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Debate on sex purchase legislation keeps simmering

The sex purchase legislation is subject to ongoing debate in the Nordic region. Critics in Sweden say that the law has had undesired effects, such as making the sellers of sex more vulnerable. Yet a Norwegian study shows that the sex purchase law overall has had positive results.

Domarklubba. Foto: Colourbox
 Photo: Colourbox

Sweden adopted its sex purchase law in 1999 and Norway followed in 2009, and the controversial legislation has been subject to recurring discussion in both cases. Although similar arguments have been presented, the debates have in some respects taken different directions. The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) recently presented an evaluation of knowledge about the consequences of the Swedish Sex Purchase Act. The intended effect of the law is now being questioned based on this evaluation. RFSU concludes that there seems to have been a change in attitudes, where not only the buyers of sex but also the sellers are looked upon as criminals. The organisation also says that the risks for the sellers seem to have increased and that the law is not combined with social support measures to a sufficient extent.

Wanted to abolish the law in Norway

In Norway, the debate has been simmering ever since it was introduced. Critics say that the law is harmful and makes sellers of sex more vulnerable. The discussion culminated last autumn when the Norwegian right-wing government wanted to abolish the law as it was not considered to have the intended effect. An independent analysis company was appointed to look closer at the issue, and the resulting report shows that the purchasing of sex has decreased by 20-25 per cent compared with the year before the law went into effect. It was also found that the law has made Norway less attractive for organised prostitution, and therefore has reduced the risk for human trafficking linked to prostitution.

Hanne Størset is active in the Norwegian Feminist Group Ottar and represents a Nordic network against the purchasing of sex. She recognises the arguments in the Swedish debate.

‘The critics point to the stigmatisation of the women as the main dilemma, while it’s in fact the prostitution that’s the biggest problem. It’s harmful to women in many ways. This is clearly a matter of gender power and not just a social problem,’ she says.

More knowledge! Or do we already know enough?

RFSU proposes that Sweden look into the possibility of revising the legislation with a clear focus on the rights of individuals who sell sex. In a comment, the organisation requests a national knowledge centre that can gather more knowledge about the purchase of sex and preventive measures.

Norwegian participants in the debate are also calling for more knowledge, but Størset, who was one of those who fought for the introduction of the sex purchase act in Norway, does not think it is needed.

‘We know a great deal about the harms of prostitution. Prostitutes are extremely vulnerable to both physical and mental violence, as shown in a large body of international research,’ she says.

Evaluations drawing criticism

Illustration: Emma Hanquist
 Illustration: Emma Hanquist

Both RFSU’ s report and the evaluation of the law in Norway have been heavily criticised. Both reports have been described as political and lacking trustworthiness.

Størset says that the political interest in the sex purchase act has been weaker in Norway than in Sweden. As a result, it has not been used to the same extent.

‘The law works best if it is used by the police to catch buyers of sex,’ she says.

She believes there are several reasons why the criminalisation of purchase of sex is a hot topic. Women teaming up to put constraints on men may be provocative, she says.

Some women and men voluntarily choose to sell sex. Isn’t there a risk the law puts constraints on them as well?
‘In policy-making you have to look at the big picture. This is a collective struggle to change the gender power structure. We believe that prostitution is harmful to the individual, but most of all it is harmful to society and the relation between women and men,’ says Størset.

Updated 18 June 2020