OSLO - Nordic steps to tighten the laws on buying sex are winning adherents around Europe, but feedback from the sex workers they were drawn up to protect suggests 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.
CUSTOMERS ARE SCARED
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. She declined to give her last name. "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 the majority of 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.