Nordic Model: The Ongoing Criminalization of Sex Workers in Northern Europe
How Northern Europe reinforced the police war on sex workers.
The “Nordic” or “Swedish Model” of sex work (SW) criminalization is promoted by police, religious institutions, sex worker exclusionary feminists¹, and mainstream non-governmental organizations across the globe. The central feature of this model is a sex-purchase ban, typically introduced as the smart, compassionate, and progressive alternative to the more longstanding prosecution of sex sellers. The stated purpose of these laws is to shift the weight of stigma and prosecution from sex workers to pimps and clients.
Advocates frame the model as a common-sense compromise, somehow ending the longstanding police abuse and persecution of sex workers without obstructing their war on sex work itself. Their ultimate goal is the “abolition” of sex work. This was originally understood within an exclusionary feminist framework that erased workers’ capacity to consent to sex for money, framing all “prostitution” as a form of violence against women. A sensational conflation with human-trafficking has since overtaken this feminist framing. Conflation provides advocates with a more mainstream (often politically irresistible) justification for criminalizing initiatives. It is deployed both by advocates of the Swedish Model and of traditional sex worker criminalization. In the last few months it has formed the basis for a renewed bipartisan assault on sex workers’ speech and survival strategies in the United States.³ As we will illustrate, both approaches not only share a paternal erasure of the capacity to consent but enable the very violence and exploitation they claim to remedy.
Today the Swedish Model has been implemented (more or less) in seven countries, including four out of the five Nordic countries (though even there important distinctions arise). Before and after the introduction of purchase-bans these countries saw expansions of existing laws surrounding SW.² Their enforcement tended to escalate even as the purchase-ban’s introduction proclaimed an end to sex worker criminalization. Direct and indirect criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers is ongoing almost 20 years after the passage of the first purchase-ban.
History of Criminalization in Norway
In Norway a more pragmatic approach was only gradually replaced over the course of the 1990s-2000s. Norway did not adopt the purchase-ban until 2008, but by this time officers and legislators had escalated the policing of sex-workers considerably. Each Nordic country has longstanding “pimping” third party laws that restrict promotion, facilitation, and organization of SW, with increasingly broad definitions of each term. Sex workers are also (directly and indirectly) targeted by immigration and public health/nuisance laws. In their report, The Human Cost of Crushing the Market, Amnesty International (AI) conducts an instructive review of this legal history that will be summarized here.
Prior to the 1980’s immigration to Norway was relatively rare. In the mid-80’s / early-90’s the arrival of Thai migrants marked one of the first changes in the ethnic makeup of Oslo SW. Soon, during a mass media panic, the Oslo police launched a campaign against massage parlors.⁴ Many later reopened in more marginal locations, while other workers were pushed into the streets of less policed areas. Meanwhile those who could afford it moved their work into their own apartments.⁵
In 1995 the parliament expanded the penal code’s “promotion” section to prevent landlords from renting any premises used to sell sex (AI, 23). This was a critical amendment framed, of course, as a tool for prosecuting exploitative landlords. The Immigration Act of 2000 created new mechanisms to deport foreigners, mainly in preparation for entering the EU’s free-movement (Schengen) area, though also welcomed for its uses against sex-workers (24). In 2000 the penal code was expanded again to include advertising, criminalize sex-purchase involving underage persons, and mandate consideration of a general purchase-ban. Finally, in 2003, “Norwegian authorities removed exploitation as a prerequisite for pimping/procuring” entirely so that “all forms of organizing another persons prostitution” were criminalized (Skilbrei 484; AI, 25). Nordic countries use these vague, broad laws to prosecute a wide range of people who associate with sex workers, including friends, family, and partners who simply share flats with a sex worker, and ,perhaps especially, any sex workers who choose to work collaboratively.
“[In Sweden] no one can operate a brothel, rent an apartment, room, or hotel room, assist with finding clients, act as a security guard or allow advertising for SW. This in turn implies that sex-workers can not work together, recommend customers to each other, advertise work from property they rent or own or even cohabit with a partner (since the partner is likely to share part of any income derived from SW).” — Dodlillet, Susanne, and Petra Östergren, The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects; as quoted by Ann Jordan
In 2003–4 the Ministry of Justice appointed a working group to examine the situation in Sweden and make recommendations regarding a purchase-ban. The chair wrote that Sweden since ’99 had seen an increased “fear of violence” among sex workers, that STD risk rose, and that workers were further isolated from social service providers and health workers (AI, 24). Here he echoes the testimony of many sex workers and social service providers. Meanwhile the impact of the ban on trafficking was not clear, and remains disputed.
