the women have been in Norway while working independently.

Unfortunately, we see great motivation and desire to work does not compensate for the lack of work experience, reading and writing skills and knowledge of Norwegian. It is therefore many become discouraged and end to continue in prostitution when job hunting is not results.

Sexual Health

We still get a lot of feedback from users that condom use declines. We hear that there are many women who perform oral sex on men without a condom, so that it difficult for those who want to use a condom to negotiate this with the customer. The customer is often willing to pay more for sex without, so that in a market that has greater supply than demand, so more and more of our users report that they take “trips” without a condom.

Violence and trauma

We started in 2010 to record separately the cases where violence was the reason for inquiry to the health by Pro Centre. In 2011 we had fourteen women who came to us for help after being exposed to violence and / or rape, compared with six in 2010. In 2012 we had 33 such incidents recorded. There is a strong increase.

The women who have been victims of violence come from nine different countries, but 22 of the 33’s Nigerian women. Four are ethnic Norwegian. Ten of the women have been raped. Some of these must be characterized as very serious as some involving serious violence and several perpetrators. Three of the women have been stabbed so severely that they have had to get immediate medical attention in hospital. Eight of the thirty-three have been hospital / emergency room before they came to us. In eleven of the cases police have been involved, but we have no idea of how many that ends with review and any judgment. Women in prostitution are afraid to report violence and abuse.

In six of the cases, the offender is a woman, whether a “madam” or Another woman in prostitution. Eleven of the women stated that the violence / rape is performed by a prostitution client. Some have been assaulted in prostitution district by a unknown man, some have found that the abuser has penetrated into the apartment they live.

Our message through the report Dangerous Liaisons is that women in prostitution is still very vulnerable to violence. They frequently exposed to crime in the form of violence, intimidation and harassment. The report shows that prostitution has become more individualized and fewer report that they seek relief services after they have been violence. In addition a number of women that they lack legal protection as part of legislation – which basically should cherish and protect women – also entails that they do not contact the police when exposed to criminal acts. They fear that they may lose their apartment (Operation homeless) and / or earnings base their if they call the police attention. Customers must now “protected” from being fined, and his role goes from being “business partner” to an ally parallel to the Police goes from being an ally that women can obtain protection from a party they must protect customers against.

Women in prostitution are reminded constantly of the environment that they act undesirable. Be it through police actions, media coverage of the field or Also passers. When exposed to violence takes in many cases even responsibility. Shame and guilt prevents them from asking for help. Our experience is that the more focus as we help measures on violence and violence against, the more women will share their experiences with us and we will better position to assist them. This recognition we take seriously. It is incumbent upon the support system a great responsibility in adding ensure that vulnerable people receive the care, support and any redress they have entitled. We must be present for women who sell sex on their terms: we must be “here and now”.

Pro Centre would like to focus on the protection of victims of violence rather than a political tug of war or a rematch of the law. The challenge for governments is to provide police guidelines are clear: how should the seller of sexual services position as the “weak” and the individual’s right to protection and protection proportionate to the pursuit of pimps and traffickers? Is the legislator’s intention that the individual prostitute rights should be subordinated to the large market reduction project? How to
police and judicial system could emerge as credible allies when individuals are exposed to violence, whenever any police activity suggests that their situation from day to day is not Important?

No, new research does NOT show that violence decreases under the Nordic model

[Update: in response to communication from Feminist Current's Meghan Murphy, I am happy to clarify that the article critiqued below is not a "Feminist Current piece" but a Sam Berg piece which Feminist Current merely hosted.]

There’s been a bit of a social media buzz over this article on a radical feminist website, which claims that a recent Pro Sentret report from Norway – which you can read in English here – shows that “violence decreases under the Nordic model”. The author backs up her claims with an impressive array of graphs (and a fair smattering of ad hominems), and unsurprisingly receives glowing praise in her comments from people who were clearly predisposed to believe anything she said on the subject anyway.

I hate to burst their bubble. Well, actually I don’t.

The author kindly linked to one of my own posts on the report, though she seems not to have read it. If she had, she would have noticed that very near the start I referred to “methodological limitations” that made it unsafe to draw cause-and-effect conclusions from the study. At the time I didn’t feel it important to get into those limitations, but I will now. Apart from the health warning that always applies in studying a hidden population, there are two really massively important issues here:

1. Lifetime vs recent experience. The 2007-2008 study asked sex workers if they had ever experienced violence, throughout their “entire career in prostitution (which could be anything from one day to 50 years)”. The newer study asked about violence in the past three years alone. These are two very different questions, which can’t possibly give rise to comparable answers – at least without a detailed examination of the raw data, which we don’t have. We don’t know how long the respondents had been selling sex, in either survey; we don’t know how many in the first study had sold for more than three years nor how many in the second study had sold for less (though 16% of the latter group said they were not selling at the time the survey was carried out). You would expect, of course, that the more actual sex work-years covered by the survey, the more violence would be reported; and if we assume that the first study covered more actual sex work-years then we would expect to see higher rates of violence in it. I’m not even comfortable making that assumption on such flimsy data (which is why I didn’t make it in my initial post). But we certainly cannot make the implicit assumption that the Feminist Current post depends on, ie, that the two studies cover the same number of actual sex work-years.

2. Norwegian vs. foreign experience. Both surveys recorded sex workers’ experience of violence in prostitution wherever it occurred. For the 2012 study, we have a breakdown: 70% of respondents said it only happened in Norway; 12% said Norway and elsewhere; 10% said only elsewhere; 8% didn’t answer. There is also a breakdown of the venues within each country, but that is all. We don’t know, for example, which types of violence occurred in which country, or how many of the specific incidents occurred in which country. This makes it impossible to know how much of the reported violence even took place under the Nordic model. And we don’t have any of this data from the 2007-2008 study, so there’s really nothing for us to compare here at all.

Now, really, that ought to be enough to make it clear that Feminist Current’s claim is totally unsubstantiated. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we really were comparing like with like. Would that justify their conclusions?

I’ll just address their headline statistic, namely, the claim that rape is down by half in the new study. That comes from here:

NorwayRape

And indeed, the drop from 29% to 15% looks impressive. But wait a minute – look over in the left-hand column, halfway down. See that category of “threatened/forced into sex that was not agreed to”? Last I checked, that’s rape. And the number who said it had happened to them in the past three years was not 15%, but 27%.

The Feminist Current author didn’t miss that category of violence – in fact, she commented on it, but totally missed its significance. She also missed what the report’s authors had to say about it, which is as follows:

We have looked at how many checked both answers which could mean that they define both these categories the same way. Only 6 people have done this, which confirms our suspicion that many of the women would not characterize actual rape as rape. This also means that the actual frequency of rape is considerably higher than what is shown in table 10. If we combine the amount that checked these options and then subtract those that checked both we see that as many as 34%(25 people) of those that have experienced violence in the last three years have been raped/threatened into sex that was not agreed to.

