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.
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?
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?