In 2004, finding that it did not “improve the conditions of the street prostitute,” Norway rejected the model. Even at this late date the actual impact of these laws on the actual working conditions of sex workers trumped ideological considerations. In the view of many academics, pragmatic considerations would continue to decide events, only another question would come to the fore: that of immigration enforcement.
At that time there were virtually no African sex workers of any origin in Oslo. By 2006, thanks in part to Berlusconi’s criminalization of SW in Italy (AI 90),the Nigerian sex worker population grew. Their “foreign” style of solicitation scandalized politicians and other “respectable” Norwegians going about their business on Karl Johan street. The cycle of mass moral panic and urgent calls for action was repeated, now more pronounced. In 2007 the Labour Party abruptly passed a purchase-ban.
The women were treated like they were garbage that needed to be cleaned away …‘black whores’ causing ‘immorality in the streets’. — Pro Sentret Officer as quoted by Amnesty International; p.90
“..the championing of abolitionist arguments by some feminists, trade unions and youth organizations increasingly converged with public alarm around ..Nigerian migrant women selling sex ..and concerns about public order, crime, potential strain on public services and human trafficking. It was in this context that sufficient support for a ban on purchasing sex was built.” — Amnesty International; p.25
To briefly summarize the other Nordic countries, Finland adopted a partial purchase-ban in 2006 and Iceland a full ban in 2009. The debate in Finland, like Norway, was driven largely by immigration/trafficking concerns and the “increasing internationalization” of SW, while Iceland, like Sweden, involved more normative/feminist arguments (Skilbrei, 491). Denmark has no purchase-ban, but directly and indirectly criminalizes foreigners engaging in prostitution. Abroad, France, Ireland, and Canada have recently adopted forms of the model.⁶
Life Under the Purchase Ban
Globally, sex worker peer organizations oppose the Swedish Model and call instead, with near-unanimity, for the full decriminalization of SW, anti-discrimination legislation, and for sex workers’ integration into existing labor law. Opposition to the Swedish Model “is grounded in the fact that the model harms people who sell sex, whether those people are working through choice, circumstance or coercion” (SCOT-PEP).
The model is meant to have a central place for welfare provision, but there are important distinctions between Nordic welfare approaches. In Norway, Denmark, and Finland, at least in the beginning, “social work initiatives [had] harm reduction as an explicit starting point”(Skilbrei, 495). HIPS, an American organization working with sex workers and drug users, defines harm reduction as “a public health theory, [that] acknowledges [SW] as a fact and seeks to minimize risks and dangers associated with [it].” The Swedish approach, in contrast, only offers “exit programs,” where help is conditioned on leaving sex-work. Exit-program oriented social workers refuse to do anything that “facilitates” or “promotes” SW, including distributing condoms or offering unconditional housing and medical assistance (Skilbrei 495–6). Nordic sex workers have critiqued welfare provision in each of these countreis as being overly conditional and ultimately inadequate.
“No money whatsoever was given to social services and several million Swedish kronor were given to the police.” National Sex Worker Project; The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers p.29; footnote 4
The criminalization of clients on its own has what might be considered paradoxical impacts. Police surveillance of sex workers is widespread and ongoing, partly because it is an easy method of locating clients. Meanwhile several social service providers and sex worker peer organizations discuss the emergence of a “buyers market” with a worse and more hurried negotiating position of post-ban workers. French workers report that, after the 2016 ban, “clients feel more entitled to impose their conditions (i.e. unprotected sexual practices, reduced prices, unwillingness to pay, etc.), seeing themselves as the ones taking the risk with regards to the law” (Médicins du Monde). More importantly, police in these countries have not stopped treating sex workers as criminals. Here the model has failed in its principal progressive aim.
In 2007 Oslo workers saw a cartoonishly sinister demonstration of their ongoing criminalization. Operation Homeless, a years-long campaign of “systematic and rapid eviction,” was carried out in the open with high-level approval (The Nation). Homeless continued until 2011 and was not ultimately wound down in disgrace but mainstreamed into Norwegian policing on a national level (AI, 31).