So how does the 34% de facto rape rate compare with its 2007-2008 counterpart? To find that out, we’d need the same accounting exercise to be carried out on the earlier data. It could be that in 2007-2008 there was zero overlap between the persons who said they’d experienced rape, and the persons who said they’d been threatened or forced into having sex; this would give us a de facto rape rate of 64%, from which 2012’s 34% would still be an impressive drop. On the other hand, it could be that every person who said in the first study that they’d experienced “rape” also ticked the box for “threatened/forced etc”, which would mean the de facto rate in 2007/2008 was only 35%. In that case, the subsequent drop to 34% would be considerably less impressive, and probably statistically insignificant. The fact is, we simply don’t know.

Finally, since the Feminist Current argument rests entirely on the claim that “serious” violence is down in the 2012 study, I think there’s one other stat in that image worth highlighting:

Norwayweapon

This of course is subject to the same flaws as everything else in this study, and I’m not pointing it out to suggest that the number of sex workers threatened with a weapon actually has increased under the Nordic model, by 50%, from less than a quarter to approximately a third. I just think it’s kind of…curious that someone who takes the stats at face value, and accuses others of ignoring inconvenient data, doesn’t see any room for this in her analysis of how “serious” violence has changed under the law. But maybe she doesn’t consider “threatened with a weapon” to be serious enough.

There’s a lot more to criticise in that piece if I had more time, not least its contradictions with the radical feminist conception of sex work as inherently violent, inherently rape – and the way it almost mockingly dismisses certain forms of reported violence as not serious enough to be counted as violence for the purpose of this study, while then going on to insist that “any violence inflicted on them matters”. But I’ll let someone else unpack that one. As I said in my first post, we can’t safely draw any conclusion from the stats. The study’s significance lies in its qualitative findings – which are totally inconsistent with the idea of the law as a “success” and which are, unsurprisingly, totally ignored by Feminist Current.

I didn’t have to dig particularly deep into the study to find why the Feminist Current piece is wrong. Pro Sentret are careful to emphasise the lifetime/three years difference. They also highlight the fact that the number of sex workers who report being raped is much higher than the number who call it rape. There’s no reason why anyone who actually read the study wouldn’t be aware of these issues. If they choose not to share them with their audience, that’s a matter for them to explain.

(ETA: More on this subject here.)

On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

I thought this would be a good opportunity to revisit this post, in which I looked at a recent report commissioned by the City of Oslo, with support from the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, into violence against sex workers under the sex purchase ban. At the time I had to rely on Google Translate but since then a native Norwegian speaker, Thomas Larson, has given us an English version. You can read it in full here. And you should.

Many thanks to Thomas for the translation.

The Oslo report on violence against sex workers

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[Hi, Feminist Current readers! Please see this response to the piece that brought you here.]

A couple years ago, as many readers will know, the Swedish government commissioned a report into the outworking of that country’s sex purchase ban. The so-called Skårhed report had numerous flaws which have been dissected elsewhere, such as terms of reference which explicitly precluded repeal of the law (“One starting point of our work has been that the purchase of sexual services is to remain criminalized”), and the fact that only seven active sex workers participated in the study and their views were dismissed anyway. Nonetheless, the law’s advocates repeatedly point to the report as if its official status rendered it ipso facto a definitive statement about the law’s impact – so I’m sure they’ll be the first to latch onto the new report commissioned by the City of Oslo, right?

Well, maybe not. For one thing, the Norwegians haven’t been as quick to have it translated as the Swedes were, although there’s a brief English-language article about it here. From that headline you’ll guess the other reason this report won’t be trumpeted by the same people who took the Swedish report as gospel: because its own findings, based on questionnaires completed by 123 active sex workers as well as interviews with police and social services, paint a decidedly more negative picture than Anna Skårhed’s.

I’m not going to get into the statistics in the Oslo report, first because (as I’ve often said) I think figures are inherently problematic in this field, and there are some methodological limitations which call for caution in interpreting the findings. It’s important to note that the authors themselves state, on page 54, that

This data does not explain whether the high incidence of violence and the vulnerability that women in prostitution experience are due to the criminalization of buying sex or other factors.

So it’s unsafe to conclude from these statistics that the law has led to more violence against sex workers. It is, however, entirely safe to state that the evidence undermines claims that the law somehow protects sex workers, either by putting manners on their clients or improving their relations with police. In fact, on page 51 the report says:

[A] 2008 report noted the possibility that the criminalization of clients can be something that protects women, they can threaten customers who behave badly, or want to break the contract, to report sex buyers to police (Tveit and Skilbrei 2008:113). Nothing in the surveys we have conducted among women and assistance services suggests that criminalization could protect women against customer violence

Since this is one of the major arguments put forward by the law’s supporters, it is extremely relevant to the debate if neither sex workers nor their support services have found it to actually have that effect.

Based on interviews with police and support services, the report identifies a number of grounds on which sex workers may now be more vulnerable to client violence. Many of these, we’ve heard before:

Another trend is that the customer base has changed in that there are fewer “good” customers than before. “Good” clients refers to men who seek out women to buy sexual services, you pay the agreed price and adhere to the agreement. These are customers who are often the typical “man in the street.” With criminalization many people believe that fewer of these types of men are buying sexual services, because this client group often consists of law-abiding citizens. They refrain from buying sex now because of the new law. These customers are known as the easiest to operate.

A reduction in the number of “bad” customers is not reported, however, from either the police or other assistance. The term “bad” customers is used about customers who do not adhere to the agreement, try to push the prices, will not have sex with a condom, show lack of respect for women by being derogatory, violent/ threatening, intoxicated, mentally unstable/ill or who attend the women with the motive to violate them – not just to buy sexual services.

The consequence of the reduction in the number of customers in total, and that there are fewer “good” customers while the number of “bad” customers remains constant, is that the “bad” customers make up a larger portion of our customer base to more women than ever before. This means that although the number of “bad” customers has not necessarily increased, sales of sexual services have become more dependent on this particular group because the earnings base from the “good” customers is reduced. (page 38)

Meanwhile, for the (mostly Thai) women selling sex out of massage parlours,

there are reports that several have stopped prostitution activities in the establishments, for fear that the business shall be identified by the police. They now include agreements in the selling of sex at massage establishments, to meet the customer at a later stage in his own apartment for the implementation of the sexual services. (page 40)

Clearly, this poses a risk to the sex worker sent off to the client’s apartment. The latter page refers also to the “individualisation” of prostitution, in which

the community of women who sell sex has been reduced… Prostitution is not something we do together in selling sex from the same street corner/flat/establishment, but which is an isolated and personal project.

