In 2009, Norway adopted the Swedish Model. Now, a Crown-appointed Criminal Law Council have made an official recommendation to decriminalise the purchase of sex. ESWA Comms Officer Marin Scarlett speaks to PION Manager Astrid Renland about what this means for sex work in Norway.
Marin: Astrid, thank you for meeting with me! Can you tell me about the history of PION?
Astrid: PION was established in 1990 by two female indoor sex workers who were also working at the Ministry of Health on HIV prevention involving sex workers. It was the Ministry of Health that provided the economic resources to establish PION. Over the years, PION has been sex workers led only and by both sex workers and non-sex workers which is the current situation. Both in the staff and among the board members there are sex workers and non-sex workers.
Marin: When did you get involved?
Astrid: I started at PION in 2002 and was both professionally and politically engaged in the subject. I am a criminologist and at that time worked in academia with sex work, migration, and policymaking. I was writing applications to get funding for a PhD for a comparative study of sex worker organisations and how societal and cultural conditions shaped their community work and politics. I did not get any funding. Like my colleagues, I have had and have other jobs alongside PION. Today we are seven staff members sharing 3 FTEs. My position is as administrative manager, with responsibility for applications for grants, projects, finances, and employees etc. I am also editor for PION’s magazine, Albertine.
Marin: Since you joined PION – more than twenty years ago! – Norway implemented the Swedish model, in 2009.
Astrid: That’s right. In the years leading up to it, Norway evaluated the ban in Sweden and legalisation in the Netherlands. Professor of public law, Ulf Stridbeck, chaired the committee. Based on the committee's report, it was determined with broad political agreement that Norway should neither introduce the Swedish nor the Dutch model. This was in 2005. Two years later, the then government parties in the Stoltenberg administration completely reversed themselves and there was a majority in favour of banning the purchase of sex. What triggered the political majority was moral panic, sexism, and racism due to the increased number of female migrant sex workers from Nigeria in particular coming to Norway to work. They worked on the street and were very visible to both the public and the media. The sex worker policy and the Sex Purchase Act have primarily aimed to control the migration of unwanted migrants.
Marin: What does the Swedish Model look like within Norway’s borders?
Astrid: With criminalisation, sex workers have become an easy target for police. . Since the end of the 1970s, Norway has dealt with sex work as a social problem and established public social and health services for sex workers. Since the 2000s, the link between sex work, migration and human trafficking has transformed sex work to a criminal problem and the current policymaking in the field of sex workers is about fighting crime. It has given the justice sector a dominant position with the police working undercover to catch customers, pimps, and traffickers and/or enforce the Immigration Act. They use undercover methods and pose as clients to get the workers’ addresses and then raid the premises, confiscate condoms, mobile phones, and private belongings. They then call the property owner and tell them they must evict the tenant, or they will face charged for pimping. The sex workers are often facing eviction the same day without any notice, losing any money or deposit.
Marin: The infamous “Operation Homeless.”
Astrid: Yes, exactly. If there is more than one sex worker working together, the police might charge the sex workers for pimping each other. Before the Swedish Model sex workers used to be able to work together for safety and company, but now police raids force sex workers to work alone.
Marin: So, now Norway is re-evaluating its position with regards to the Swedish Model?
Astrid: It’s not just the Swedish Model – the Criminal Law Council has had a full review of all sex-related legislation in Chapter 26 of Norway’s Criminal Code And. In their official report, NOU 2022: 21 [Norwegian Public Inquiry] they have made a recommendation to decriminalise the purchase of sex. There are two principles behind this: the human rights principle, and the harm principle. The first centres on the individual right to sexual self-determination, which every person should have. The harm principle holds that the actions of individuals should only criminalised to prevent harm to other individuals, and according to the council is there no basis for saying that the sexual acts among consenting adults become harmful because there is money involved.
Marin: The Swedish Model typically starts off on the assumption that sex work is inherently harmful, so the Law Council’s approach feels quite ground-breaking.
Astrid: It is interesting because in the preparations for the Sex Purchase Act, it is precisely the payment for sex that is punishable. The Council has been really challenging this position since 2009 that just paying for sex is harmful and worthy of punishment. Neither the Sex Purchase Act [§316] nor the pimp section (§315] considers sex workers as the offended party or victim. The purpose of criminalisation is to protect society's interests.
Marin: That’s extraordinary. Society is the victim.
Astrid: It’s great to challenge that. The council states that problems related to sex work, must be dealt with outside the criminal law, which has the task of securing and safeguarding the individual's right to sexual autonomy and sexual self-determination. If there is violence or exploitation, then that is still criminalised and addressed by other legislation.
Marin: Of course, no one is recommending decriminalising violence or exploitation! Have they extended their recommendation to decriminalise all third parties?
Astrid: No, unfortunately not. The council recommends that the pimp section should continue as it is. According to members of the council, this is because they did not have the time and resources to investigate § 315., which criminalises all forms of organisation, including sex workers who work together as a community for increased security. The “pimp-paragraph” is harmful for sex workers who can be charged for pimping if they work together as well as to make property owners evict sex workers from their homes. In the consultation statement, PION has written that what is criminal must be the financial exploitation of other people's sex work. Until 2003, the ban of pimping explicitly stated exploitation and we want it reintroduced. We also stated that the effect of criminalisation of sex work must be investigated with the aim of full decriminalisation.
Marin: What is the timeline for this to be completed?
Astrid: After all the hearings and feedback are concluded the final version will be worked out by Norway’s Department of Justice. We expect this will arrive later this year, perhaps in autumn.
Marin: What outcome are you hopeful for?
Astrid: Honestly, at the hearings I have seen that there is not widespread support for decriminalising the purchase of sex and the current government has been saying that they aren’t in favour of it and signalled that it will be an election campaign issue. All the parties on the political left support the sex purchase law. Sex work is regarded as controversial and there will be a high threshold to remove the law even for the political parties who are not supporting the ban of purchasing sex. What we hope for is that the council's principles of human rights and sexual autonomy and harm principle create a new platform for discussing the regulation of sex work. Today, the political rhetoric is shaped around narratives that either you are in favour of the Sex Purchase Act, or you support that women and children are forced into sex work. There was recently a big push to reform Norway’s drug laws, which are very harsh, and even though decriminalisation drug users did not go through, the Drug Reform Committee's report has created a new platform for and led to a radical change in the public drug policy debate. We hope the Criminal Code Council's report will have the same effect on the public debate on the criminalisation of sex work - create a new public platform for sensible, knowledge-based discussion on sex work policy. Not least for the political parties that are critical of the Sex Purchase Act and have felt trapped in current political rhetoric. The law may not immediately change but hopefully will transform the political debate climate about criminalisation as a particularly harmful form of regulating sex work.
Marin: Astrid, thank you very much for explaining all of this to me.