Citing a pattern of police surveillance, evictions, deportations, and other forms of penalization that violate the rights of sex workers, “Amnesty International is calling on the Norwegian government to undertake a program of legal reform that decriminalizes adult consensual sex work,” the organization’s new report states, “and ensures legal protections from exploitation for people who sell sex that comply with international human rights standards.”
Further, Amnesty calls for an “immediate cessation” of so-called “stress method” policing, which law enforcement uses against some of the most vulnerable sex workers—and in particular, migrant sex workers—as a tactic to “stress” the sex trade out of existence.
This call to Norway is in line with Amnesty International’s new policy on sex work, also released this week, recommending “the decriminalization of all aspects of adult consensual sex work due to the foreseeable barriers that criminalization creates to the realization of the human rights of sex workers.”
Norway’s laws on prostitution are often described, alongside Sweden’s 1999 sex-purchase ban, as “the Nordic model.” One of their aims was to send a message that sex work was unacceptable, in the hopes this would lead to its eradication. But these laws are promoted by their governments—and by anti-prostitution groups around the world—as being beneficial for sex workers, because they are said to target only those buying sex, not those selling sex.
That’s not what Amnesty found after conducting research with sex workers living under these laws, Catherine Murphy, policy adviser at Amnesty International, told me. “When there were discussions about the Nordic model, it was oversimplified. By saying, ‘because the direct sale of sex isn’t criminalized, sex workers aren’t criminalized’—that wasn’t reflective of the reality of how criminal laws work against sex workers.”
Mercy, a Nigerian sex worker in Oslo, told Amnesty researchers how she was essentially punished for trying to report a rape and violent robbery. After she was threatened at knifepoint, along with the other women working in the same house, she said the police took two or three hours to come. “[W]e went back to the house and, two days later, the landlord threw us out,” she said. “The police put pressure on the landlord. She gave us half a day to get out.” Mercy, along with the other women, was suddenly homeless. “I had to wander around Oslo for hours with my bags until I found somewhere to stay.”
They are not alone. In Oslo, Amnesty found that police “used sex workers’ reports of violence to facilitate their eviction and/or their deportation.” Sex workers reported routine harassment by police, targeting migrant and Nigerian sex workers in particular. Police still regard sex workers as evidence of a social problem—as sex work has been redefined in Norway. They are also easy targets.
“No other group in society has this much police attention and has to live with it,” a social service provider told Amnesty, “even though they are not doing anything illegal.”
Much of what has been claimed as proof of the Nordic model’s success was not supported by Amnesty’s findings. Stigma and discrimination against sex workers has not lessened, as Amnesty’s interviews with 30 sex workers show. Most sex workers said they still fear reporting violence and exploitation to the police: “Nearly all of the women Amnesty International interviewed said that they would only consider engaging with police as a last resort—often only in extreme circumstances where there was an immediate threat to their life.”
The sex-purchase ban has created a “buyer’s market,” one social-service provider told Amnesty, where sex workers have lost negotiating power and are more subject to customer demands. To avoid police detection, sex workers reported, they increasingly rely on customers to provide a place to work. “Some customers can hurt you at their apartments,” Tina, a Nigerian street-based sex worker, told Amnesty. “We have to obey [the customer’s] rules because we are in their house. We can’t bring them to ours.” If they work together, sex workers may also draw police attention. Sex workers described being turned away from hotels after being profiled as sex workers, or having their rooms staked out by police. Helen, a Norwegian sex worker who works indoors, told researchers, “I work alone—it’s the only way not to do something illegal.”
Sex workers also reported being stopped and questioned while walking on the streets, attempts by police to get their address or perform searches, after which they can face sanctions and penalization: fines, evictions, or deportation. Migrant and African sex workers described how police profile them, whether they are working or not. Wendy, a young woman of African origin, told researchers that plainclothes police had stopped her and her friends when she wasn’t working. They asked to see her papers, and then asked if they were carrying condoms. “They told us to go away and that they better not see us on the street—we better not come back for 24 hours or they would take us to the station.”
The ripple effect of this police profiling means that some migrant sex workers have become more isolated, and in turn can face more risks at work. Outreach organizations serving sex workers told Amnesty that Thai women working in massage parlors have become reluctant to take condoms. PION, a sex worker–led organization, told Amnesty researchers it was once easier to do outreach with Thai workers, but “[n]ow the venues don’t want this in case it makes it look like it is a venue where sex is sold. They are constantly in risk of raids.” Oslo police confirmed to Amnesty that condoms could be used as evidence of sex work in that way. “This approach can act as a de facto penalty on the possession of condoms by sex workers,” Amnesty states.
