Norway’s Sex Purchase Act is 10 years old

By Dana Levy

Dana Levy is an Israeli survivor of the sex industry and campaigner for the Nordic Model in Israel, where a Nordic Model-style law has recently been passed. In this article, she reflects on the tenth anniversary of the passing of the Nordic Model legislation in Norway and the work that is still ahead.

The Norwegian feminist community is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the introduction of its Sex Purchase Act in 2009. Norway was the second country in the world to adopt the Nordic Model approach to prostitution.

For many Norwegians, the law aims to achieve three main goals, the first of which is changing the public perception of sex. The Nordic Model’s primary assumption is that free consent to sex cannot be commodified. If consent fails to exist – it cannot be gained through pressure, threats or blackmail, just as it cannot be physically coerced – otherwise it’s not free. Money has substantial power in our world – the power to separate the hungry from the fed. Therefore, consent that was bought with money cannot be defined as “free” and should never be normalized as a legitimate practice.

The second goal is to minimize the Norwegian sex industry by limiting demand. The prohibition of paying for “sexual services” that was added to the existing prohibition against pimping was intended to shift the focus onto those who perpetuate the exploitive sex industry with their money.

The third goal is to weaponize the battle against human trafficking. As one of the richest countries in Europe, Norway was a desirable destination for human traffickers, with prostitution as their core objective. The financial and political crises resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union and the financial collapse in south-east Asia in the 1990s, largely skipped Norway, making it an even more desirable destination.

A law aimed at minimizing the sex industry had been discussed periodically in Norway since 1982, while the feminist movement started campaigning for criminalizing the purchase of sexual services even earlier. The journey to a resolution was long and different legislative options were considered.

In 1999, Sweden was the first country to adopt what has come to be known as the Nordic Model approach to prostitution. A couple of years later, in 2002, another European country, the Netherlands, enacted the Legalization Model, which legitimizes brothel owners. Norway, meanwhile, stood on the side-lines and watched developments in both countries.

In 2007, reality began to dictate the need for new legislation. The global crisis in the financial markets that started in the US in 2007, hit European countries unevenly and resulted in changes to the established human trafficking routes. Norway, which remained financially stable, was flooded with human trafficking from new countries of origin. Nigerian traffickers had previously operated primarily in Spain, but in 2008, the bursting of the Spanish real-estate bubble increased unemployment there. Traffickers changed their course to the north, specifically Norway, with the Finnmark area particularly affected.

Norwegian feminists campaigned for years, demanding the penalisation of buyers and third party profiteers. Necessity sped up the legislation in Norway. There were more and more supporters for the Nordic Model from the left wing parties and the largest trade union. The pro-sex industry lobby, backed by the right wing parties, resisted the demand, but in 2008 they became a minority.

Five years after implementing the law, the Norwegian government assessed its consequences. The research revealed that the sex industry had indeed reduced in size. Without the legislative reform, the report said that the sex industry was destined to grow, because of the high, stable standards of living in Norway compared to neighbouring countries that had been more severely hit by the financial crisis.

The enforcement of the law against customers and traffickers, made the industry less lucrative and reduced the profitability of trafficking itself. Previously traffickers had demanded €50,000 – €60,000 per trafficked woman. But the research found that prices had dropped to €40,000 – €45,000. It’s unclear how profitability has shifted in other European countries, but it’s likely that prices would have remained unchanged in Norway, because buying power remained high despite the crisis.

It wasn’t just the scope of the industry but also its components that have changed. Fewer customers are Norwegians, and the majority are older. Most of the customers are either foreign residents or tourists. The same is true for the population in prostitution – most are foreign women (mainly from Eastern Europe, south east Asia and Nigeria) along with a minority of local women, most of them drug addicts.

Media and public and academic discourse around the implementation of the Nordic Model in Norway and other countries often asks how the population in prostitution has been affected by the law. People who oppose it argue that the law harms those engaged in prostitution and is therefore unjust.

The Norwegian government’s report attempted to examine this question, and presented findings based on interviews with women in prostitution. Some of the interviews suggested that these claims are partially true: wealthy clients have almost vanished, there are few local clients, and the number of clients has generally decreased – and the price of “sexual services” has gone down accordingly. In street prostitution, a new phenomenon of “nervous” clients who are in hurry to “close the deal” has emerged. Sometimes it works to the client’s benefit, for example, if the woman has to accept a lesser deal or give up entirely, and sometimes to the benefit of the women, for example, if the client is too scared to haggle and accepts any offer.

While the Nordic Model undoubtedly discourages the growth of the sex industry – it’s incorrect to claim that it has worsened things for the population in prostitution in a profoundly detrimental way, and that this is directly attributable to the law and not to the sex industry itself.

Demonstrably, there wasn’t an increase in violence against those engaged in prostitution in comparison to previous data. Violence was high before the law and remains high after. Clients’ fear of being arrested resulted in a decrease both to their numbers and the length of the sexual encounter, leaving the women with more “leisure”. The decrease in price demanded by human traffickers for the supply of victims can have a positive impact on victims, because the “price” is in reality a debt collected from the victim herself, which acts as a significant barrier against leaving the industry.

The abolitionist movement in Norway still has a long road ahead. Despite the fact that the sex industry has become less profitable, it remains a quick financial fix for women from poor countries who lack alternatives. Enforcement is far from ideal: strip clubs and massage parlours flourish in some Norwegian cities, along with online marketing of prostitution services. The high rate of foreign women in the Norwegian sex industry testifies to the fact that trafficking has not ended, even if it has abated.

According to US state department reports, Norway conducts 26-43 investigations into human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation annually, but conviction rates remain low. Some of these women suffer from the most appalling coercion: imprisonment, physical violence or threats against their families in their countries of origin.

Some of these victims are aided by local organizations, such as ROSA (Re-establishment, Organizing safe places to stay, Security, Assistance) which was established in 2005. Despite that, trafficking victims and local women in prostitution require more exit, rehabilitation and assistance services. The scarcity of such services is common almost everywhere and under any model, and is a result of not only the indifference of the authorities, but also of the uniquely difficult predicament of the victims of the sex industry. Israel, as well as other countries who might adopt the Nordic Model in the future, must prepare accordingly.

In the meantime, I want to thank the Norwegian feminists who paved the way for other countries, including Israel. Happy birthday to the Sex Buyer Law!

Further reading

On 15 June 2019, the Norwegian Feminist group, Ottar, is hosting a conference in Oslo to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Sex Purchase Act in Norway. For more information, see the Facebook event.

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