 

And with that goes the safety-in-numbers effect. Page 41 cites one potential positive of this individualisation, namely

Police believe this has meant that women are less vulnerable to traffickers because it is harder for traffickers to organize prostitution.

However, it goes on immediately to say:

Nevertheless, the police believe that the women in many ways are more vulnerable to other actors, such as customers, because women are more often alone in contact with them.

It then continues on a familiar theme:

In street prostitution, services reported that the time pressure to conclude an agreement with the customer has increased considerably since criminalization. Customers are more stressed because they fear that the police will find them, making contact on the street need to be done quickly and to get away from the area quickly. For many women this poses major challenges in contact with the customer because it is difficult to achieve a clear agreement with the customer about the price, sexual favors, place of execution and condom use before they must be off with the customer. The agreements are made only when one has come to a place that is “safer” for the client, such as in a hotel room, in a vehicle or in one of the parties’ apartment.

So when buyers are criminalised, it seems, there’s an inverse relationship between their safety and the seller’s – and his is paramount in the transaction.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that sex workers may now be more vulnerable to riskier sexual practices:

As the customer base has been somewhat reduced … several support services also report that women have had to lower the requirements they have for customers. Many women have previously had clear demands on the clients they take, nationality, substance abuse, mental health/client’s appearance are examples. The women also have other standards that were absolute, the sexual services they sell/don’t sell, how they conduct the sale, the number of customers they take the at same time, the price they take and the use of condoms. More services believe that women have been forced to lower their original demand to get clients and earn the money they need. Whether this has led to increased violence and increased rates of infection of sexually transmitted infections, it is difficult for aid services to consider, but it seems like there is a broad consensus among aid services that the women feel more vulnerable, more at risk and that they have less control of themselves in relation to the customer than before – just because they have had to lower their demands. (page 41)

This is what is known as a “buyer’s market”, where

customers to a greater extent than in the past may set the terms for the sexual services they want to buy, price, where the prostitution act shall be implemented and condom use. (page 38)

Another area in which sex workers are reported to have less control is in arranging their accommodation. This is because of an ongoing police operation, which carries the incredible name “Husløs” (homeless), aimed at enforcing the laws against indoor prostitution. Page 39 explains that this operation

means that the police notify owners of apartments / offices / hotels where prostitution is found that they will charged with pimping, if the tenancy is not terminated

As a consequence,

the rental market has become narrower for women in prostitution – both in terms of rental apartments to live in and in relation to operating a massage establishment. Prostitution support services report that according to the women, at times it has been difficult to find space for a massage establishment, because landlords will not rent apartments / rooms for people from ethnic groups associated with prostitution.

One wonders how many non-sex workers from those ethnic groups are also affected by this law. The result is that rather than being able to run their own establishment,

some women have had to get help from a Norwegian person to rent a room/studio in his name

… which means that rather than preventing dependency relationships, the law in this respect may actually encourage them. Page 39 reports a similar trend for drug-using street workers:

Among the addicts, women who still sell sex have many modified methods of how they come into contact with customers. Most aid services find that women are included in more long-term relationships with men who are referred to as “friends”, “boyfriends”, “uncles” or acquaintances. These are men they keep in touch with over the phone and that they are with for long periods, it can be about hours, days or weeks. They have sex with men in exchange for the men supplying them with drugs, money and other necessities. Many of the aid services say they feel women are very vulnerable in these relationships. The women are very dependent on the few customers they have.

Operation “Homeless” (I’m still utterly gobsmacked they call it that) also helps to explain why sex workers are reluctant to report violence to police. As page 42 notes:

Few women in the indoor sector contact the police when there is violence in the establishment or the apartment they work in because they fear that they will affected by operation “Homeless”, report aid services.

And then there’s my usual bugbear, the use of “anti-prostitution” laws as an immigration control measure. Page 37 states,

In relation to the foreign people who sell sexual services, police checks for valid identity and residence papers have soared.

On the next page,

The increase in immigration control has led to a strong presence of police in parts of the foreign prostitution environment and more are taken from Norway, while the use of various provisions of the order has resulted in more fines and being expelled for a period from various downtown areas.

The increased control of the market has meant that many of those who sell sex feel they have been criminalized. This is despite the fact that legislation has not changed in relation to those who sell sexual services. Both the police and aid services report on this trend.

Many of the aid services also report that police are no longer perceived by women as an ally they can turn to when they have been the victim of a crime because they fear that they will be checked for other conditions while in contact with the police.

This is an entirely predictable consequence of a crackdown on a market with many undocumented immigrants – and yet pro-criminalisation advocates still claim that their law will make sex workers more comfortable with police. Why in the world is this so hard for them to understand?

Notwithstanding my suspicion of figures, there is one in this report I think is worth highlighting (the usual caveats apply). On page 37 there is a reference to a study published in 2008, just before the law against buying sex took effect, in which sex workers were asked whether they thought the law would have an impact on their vulnerability to violence. 74% said yes, and of these, 90% said they would be more exposed – citing many of the same reasons already discussed here. Even accounting for any methodological weaknesses in that study, there were clearly significant concerns among sex workers as to what the law might mean for them. Why were those concerns ignored?

Page 41 gives a possible answer to that question: namely, that sex workers themselves were conceptualised as the problem that the law would address. Never mind that feminist stuff in Sweden, here it was seen as a public order issue and a highly racialised one at that:

Several support services, particularly prostitution services, report that in recent years there has been a shift in how the outside world reviews and relates to women in prostitution. This tendency can be traced back to 2006/2007 when the Nigerian women took the street prostitution market in Norway and started to sell sex in new and visible public areas. The debate often revolved around that these women acted inappropriately and immorally. Women in prostitution became more and more often referred to as disruptive and unwelcome, than as people in difficult circumstances. This focus was very clear in the debate prior to the criminalization of buying sex.

Unsurprisingly, the push for criminalisation has increased the stigma faced by sex workers:

The services reported that the direction the prostitution debate took in advance of and in connection with the ban has had a major impact on how “the man in the street” looks at women who sell sex, and they hear more women share experiences where they are harassed by strangers in public places than before.

In recent years, prostitution initiatives regularly received reports of people who attend the prostitution district of Oslo and harass women. The episodes that have been described, for example, are that individuals seek out prostitutes to shout abuse, throw things at women and behave rudely to them.