Operation Homeless rested on “promotion” law’s indirect criminalization of sex-worker’s renting a flat. Upon discovering the address of a worker (through surveillance or when a worker reports a violent crime) the police will contact the landlord and threaten prosecution unless the worker is evicted. The Oslo police refused to provide Amnesty International with the number of landlords prosecuted in this campaign, which doesn’t seem to have even been a consideration. The evicted workers not only lose their housing but also often lose the month’s rent and their security deposit (AI, 36, 41, 43; and Bjørndahl, 33). These workers then face future housing discrimination from landlords who are reasonably afraid to rent to a known sex worker. The evicted themselves undoubtedly become more vulnerable to extortion by landlords and other third parties, and to exploitation and abuse in the streets.
Criminalization regimes generally exclude sex sector workers from the protection of law and provision of justice. Under the Swedish Model this is more grotesque, as ostensibly legal workers find themselves excluded from labor protections and basic rights. According to the Norwegian state itself, “the threshold for reporting a violent customer to the police ..seems to be higher after the law” (New Republic). As mentioned above, reporting a crime can lead to eviction or, for migrant sex workers, deportation.
Really-existing traffickers and other exploitative third-parties undoubtedly rely on the undocumented migrants’ legal exclusion to exploit and abuse them. Street workers are disproportionately migrants and migrants are more likely to rent rather than own housing (Skilbrei, 505). Nordic countries see both explicitly targeted campaigns against foreign workers and various laws and police actions with disproportionate impacts. Even in Denmark ⁷ available figures imply “substantial” deportations of foreign sex workers via immigration law (485). Skilbrei and Holström note that the turn toward recognizing sex sellers as victims and subjects of welfare provision was interrupted by “the internationalization of SW markets.” All Nordic countries now have an ‘ethnic exception’ to their “sex-worker-as-victim” ideology (486).
By then, Norwegian sex worker control discourse was firmly within a post UN-trafficking protocols context. Alongside this gave any would-be xenophobic actors a respectable mainstream framework (and coalition) to operate within. The nature of human-trafficking is such that increasing migrant sex worker populations should give rise to genuine and reasonable concerns among policymakers, social workers, and activists. Anti-trafficking discourse is not solely a mask for xenophobia. Today many global and /or grassroots anti-trafficking organizations around the world fight fiercely against the insidious triple-conflation of trafficking, migration, and sex work as a principle obstacle to their work. However, the power of this conflation in Northern Europe, as well as in the United States, doesn’t appear to be in decline. On the contrary, the struggle against anti-immigrant far right politics has taken center stage in Nordic politics.
“A Failed Experiment”
“There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to SW stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers …These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients …The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. ” — UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and SW; p.31
While most of the US still suffers under an undiluted criminalization regime, one day the rising power of sex-worker peer organizations and would-be allies will force a change. When this time comes better-connected, better-funded, and, all things considered, significantly more “respectable” liberal voices will clamor for the adoption of something resembling the Swedish Model. They will probably appropriate words like “decriminalization” and “decarceration,” while retaining strong support from a segment of the police and other conservative forces. Should they succeed in delaying full decriminalization by re-marginalizing the already-stifled voices of American sex workers, it could put another decade between us and a decisive attack on criminalization.
Proponents might sensibly argue that this article, by not attempting to isolate the purchase-ban from legal context, and discussing implementation over theory, does not critique the model as-such. While some exclusionary feminists accept quite a bit of “collateral damage” in what they consider a fight against sex slavery, other purchase ban proponents surely oppose evictions, deportations, and this widespread discrimination. They may believe that the theory remains sound but the practice must be reformed.
Given that all of the above occurs within a uniquely wealthy, feminist, and social-democratic context, that Sweden and Norway have failed to halt the criminalization of sex workers is especially telling. Ann Jordan, an expert in international law and the director of American University’s Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, describes the Swedish Model as “a failed experiment.” Writing on Sweden specifically, Jordan notes that extremely rich, small, somewhat homogenous countries with “strong ..national identit[ies],” give us a rare environment in which to effectively test social policies (Jordan, 2). These countries have serious issues, escalating with the “refugee crisis” and austerity, but at the end of the day they simply had a far easier task than proponents could ever hope for in the US. One expects these pitfalls would be dramatically, catastrophically worse in our country.
Police harassment, violence, and impunity in the Nordic context is utterly dwarfed in America. As is being cruelly demonstrated in an unending series of police murders, most forms of police abuse and brutality are de jure decriminalized in the United States. We are already experiencing an assault on women, documented and undocumented migrants, racialized persons, and the gender nonconforming. Meanwhile in the US harm-reduction approaches get very little state support. Through FOSTA, American sex worker online harm reduction has seen an extreme bipartisan crackdown. If proponents want to reform the Swedish Model, they should start in Sweden instead of experimenting on vulnerable populations in the United States.
