As parliament makes it an offence to buy sex from women forced into prostitution, Gwladys Fouché talks to sex workers, police and support groups in Scandinavia, where similar bans have met with a mixed reception
Nadia shivers in the cold night air while waiting for punters on the streets of Oslo. Until recently, the centre of the Norwegian capital was the country’s main red-light district, with sex workers standing at every corner waiting for clients. But tonight the streets are almost deserted. Nadia, a 22-year-old heroin addict, is one of only three prostitutes out working. “The clients are extremely nervous,” she says. “Most of them don’t dare come here.”
There are few customers because, since 1 January, it has been illegal to buy sex in Norway. Those who do can face up to six months in jail, although most will end up paying an on-the-spot fine of up to 9,000 kroner (£925).
Approximately 35 men have been fined so far – many caught in the act, as was one of Nadia’s clients. She recalls: “We were busy when the police came – it was embarrassing. I told the guy he should say I was feeling unwell and that he was driving me home. I stuck to the story, but he spilled the beans immediately.”
Norway is the latest in a small, but growing, number of European nations that have criminalised paying for sex. Sweden has had a ban on buying sex since 1999, while in Finland it has been illegal since 2006 to buy sex from a woman who is trafficked or pimped.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland are now considering following Finland’s example. The policing and crime bill that has just gone through the House of Commons will make it an offence to pay for sex with someone “subjected to force by psychological means and the exploitation of vulnerability”.
Although the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, was accused last week by women’s groups of backtracking on tougher proposals to criminalise men who pay for sex with anyone “controlled for gain”, if the bill becomes law, its immediate impact is likely to be the near-disappearance of street prostitution, as in Norway.
But this could make life tougher for prostitutes. “Now the men drive us out of town to find an empty space with no one in sight,” says Michelle, 25, who has been a sex worker for five years. “It often takes more than an hour before we’re back. Before we would go down to the harbour and be done in 15 minutes.”
Nadia, who has been a sex worker since she was 14, says: “Before, you would work until you made 4,000-5,000 kroner. Now you have to work all night and you earn only about 1,000-1,500 kroner.”
The ban on buying sex, however, may also make it more difficult to conduct human trafficking. Kajsa Wahlberg, a detective inspector at Sweden’s National Police Board (NPB) and spokeswoman on human trafficking, says: “We know from our colleagues in Estonia who have eavesdropped on traffickers that they consider Sweden to be a bad market. They can no longer send the women on the streets, which was the easiest way to find clients. Now they have to find flats for the women, they must advertise on the internet, and clients are afraid of getting caught. [Traffickers] think it’s not worth doing business in Sweden.”
Swedish authorities also believe that the law has reduced demand for paid sex. “Many men have stopped going to see prostitutes as they are afraid their wives will find out,” Wahlberg says.
Under the law, they face up to six months in jail, but the 600 or so men who have so far been convicted have received fines, set in proportion to their incomes. Crucially, the notice of the fine is sent to the man’s home address.
The law may also have reduced the industry as a whole. While there are no reliable figures for the number of foreign sex workers who have arrived illegally or via human trafficking, the NPB says the number of prostitutes who are Swedes or Swedish residents dropped from 2,500 to 1,000 between 1998 and 2009.
Jonas Flink, a social worker with a prostitutes’ support group in Gothenburg, believes the law has had a positive effect. “Today, when we debate prostitution, there is as much focus on the clients as there is on the prostitutes,” he says. “The burden of shame and guilt is shared by both. And we can now focus our efforts on indoor prostitution, which covers most prostitution. Before, all our resources were focused on street prostitution.”
However, Swedish sex workers disagree that the law has been beneficial. “It has made it physically more dangerous to work,” says Pye Jakobson, a 40-year-old prostitute in Stockholm. “Health-wise, it is riskier because more clients ask to have sex without a condom, because they know some women are desperate for cash and will do things they would have refused before. And we are socially isolated because we are forced to work alone. Those who work indoors, like me, would often share flats with colleagues, but we don’t any more as it might attract too much attention. So we don’t have each other for support, and we’re alone if problems arise.”
Jakobson also objects to the law’s “patronising” view that prostitutes are victims who need to be rescued. “Women have the right to decide what they do with their bodies and what profession they decide to take,” she says. “Of course there are women who are exploited, but we already have laws against that, be it against pimping, human trafficking or child prostitution. Why have more laws? The 1999 law is not helping sex workers in practice. Instead, it has swept prostitution under the carpet.”
While Sweden and Norway introduced a ban on all forms of buying sex, Finland did not go as far – only making it illegal to buy sex from a woman who is trafficked or pimped. But that law poses practical problems. “It is difficult to know whether the sex worker you’re with is exploited,” says Jaana Kauppinen, who heads a prostitutes’ support group in Helsinki. “If she is, she is not going to say so. The pimps can take extensive steps so that the clients don’t notice the difference.”
Kauppinen says the Finnish ban has made life tougher for some prostitutes. “Finnish prostitutes tell us they are getting more clients since the law came in, while the foreign ones say they have fewer. Clients believe it is safer to go with local prostitutes because they think they are less likely to be trafficked or pimped.”
Moreover, the law is near impossible to enforce. Yari Liukku, Helsinki’s deputy police commissioner, says: “If we can’t prove that the client knew that the woman was trafficked or pimped, then it is not a crime. The law should be judged on whether it practically helps sex workers, and I don’t think it does.”