The Oslo report doesn’t address the key question in the Skårhed report, namely, whether the ban has reduced the amount of prostitution. This article cites a separate report which does; I’ll probably look at that at some future date. It’s pretty clear, though, that whatever about the statistics, the perception among those closest to the action – sex workers, their support services and the police – is that conditions are pretty rotten for those on the game in Norway’s capital and largest city. “The man in the street” in Oslo may not care about them, but for those who do or who claim to do so, there really can be no excuse for ignoring the very strong warning signals in this report and focusing immediately on how to improve these conditions – even if it means taking the foot off the End Demand train for a while.

UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban

Last month saw the publication of the long-awaited Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. The Advisory Group was established in 2009 by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to provide clarification and advice around certain matters addressed in the most recent (2009) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

I finally had a chance to read the document this week, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it. One of its most significant aspects is that it pulls no punches on the question of criminalising clients – not merely subsuming this issue, as many previous UN-associated statements have done, under a general opposition to laws against consensual commercial sex, but addressing it head-on and in some detail. On pages 5-6, it includes the Swedish sex-purchase ban in a section called “Laws, enforcement and policies that impede effective HIV responses for sex workers: Criminal prohibitions against sex work or aspects of it” and says:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.

In its “Conclusion and recommendations” on legal regimes, on page 8, it says:

States can take many actions to establish legal and policy environments that are conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. Among these are the following: States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal penalties for purchase and sale of sex…

Also significant is its criticism of the “end demand” strategy in general. In the introduction, on page 4, it says:

Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability
for sex workers and their clients

On page 6, it points out:

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce demand for sex or the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.

On pages 10-11, it notes that

well-meaning but ill-informed service and healthcare providers and policy actors from community-based organisations, nongovernmental organisations, donors, international organisations and government agencies believe that they are helping sex workers by calling for criminalisation of clients. However, there is no evidence that these “end demand” initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life for sex workers…These laws do not reduce the scale of sex work, but they do make sex workers more vulnerable.

It calls instead for a shift of emphasis to ending demand for unprotected paid sex – and states on page 11:

Empowering sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions, rather than “end demand” approaches, should be the focus of HIV prevention efforts…When sex workers can successfully ensure that their customers use condoms, sex workers are less likely to become infected by HIV.

Of course, since it’s (usually) the clients who have to wear the condoms, convincing them that it’s in their interest to do so would go a long way toward reducing the demand for unprotected paid sex. The report describes working with clients in this way as the more effective strategy for HIV prevention, noting on page 14 that

demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers

On page 13 it gives a real-life example, from China, of how greater condom use has been achieved through a programme that treats clients not as irredeemable villains but rather as partners in the battle against HIV and other STIs:

Men working in industrial sectors that require them to work away from their families often engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected paid and casual sex…To address this, the International Labour Organization is working with large and medium-scale mining companies in southern China to promote responsible sexual behaviours among mine workers, including proper treatment of STIs, consistent condom use and elimination of violence against women, including sex workers. Preliminary results, assessed through qualitative and quantitative surveys, show significant increases in condom use and health-seeking behaviours, and increased reported condom use in paid and casual sex.

The report goes on to address the issue of trafficking. Here, I have a small difficulty with it, as it divides the sex industry into two distinct categories of voluntary/not trafficked and involuntary/trafficked:

A woman deciding to sell sexual services in order to support herself or her family is not a trafficked person. (page 17)

This is not strictly accurate as a matter of law, as the international definition of “trafficking” is broad enough to encompass some forms of “voluntary” sexual labour, such as debt bondage. It also ignores the fact that for most working people, not just sex workers, consent and coercion exist along a continuum, rather than being a binary.

Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true that sex work abolitionists tend to draw the line on that continuum in such a way as to strip the agency from most sex workers, especially migrants – and the Advisory Group is correct to highlight the problems this causes for HIV programmes. On page 18 it states:

Anti-trafficking measures often concentrate on getting people out of sex work, without considering whether they are trafficked, or whether the efforts will disrupt the access sex workers have to services that safeguard their health and well-being, and that create opportunities for them to share information and seek assistance for individuals they are concerned may have been trafficked. Many projects that focus on rescuing trafficked persons interrupt and undermine efforts to provide sex workers with access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The next page continues:

Forced rescue and rehabilitation practices lower sex workers’ control over where and under what conditions they sell sexual services and to whom, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

It goes on to say that when sex workers’ livelihoods are disrupted in this way,

this leads to social disintegration and a loss of solidarity and cohesion (social capital) among sex workers, including reducing their ability to access health care, legal and social services. Low social capital is known to increase vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and therefore has a detrimental impact on HIV prevention efforts.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it states on page 7 that

From the perspective of universal access to HIV services, undermining sex worker organisations is one of the most important negative effects of law enforcement practices.

Furthermore – and this is incredibly important for the migrant sex workers whom abolitionists are always fretting about:

The conflation of sex work and trafficking directly limits the ability of migrant sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, since they are often assumed to be trafficked. Migrant sex workers often live with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported which creates a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services.(page 19)

Of course, this is an immigration issue which would exist even if there was no question of trafficking. But the moral panic around trafficking has unquestionably created a greater impetus for raids on sex industry venues, which frequently lead to deportations of the people alleged to have been “trafficked”. (I think perhaps the report could have made this clearer.)

As with the battle against HIV, the battle against trafficking also needs sex workers’ participation if it is to have any real effect. On page 18, the report notes that

anti-trafficking efforts typically ignore the possibility of engaging sex workers as partners in identifying, preventing and resolving situations that do involve trafficked people. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices.

To this end, it promotes the establishment of sex worker organisations, saying on page 20:

Organised groups of sex workers are also best placed to establish safe working norms within the sex industry, and influence other actors in the industry to ensure that trafficked adults and children are not retained in sex work…self-regulatory mechanisms, which are established, implemented and overseen by sex workers’ organisations can limit trafficking into the sex industry as well as the sexual exploitation of children. They also form a platform for addressing labour exploitation of sex workers.

The last major issue addressed in the report is the need for sex workers to be economically empowered. The main point here is that such programmes shouldn’t seek only to remove people from sex work, or be made conditional on their willingness/ability to leave the industry, but should aim to also improve the economic circumstances of those who remain in it:

By increasing economic options, sex workers can achieve greater financial security, which makes it easier for them to make important decisions that affect their lives…Improving economic options also helps sex workers to reduce the likelihood of having to accept clients’ requests for unprotected sex or that they will be put in situations that inhibit their ability to negotiate with clients and reduce the risk of violence or abuse. (pages 22-23)

Some interesting examples are provided of successful programmes around the world, such as one in Andhra Pradesh, India, where

Among the 803 sex workers interviewed, involvement in economic independence programmes was positively associated with control over both the type and cost of sexual services provided and with consistent condom use. (page 24)

I can predict a couple criticisms of the report. The make-up of the Advisory Group will probably discredit it in some eyes, since it includes affiliates of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (along with “independent experts from academia and civil society organisations, representatives of UNAIDS Co-Sponsors and the [UNAIDS] Secretariat”). My response to that is to ask whether it would be reasonable for a UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Men Who Have Sex With Men to not include any organisations comprising or working with MSMs. Of course it would not. They would rightly be seen as experts on the subject, and any “advisory group” without them would be seen as lacking in credibility.