Any American decriminalization proposal, Nordic or otherwise, needs to ensure the safety of sex workers from law enforcement agencies, especially the paramilitary deportation squads like Immigration Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol (ICE/CBP). We should keep in mind that these criminal gestapo agencies believe themselves integral in the fight against trafficking, and often accompany cops in anti-trafficking raids.
There are several steps governments can take against human trafficking. These include expanding protections for victims (and their communities) from deportation, provision of health services and economic aid, extended anti-discrimination laws for current and former sex workers, past-felons, and other marginalized populations with limited access to work in the legal economy, and the unconditional provision of healthcare and housing. There is no shortage of straightforward, if sometimes difficult, work ahead of us. A real war on trafficking is ongoing worldwide. We should join with the sex worker and immigrant communities actually waging it.
1: The term sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF) is more common. Yet despite falling short of proper intersectional standards, this exclusion can still be considered a mainstream feminist position. Sex worker exclusion does not come solely from RadFem theory or sex-negativity, but also (perhaps primarily) from the politics of respectability among mainstream feminists.
2: This broader definition of the model is widely used. Amnesty International defines the Model as: 1) a purchase ban; 2) removing laws that directly criminalize sex-selling (“solicitation”); and 3) ongoing criminalization of organization and promotion of sex-selling.
3: American sex workers’ online harm-reduction and survival strategies have recently been criminalized by a law known as FOSTA. Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio have also cosponsored a bill to criminalize sex-worker’s using bank accounts. I have written a pamphlet partially addressing the recent emergency for US sex-workers here.
4: Most Thai migrant sex-workers “came to Norway through family reunification with Norwegian spouses” or other personal networks, and did not begin working immediately, contrary to standard trafficking conceptions (Skilbrei, 500; AI, 23). Future investigations found the parlors were also disconnected from organized crime and run cooperatively (AI, 23). Naturally, however, feminist discursive frameworks were deployed to justify this public-decency policing campaign.
5: Some of the most privileged sex workers could begin to work from homes they owned themselves, and would in this way avoid some of the worst police attacks to come. Migrant women, for the most part, did not own their own homes.
6: Canada’s supreme court struck down key laws regulating third-parties. “The Court recognized that some sex workers enter the profession by choice and others by circumstance, but that all are worthy of legal protection.” and found “that the laws impose dangerous and unsafe working conditions, exposing sex workers to high rates of violence, disease, marginalization and stigma.” Since then the Conservatives have pushed back with new Nordic style laws, but the Charter protections the court cited have shielded sex-workers to an extent.
7: Denmark is sometimes spoken of as the decriminalized exception to the “Nordic Model.” The ongoing repression of migrant sex workers, both here and in countries like New Zealand with longstanding decriminalization, is just one reason to caution against committing to decriminalization as more than one step towards workers’ liberation.
8: The Swedish government has released widely contested reports claiming a decrease in “prostitution.” Critics believe that because street-workers are easier to measure and because the sex sector generally has moved indoors and online since the 1990s, a false decrease signal should be expected. The Swedish government also has no adequate pre-1999 data with which to build an empirical baseline (Skilbrei, 503; Jordan).
When possible hyperlinks have been provided above that will direct you to the page of interest in longer reports.
“The Human Cost of ‘Crushing’ the Market: Criminalization of Sex Work in Norway.” Amnesty International (AI). May 2016
“Dangerous Liasons: A report on the violence women in prostituion in Oslo are exposed to.” Ulla Bjørndahl; Commissioned by Municipality of Oslo with support from Ministry of Justice and Public Safety and based in large part on surveys from Pro Sentret; 2012
“The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons.” Melissa Ditmore, Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center; 2009
“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering.” Ann Jordan. Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Issue Paper 4, American University Washington College of Law, April 2012
“What Do Sex Workers Think About the French Prostitution Act?” Hélène Le Bail and Calogero Giametta, Médecins du Monde; April 2018
“Amnesty International Calls for an End to the ‘Nordic Model’ of Criminalizing Sex Workers.” Melissa Gira Grant; The Nation; May 26, 2016
“The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers.” Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP); November 2015
“Is there a Nordic Prostitution Regime?” May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmström; Crime and Justice, 40:1, 2011: 479–517
“The Problem With the “Swedish Model” for Sex Work Laws.” Molly Smith; New Republic; June 8, 2015
“The Swedish Model: A Briefing.” Scottish Prostitutes Education Project (SCOT-PEP);