Steps to tighten the laws on buying sex in Nordic countries are winning adherents around Europe, but feedback from the sex workers they were drawn up to protect suggests that the regulations may be making their work more dangerous.
The jury is still out on the efficacy of the new laws, which depending on the country involved were drawn up to safeguard women deemed to be in vulnerable positions, stop violence against women and strengthen human rights and gender equality.
But interviews with charities, women’s rights activists and prostitutes themselves indicate that for many sex workers, the effect of the law has not been positive.
“The law is pushing prostitution more underground,” said Jaana Kauppinen, who heads a charity that helps sex workers in Helsinki and Tampere in Finland. “It makes the women more vulnerable and increases the risk of violence.” Sweden was the first to introduce a ban on buying sex in 1999, following a campaign started by women’s rights advocates who believed that buying someone’s body for sex was morally wrong. In the final proposal to criminalise the buying and not selling of sex, Stockholm focused on the vulnerability of the women and their right to “peace” and protection.
Finland followed in 2006 with a partial ban, making it illegal to buy sex from a person who was trafficked or pimped. Norway and Iceland adopted Sweden’s law in 2009.
Since then, France, England and Wales have all adopted Finland’s partial ban. A deal was struck by the ruling coalition parties in December to do the same in Germany. Ireland is considering a Swedish-style law. In February, the European Parliament voted in favour of Sweden’s law, on the basis that it considered prostitution constituted violence against women. The vote was not binding.
Some sex workers applaud the laws. “It is good the customers are scared,” said Tina, 24, from Romania, waiting for clients in the streets in central Oslo. “If they try to get more than what they paid for, or if they threaten to be violent, I can tell them: ‘I am going to call the police, tell them where we are and give them the registration number of the car’.”
But most sex workers interviewed in Finland, Norway and Sweden said the new laws made their working conditions more dangerous.
“Now women have to go to the customers’ homes, which is one of the most dangerous ways to work: you don’t know what you walk into,” said Pye Jakobsson, 45, a retired sex worker living in Stockholm.
Silvia, a 35-year-old from Bulgaria working as a prostitute on the streets of Norway, agreed the new secrecy posed problems. “Before we did not go far with the customer: we would go to a car park nearby. But now the customer wants to go somewhere isolated because they are afraid,” she said. “I don’t like it. There is more risk that something bad happens.”
Police deny that the laws have made prostitution more dangerous. “It is dangerous to be a prostitute, whether in a country that has legislation like the Sex Purchase Act or not,” said Kajsa Wahlberg, a detective superintendent at Sweden’s National Police Board and the national rapporteur on human trafficking. “The fewer women in prostitution, the less violence. I have asked this question to police, to social services for 15 years and we have not seen an increase in violence after the act was introduced,” she said.
The acts do appear to have had an effect on human trafficking, police said.
“Bringing the women to Sweden is now more time-consuming and takes more resources than before” and it is more difficult for traffickers to pimp prostitutes on the street, Ms Wahlberg added.
Some sex workers interviewed in Finland said they believed the law had increased demand for local prostitutes while cutting it for foreign ones as clients believed local women were less likely to have been trafficked or pimped.
“I haven’t seen any decline in my business,” said Diva Miranda, the nom de guerre of a Finnish dominatrix based in Tampere, who sees an average 10 to 20 clients a week. She is concerned, however, that her work would become more hazardous if the law was changed to be like Sweden’s. “Some of the more law-abiding citizens would probably stop using my services. And that is not a pleasant thought. I am not really looking forward to that,” she said.
Statistics on prostitution are hard to come by because of the underground nature of the business, officials say, but a 2010 Swedish government inquiry into the new law’s impact showed the numbers of men who used prostitutes had gone down to 7.8 per cent in 2008 against 13.6 per cent in 1996.
Statistics from Sweden’s National Crime Prevention Council showed that the numbers of reported cases of human trafficking for sex in Sweden had actually gone up, however, to 35 in 2011, triple the number in 2008. A police report is the initial stage in an investigation and may not lead to prosecution.
Police say the increase was a result of more funding for investigations, not a result of the law. The moral and ethical questions around prostitution complicate law-making on the issue.
In Norway, the centre-right Conservatives and the populist Progress Party – the parties ruling the country since October – have said they want to overturn the law as they believe it infringes on free choice. But they face a revolt from within their own parties on the issue.
“I was not in favour of introducing the law, but I am worried about sending the wrong signal if we abolish it now,” said Trude Drevland, the mayor of Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city.
Marie Johansson, who runs a counselling service in Stockholm to help men to stop going to prostitutes, said she supports the law. “I think it is a good step to say that as a society it is not okay to buy someone else’s body,” she said.
Efforts to extend the ban in Finland to include all forms of sex purchase were recently defeated, but the Finnish Justice Minister, Anna-Maja Henriksson, said she would continue to try to make the current regime tougher.
Jakobsson, the retired prostitute living in Stockholm, said she thought the law was patronising toward women.
“On one end, some women are exploited, but on the other you have women who do it as a hobby and enjoy it. And you have everything else in between,” she said.
“This law sends a message that women are victims. And the authorities don’t know how to deal with women who don’t see themselves as victims.”