It may also be argued that this is merely a report of the Advisory Group and not a UNAIDS policy document as such. This is true. However, its conclusions are entirely consistent with things UNAIDS has been saying all along, even if takes them a bit further. It justifies its positions by reference to earlier UNAIDS publications, such as on page 5 where it says:

The UNAIDS Strategy 2011-2015: Getting to Zero identifies as one of its 10 goals that the number of “countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality will be reduced by half”

and on page 9 where it states that the 2006 International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights/UNAIDS note that

states have a responsibility to ensure that criminal law is reviewed with the aim of removing criminal sanctions on sex work and ensuring that any non-criminal regulations support safe sex in sex work and ready access of sex workers to comprehensive HIV services.

The fact of the matter is that UNAIDS, and many other global health and human rights organisations, have been saying for a long time that criminalisation of sex work is a barrier to effective HIV prevention and treatment. They have focused on criminalisation of the seller because that is how criminalisation manifests itself in most of the world; the Nordic model may look pretty significant from where I’m sitting in the north west corner of Europe but globally, it’s little more than a footnote. So the fact that it hasn’t specifically been addressed by UNAIDS (or the other international health and human rights groups who oppose criminalisation generally) should in no way be taken to indicate that they approve of it. Given all that we’re learning about how it actually works in practice, in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that they would.

Of course, abolitionists won’t care what UNAIDS thinks about it anyway, since their view is that sex work would be bad and wrong even if it cured HIV. But most people are not abolitionists, and I think they would appreciate the significance of UNAIDS publishing this document. It is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of material showing the health and human rights failures of criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, anti-trafficking policy and the fixation on ending demand.

Norwegian Directorate of Health, HIV groups criticise sex purchase ban

I’ve been meaning to blog about this since I ran across it last month, but other things kept getting in the way.

What follows are excerpts from Norway’s 2010 Progress Report to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. This is an official Norwegian government report, published by the Norwegian Directorate of Health, which is described on its website as “an executive agency and competent authority subordinate to the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services”. The UNAIDS website states that “Each report is presented exactly as submitted by the country, without editing or other alteration.” It was presented in English, and therefore there can be no suggestion of any mistranslation on my part, as some readers of this post might have hoped for. I think the broad thrust of my Google Translations in that post can now be safely seen as confirmed, because the UNAIDS report backs up several of the key points I cited.

In the section on National response to the AIDS epidemic – Prevention (page 36), it states that since the sex purchase ban was introduced:

Experience shows that it has become more difficult to have a good overview of and gain admittance to prostitution circles. In addition, it is reported that individual sex workers no longer want to carry condoms and lubricants out of fear that they will be used by the police as indicators of sale of sexual services. The support and health services for sex workers in Norway, describe increased vulnerability for sex workers. They argue that due to increased competition and greater stress on the market, sex workers are forced to offer clients e.g. unprotected sex. In addition, sex workers in escort services are forced to sell sex at the customer’s arena, which makes them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

While much of this is simply quoting what others have “reported”, no attempt is made to challenge or counter these reports, which suggests that the Directorate considers them credible.

More detail appears in the appended National Composite Policy Index, a Q&A survey for UNAIDS with data compiled by the Norwegian Directorate of Health in conjunction with other government departments and NGOs. The NCPI submission was overseen by two Senior Advisors in the Directorate, and carries the Directorate’s imprimatur.

Part A of the survey, which was replied to solely by Norwegian government officials (i.e., not NGOs), contains the following very interesting Q&A:

Does the country have laws, regulations or policies that present obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for most-at-risk populations or other vulnerable subpopulations?

Yes

IF YES, for which subpopulations?

…Sex Workers – Yes…

The survey then asks for the description of any such laws, and the first law cited is the sex purchase ban. This is, however, qualified to some degree, as it is stated that

The potential negative consequences the new law against buying sex presents for the HIV preventive work, is unclear.

Later, in Question 79 about HIV prevention, one of the “remaining challenges in this area” is cited as

Possible weakening of preventive measures targeting sex workers as a result of the ban on purchase of sexual services

So the government officials who compiled this report are clearly hedging their bets about the actual negative impact of the law – which is entirely reasonable and appropriate given the lack of firm research data. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored that the Directorate of Health is sufficiently concerned about the implications of the sex purchase ban to identify it as one of the policies that “present obstacles to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support”.

Part B of the survey was answered by six NGOs, five of which appear to be exclusively HIV/AIDS-focused (the sixth is the sex worker organisation PION). As you might expect, their replies are a bit harder hitting than those from the government officials. On the issue of obstacles, the NGOs state:

The effects of police enforcement has affected the sex workers’ relation to other services, such as harm reduction services, as many refuse to associate with anything or anyone that may give the police a suspicion of sex work. Condoms are used as evidence, hence the sex workers position for negotiation with the client about safe sex as [sic] been weakened. (Question 128)

And asked about “remaining challenges” in the area of HIV prevention (Question 186), the NGOS say that the sex purchase ban

makes it increasingly difficult to reach sex workers with prevention work and information

But has the ban achieved its aim of reducing the amount of prostitution and trafficking? I’ll go back to the main body of the report for this one. Bearing in mind that the law only came into effect around 15 months earlier, the Directorate is equivocal on this subject too:

it is difficult to judge whether there has been a reduction in the number of women being trafficked into Norway, due to shortcomings in the methods for counting trafficking victims… The main social and health oriented services in Norway, report a reduction in the number of sex workers in street prostitution in Oslo by 58% from 2008 to 2009 (from 1200 to 500 persons), in Bergen by 7 % (from 125 to 116) and in Stavanger by 49% (from 61 to 31). In 2009, Pro-centre (low threshold harm reduction centre for men and women selling sex and national resource centre for prostitution) estimated that the number of sex workers on the indoor marked in Oslo is reduced by 16 % from 2008 (in total 900 persons in 2009). However, these estimates of persons in prostitution are based on those who have had contact with support services or placed advertisements, researchers maintain that these data are unreliable because not all prostitutes get counted and some might be counted twice. In addition, essential information about men selling sex is lacking. Knowledge on whether the ban has led to a reduction of the total sale of sex or if there are fewer clients, is not available. (pages 50-51)

It goes on to say, in relation to migrant sex workers,

Since the ban on purchase of sex was introduced there has been a significant reduction in registered sex workers from Nigeria and Central and Eastern Europe residing temporarily in Norway. It is not believed that these women have started in new professions in the Norwegian labour force. Reports from Denmark and Luxembourg indicated the e.g. many Nigerians have moved their business to this part of Europe. The number of registered Thai sex workers on the other hand, has increased. This can partly be explained by the fact that many Thai female, male and transpersons selling sex in Norway have permanent residence permit or Norwegian citizenship due to family reunification and are therefore less mobile.

I’m unclear as to why the number (as opposed to the proportion) of Thai sex workers should have increased since the ban, but this otherwise seems to validate a few points that I’ve made a couple times on this blog: first, that criminal laws are a poor method for getting people out of prostitution; second, that the effect of prostitution laws cannot be viewed in isolation from the effect of migration policies; and third, that what may seem to be a “reduction” in prostitution is all too often merely a diversion – which might look favourable to the jurisdiction that recorded the “decline” but does fuck all to actually protect anyone. If those Nigerians and CEE sex workers had been trafficked or otherwise exploited in Norway, and undoubtedly some of them were, they’re still being exploited in Denmark or Luxembourg or wherever. Norway’s law hasn’t done a thing to help them, it just made them someone else’s problem.

So, to summarise the report: Norwegian NGOs in the HIV/AIDS sector are very clear that the sex purchase ban poses an obstacle to effective HIV prevention. The Norwegian Directorate of Health is more circumspect on the issue – not surprising when its website states that “​The political frameworks to which the Directorate is subject are the political platform of the government in office at any time and resolutions of the government and of Parliament” – but it certainly seems to be a lot more skeptical about the claims for positive impacts of the law than it is about the claims for negative impacts.

All too often, the law’s supporters are portrayed as if their view was shared across Norwegian and Swedish society, with only irrelevant people like sex workers themselves dissenting. That isn’t true in Sweden, where criticism has come from such sources as the Discrimination Ombudsman, the National Board of Health and Welfare and the Federation for LGBT Rights (citations in this post), and clearly it isn’t true in Norway, either. It is essential that these opposing views be included in any honest and informed debate over the adoption of the law in other countries.

More on the effects of the Norwegian sex purchase ban

In this post on the effect of the sex purchase ban in Norway, I promised to return to the 2010 Annual Report of the Pro Centre. The Pro Centre is an Oslo-based agency which acts as both a national resource centre on prostitution and a health and social services provider to sex workers. You can read a full description of the Pro Centre’s remit here.

The Report is here. Unfortunately, it’s all in Norwegian, so I need to start off with a couple disclaimers. First, what follows in this post is a Google Translate job, and I can’t be sure Google got everything right. Second, my attempts to clean up Google’s translations may not be strictly accurate; this should not be seen as an absolutely authoritative translation. Finally, on many pages there were whole lines that turned into gibberish when C&P’d. If the context suggested that a gibberish line might relate to the sex purchase ban I retyped it myself for translation, but if it didn’t, I skipped it. Thus it’s possible that I have inadvertently omitted some relevant elements of the report.

All that said, there was enough repetition of the key points that I think it’s extremely unlikely that what follows actually misrepresents the report in any significant way. I will post any needed corrections, if an actual Norwegian speaker can bring them to my attention.

Now then. The report is broken down into different sections that cover the different areas the Centre works in. Each section has a different author, and not all of them have anything to say about the law. Among those who do, however, there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement about the law’s effects. The issues that they raise are grouped together below.

Have sex workers left the industry because of the law?

I’ll start off with this one, so yous don’t think I’m cherry-picking only the comments that criticise the law. This is, in fact, an area in which the law might be said to have had some positive effect. The Centre does believe that at least some sex workers have chosen to leave the trade; this is stated on page 15.

But there’s a pretty big caveat: these are indoor, Norwegian workers, and what it says about them is:

These women often have more options than prostitution and grab them now.

This seems to vindicate one of the points that I made in this post: the sex workers who can leave when their industry is criminalised are precisely the ones who always could leave – that is, not the trapped and desperate ones that abolitionists are concerned with.

As for the outdoor Norwegian workers, who have considerably fewer options? Many have disappeared from the street – but the report challenges assumptions that this means they’ve quit sex work:

Many have found other ways to get in touch with customers…Many have gained regular customers as they make agreements by mobile phone instead of meeting them in a prostitution district. (page 78)

Similarly, on page 88 it says that many sex workers are simply no longer operating

in the centre of town. Pro Centre are told that much of the drug trade and prostitution is happening in neighbourhoods, in people’s homes and close to the council flats

And on page 72 it says:

We have information that activity has continued to grow out in the more public spaces, such as in bars, clubs and other meeting points. There are fewer and fewer people working together in an apartment, to be less visible to neighbors and the outside world.

In other words, the market is reorganising to avoid detection. This makes it pretty much impossible to assume that a decline in detected cases actually means people have left the industry.

Some, however, are no longer earning enough through sex work – and it’s primarily the most vulnerable:

These are women with extensive and complex problems…When criminalisation was adopted in 2008, they became further marginalised…it was difficult for the most vulnerable drug users to obtain income by prostitution (page 33)

So what became of this group?

Some have found it necessary to finance their drug consumption in a criminal manner. (page 78)

That’s pretty much what I argued in this post would happen, isn’t it?

For non-Norwegians the report finds that the law has had some impact, but clearly not what was expected. On page 80, in relation to Nigerian street workers, it is acknowledged that:

the number of Nigerian prostitutes in Oslo has gone down considerably

However, also speaking of Nigerians it says on page 76:

We had an expectation that they would leave the country after criminalization, because they basically have few rights in Norway. This assumption is only partially suggested.

Since the law was brought in primarily as a xenophobic response to the appearance of Nigerian sex workers, Norwegians might see it as a success to the limited extent that it did persuade them to leave the country. But of course, “leaving the country” is not the same as leaving prostitution – so at best we can say that the law seems to have had some displacement effect on this group (and, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, at least some were merely displaced across the border to Sweden). In fact, the report acknowledges this on page 41 when it says:

We thought last year that may of the foreign women would disappear… for example, to travel for prostitution markets in other countries.

However,

Far from most of them have gone

Going on to consider Thai sex workers, the report does say (page 77) that the law “probably” contributed to many of them seeking routes out of prostitution – but the way in which it did this is pretty rotten. I’ll discuss that further in the section on violence against sex workers.

On page 75 it notes more generally that

In recent years we have also had many foreign visitors who have few or no rights in Norwegian society. Alternatives to prostitution are therefore limited.

Again, this shows that laws that aim to eradicate prostitution by eliminating demand simply will not work for certain particularly vulnerable sectors of the population, because there is nothing else for them to do.

And apparently, even some of those who might be otherwise-employable are remaining in prostitution for lack of opportunities. Page 55 contains a letter written to the Department of Justice by a woman who decided to try to leave the industry after the law came in. She writes:

I got in touch with Pro, to take advantage of these “opportunities” to get another job. This was the promised support, and I was so stupid that I believed…Now it’s demanded that I should take a course in what I would say has no meaning to me in my situation. For a course of 18 months I will have nothing but to get a job in a supermarket. So I prefer to work as a prostitute…I had begun to believe in this and that it would give me the opening I need to change my lifestyle, but now I feel that this is in no way within reach.

This is just one person’s experience, of course, and it can’t be verified (then again, anti-prostitution material is full of such individual anecdotes). But it does point up another way in which abolitionist ideology often fails to recognise the reality of sex workers’ experience. If you assume that sex work is so awful that nobody would possibly do it if they had another option, it follows that any alternative would be preferable, and therefore it isn’t necessary to provide decent alternatives. But in fact, even a lot of sex workers who’d like to get out would rather stay in than take some of the crappy options available to them. Offering them useless courses that lead only to shit jobs is as insulting to them as it would be to anyone else.

So onto a related issue…

Has the law reduced the overall amount of prostitution?

As always, this is a question that really can’t be answered with certainty, because there never was a way to accurately measure the number of sex workers and there certainly won’t be now that the industry has been driven underground. The best that the Centre can do is estimate, based on the numbers it encounters.

On page 76 it says:

The foreign contingent has not declined to the extent that we had expected, and we observe that there are constantly new people….This group [Eastern Europeans] has had a rise since 2009 and is up on the same level as 2008 [before the law was introduced].

In relation to the indoor market, page 15 states:

we saw a drastic decline in the number of ads in 2009, while the figure rose again in 2010 and is now at the same level as in 2008…

On the same page, speaking of the foreign workers who “tour” the country for a short period of time and then leave, it says that this sector:

increased sharply in 2010.

In terms of the street sector, the findings vary by city. Page 14 states:

In Oslo, we estimate that street prostitution is made up of 670 different people (an increase of 34% from 2009, but 46% fewer than in the peak year of 2008). In Bergen, [an outreach agency] mentions that they have had contact with 101 different people in 2010 (a 15% decrease from 2009)…In Stavanger, [another outreach agency] reports that they have been in contact with 36 different women in 2010 (an increase of 16% from 2009).

So of Norway’s three largest cities, one noted a large drop in street prostitution immediately after the law was enacted but the numbers have since begun to increase significantly; one is seeing a decrease since last year, and the other seeing an increase. With no real pattern, these figures must cast doubt on claims that the law is “working” to reduce prostitution.

And speaking of the sex workers who come to use the Pro Centre’s services, on page 79 the report says:

We observe that despite the statutory prohibition there are more and more new users here, especially foreign women.

On page 56 it says:

A total of 632 people used the Pro Centre’s health services in 2010. This is an increase of 13% from 2009…We have seen the largest increase in Romanian women.

Again, this doesn’t prove that the number of sex workers in Oslo, or even the number of Romanian sex workers, is actually increasing. But it certainly doesn’t support claims that the numbers are decreasing because of the law. Those tempted to make such claims need to explain exactly how they arrive at them.

Has the law led to a decrease in trafficking to Norway?

Again, it’s impossible to accurately measure this, but the report suggests the law might have had some effect. On page 80 it says:

In 2010, we worked with fewer people vulnerable to trafficking than in 2009.

This is partially attributed to the decline in Nigerian sex workers in Oslo (noted above), about whom it says

Nigerian women are the vast majority of people trafficked at the Pro Centre.

But of course, we don’t know if they were simply trafficked to a different country, in which case it couldn’t be said that the law had any beneficial impact from their perspective. Furthermore, the report goes on to suggest that trafficked persons may now be declining to come forward, because of the consequences they face for doing so:

…it is known in the community that the help you get will pretty much be temporary. Some are actually more afraid of their situation after having taken the temporary help than they were before. They experience an even more unsafe situation when the aid ceases. They get a reputation in the community as being informants. In addition, there is a perception that the police use them, and [Immigration] then throws them out of the country…Several feel that they gave up all control over their own lives from the moment they began to receive assistance as victims of trafficking and were granted reflection. Some have said that they regret the choice they did, and that they never would have done the same again. More tell us that they felt they had more opportunities for the future and more control over their own lives when they were still under the control of traffickers, than they have as identified victims of trafficking.

You have to admit, that’s a pretty horrific situation for trafficked persons to be in. It’s not the fault of the sex purchase ban, of course. However, as I’ve said before, it can be easy to lose sight of all the other aspects of trafficking that need to be dealt with when outlawing prostitution is treated as the solution to the problem.

And Nigerians aren’t the only people who the Pro Centre thinks are being trafficked into Norway. Back on page 15, where the report (as already noted) refers to a sharp increase in “touring” sex workers, it says:

We are in no doubt that some of the traffic on the market, particularly from Eastern Europe, is well organised.

So, as all of the above shows, there’s not a lot of evidence in this report to justify claims that the law has had the positive effects it was intended to have. But what about the negative, unintended effects?

Violence against sex workers

As with everything else, getting precise statistics is impossible. But the Pro Centre certainly seems to feel the law has made things more dangerous. On page 72 it says:

With the changes and restructuring that have continued to develop on the market, women and men in prostitution have also been considerably more vulnerable and exposed in multiple contexts. We know that they now to a much smaller extent have the opportunity to work jointly with others. Many also go alone to unfamiliar places to meet the customer, unless the conditions can be checked out in advance, which means greater risk for such exposure to violence…We still hear that more customers are increasingly requiring more specific services performed, lower payment and the aggression level has increased.

During the last months of 2010, there were several robberies…They used the same procedure every time, and threatened with both crowbar and knives…This led naturally to life becoming even more uncomfortable and difficult for many.

As for those Thai workers I mentioned before, who have been motivated by the law to leave the industry? The reason why is given on page 77:

Statutory prohibition has affected this group particularly hard both in terms of police actions and the people/groups that have exercised violence and robbery against them.

So the law’s consequences have actually terrorised them out of prostitution. Is that really the approach that feminist abolitionists think we should take?

And what about those who can’t be terrorised out, because they’ve nowhere to go?

Unsafe sex

The report is unequivocal about this: it has increased. This is attributed mainly to having too few customers for too many sex workers:

We get a lot of feedback from prostitutes that condom use is declining. The high number of pregnancies and the increase in sexually transmitted infections also point in that direction. Many people tell us that using condoms when they perform oral sex has become almost impossible. There are many women who perform oral sex on men without a condom, making it difficult for those who want to use condoms to negotiate this with the customer. There is also a known fact that one gets more money to have sex without a condom, so that in a market that has a greater supply than demand, an increasing number of our patients reported that they take “trips” [not sure exactly how to translate that] without a condom. (page 57)

It’s pretty basic economic stuff: reduce demand below supply and you create a buyer’s market, where the seller is the one who has to make the concessions. The consequences?

We have unfortunately seen a rise in sexually transmitted infections. In 2010 there were 24 positive for chlamydia, compared with 8 last year. (page 59)

And it’s not only STIs that they’re seeing more of:

We have seen a continued increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies…This may be a consequence of the new sex purchase law which came into force in 2009, because we found that women were more hesitant to accept condoms. (page 61)

Of course, a dangerous consequence of unwanted pregnancies is:

Some women tell us that they provoke an abortion themselves using drugs or other methods. Such drugs are unfortunately easily accessible and can cause major health problems for women. (page 62)

And a further possible reason is suggested for the apparent increase in unsafe sex:

Several [sex workers] no longer wished to accept condoms when we arrived at visits. Condoms were the evidence police needed to prove prostitution. (page 11)

As “bad sex work policy” goes, does it get much worse than using condoms as evidence? Could they disincentivise condoms any more?

Worsened relations with police

The Nordic model was supposed to ensure that sex workers could still report crimes against them to police, since they wouldn’t run the risk of being arrested. What this assumption fails to take into account is that if your industry is criminalised, the police are not your ally. Their job is to stop you from doing your job. So why on earth would you want to alert them to the fact that you’re doing that job? This is a prime example of why policy-makers need to actually listen to sex workers, and not simply make laws on the basis of what seems intuitive to them.

In fact, the report confirms that the police are still targeting the most vulnerable. On page 78, describing drug-using Norwegian sex workers:

We still get feedback from the Norwegian users that the police chase them away from the prostitution district and threaten to punish them for invitation to criminal acts.

On page 89:

There have been a lot of police in the district in 2010, and some of [the sex workers] we have talked to have felt harassed by some officers. The women say they feel it is they who have been criminalised and not the customers. Several reported that they were expelled from the district for a day because they “encouraged criminal activity”.

And it appears to be sex workers in general (not just street workers) who the report describes on page 72:

There are sellers of sexual services, mainly women, who have been focused on by both the police and the community at large. We have received many inquiries from women who are both frustrated and angry over this. Many have expressed that they feel constantly monitored and pursued, which leads to a constant sense of anxiety and turbulence…They believe they are unlawfully criminalized and chased and find that the actions and attitudes they are faced with, is very offensive.

Which brings us to a related issue…

Has the law increased the stigma against sex workers?

I think that most people outside the sex industry have really no idea exactly how big an issue stigma is. I’ve seen a number of research pieces in which it is identified by sex workers as the single biggest problem they face – bigger than violent customers, bigger than pimps, bigger than STDs and all the other things that non-sex workers think of.

Stigma is a problem for sex workers on a number of levels. It’s a mental health issue in and of itself. And it also contributes to all the other “negative effects” I’ve outlined above. It puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, by suggesting they are appropriate targets for abuse. It puts their health at risk by discouraging them from seeking needed health services, or from disclosing their occupation to their health service provider. It makes it harder for them to negotiate safer sex, or for better working conditions with their brothel or agency, by portraying them as the weaker negotiating party. And it damages their relationships with police by making police think they don’t merit protection from harm, because after all, they should be used to it. (I could write a whole blog post about how the radical feminist view of sex work contributes to this stigma and therefore to the harms that sex workers face. And maybe someday I will.)

While the Nordic model is ostensibly supposed to stigmatise the buyer and not the seller, Swedish sex workers have long claimed that they feel targeted under the law. It is quite clear from reading the Pro Centre report that the same has occurred in Norway. On page 11 it describes how immediately after the law came into force:

…the evening news showed a female hotel owner in Halden with a big grin, saying she and her male employees who pretended to be whore customers now managed to get all the women they thought were prostitutes thrown out of the hotel…it was like a kind of invitation to the common man, the police and the media, actually all of us, a joint volunteer effort to combat prostitution. You can guess how this went over. Women in prostitution were scared.

On page 73, it says:

Stigmatisation of people with experience of prostitution has, if possible, become even stronger in the past year. Many feel, as mentioned, that they have become a sort of fair game

Page 64 also mentions increased stigma as a consequence of the law, in the context of explaining why many sex workers are alienated from the public health system. Alienating people from the public health system is bad. Seriously, folks, it’s not rocket science.

Nationality discrimination and loss of home

Page 11 notes that

Many women had their tenancy terminated because the police threatened the landlords with pimping charges if they let to prostitutes.

This seems to be hitting foreign sex workers (and perhaps not only sex workers) particularly hard:

On suspicion of prostitution activity, the potential landlord is contacted and warned of the danger of pimp charges if the lease does not immediately cease. It has thus been difficult for women of foreign origin to hire a private residence when Landlords have been skeptical. The fear is that there will be prostitution there, and that the landlord is thereby risking pimp charges against him. (page 71)

It seems that women travelling alone are also stigmatised in this manner:

Women’s identity documents have been checked against police records when they are booked into a hotel. (page 72)

The report concludes with a review of other recent literature from Sweden and Norway, including what looks like a very interesting report titled Local Consequences of the Sex Purchase Law in Bergen. Here’s a bit from its summary (page 104):

The report’s finding is that the sex purchase law has had serious consequences for women who sell sex in Bergen…The market to make money by organising others’ prostitution has increased. The report also reveals that women feel more unsafe than earlier, and that drug use on the market has increased. In relation to the number selling sex both on the street and indoors, there was a sharp decline in the number of women who offered their services immediately after the Act’s implementation. A short time later, an increase in the number of women could again be registered.

I’ll close this with a quote from the report (page 33) that sums up exactly what is wrong with the sex purchase ban. We can’t really say that it has had the effect of reducing the overall amount of prostitution or trafficking; it may have resulted in some women leaving the sex industry (although not necessarily for better alternatives, or in a very nice way) – but it will always leave some of the most vulnerable behind, and

it is they who do not leave prostitution that are left holding the bag.

When will the Nordic model be seen for the health and human rights debacle it evidently is?

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