All the attention to the Nordic model’s signature sex-purchase ban has also obscured the other laws that penalize sex workers. The law banning “promotion” of prostitution, Amnesty found, “does not in fact distinguish between third party involvement that is exploitative, abusive or coercive and third party involvement that is practical, supportive or for the purposes of safety.” Through enforcement of this overly broad law, police continue to target sex workers themselves. This is what’s leading to their surveillance, eviction, and, in some cases, deportation.
An expert adviser to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security put the apparent contradiction this way to Amnesty researchers: “It comes back to the question of ‘is it a problem that people in prostitution are in trouble.’ No one has said at a political level that we want prostitutes to have a good time while we also try to stamp out prostitution.”
As Ellie, an indoor sex worker, told Amnesty. “When the government made prostitution illegal, it made people see us as illegal.”
Public opinion surveys bear this out: With the passage of the sex-purchase bans in Sweden, anti–sex work stigma grew. In Oslo, Norway, researchers found increased support for criminalization of sex workers, counter to the aim of the law. “You can’t selectively stigmatize,” Murphy said. After the Nordic model, “what we see in Sweden and in Norway now is support for the criminalization of sellers at the same time.”
The most plain way sex workers have been made illegal might be “Operation Homeless”—the program that led to evictions of up to 400 apartments between 2007 and 2014, according to Oslo police, where sex workers worked.
Police would look up sex workers’ ads online, contacting them and posing as customers, an Oslo police representative told Amnesty. Once inside an apartment, they would attempt to find evidence that sex was sold there. Police, they said, would look for “condoms, creams, towels. Very often there is one room where it is clear no one lives there. There is a bed, a candle. We take pictures [and] compare it with the bedrooms.”
Police would then go to the apartment’s landlord, stating that they will seek to bring charges for promoting prostitution against them unless selling sex ceases in the apartment. One police letter Amnesty obtained informed landlords, “Prostitution activities will normally give you reason to cancel the tenancy immediately.”
Operation Homeless was officially closed a few years back, but Amnesty reports sex workers still face evictions routinely. Some landlords have begun refusing to rent to sex workers; some now charge extortion fees. The threat of eviction has made sex workers more dependent on third parties to find a place to live and work.
Policing strategies like Operation Homeless were even promoted as “anti-trafficking” programs. But by making sex workers homeless, writes Amnesty, these catchall programs are “increasing the vulnerability of people who sell sex in Norway, placing them at increased risk of exploitation.”
“The police gave us 20 minutes to get out,” Esther, a Nigerian sex worker, told Amnesty. “We had to rush to get all of our things and take them down to the street. We were cooking soup at the time and we had to take the pot out into the street with us.” Having nowhere to go, they had to leave their belongings with a man who stole them. Tina, a Nigerian sex worker who was evicted after police checked her papers and detained her, told researchers, “I lost my clothes and shoes. [I] had to leave a lot of things in the apartment because there was no time to pack. I didn’t get anything back. I was like someone starting from square one.”
Operation Homeless was something that people at the highest levels of government were aware of, with approval from the highest levels of the police, Murphy from Amnesty told me. “It was something that was unapologetic in its aims and for the years that it ran, it wasn’t questioned.” A Oslo police representative even acknowledged to Amnesty, “We deport trafficking victims. Many of them don’t know that they are victims, but they are according to the law.”
“People say the Nordic model sends a message, but let’s deconstruct that message,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, that message seems to be, the most important thing is the eradication of sex work, and the people caught up in crossfire and whose human rights are violated—that’s unfortunate, but it seems to be tolerated.”
“We as Amnesty International don’t accept that. People’s human rights must be respected and protected regardless. Any approach that has to violate people’s rights to achieve an aim is not a legitimate approach.”
So Amnesty has issued a direct call to governments to end the Nordic model, but also to directly involve sex workers in the process of creating new policies. Any new policy must specifically target the violence and exploitation sex workers may face; catchall policies, like those “promotion” laws that persist under the Nordic model, are no longer defensible when it comes to valuing sex workers’ rights.
“This is a massive deal,” Molly, a sex worker in Scotland and a sex-worker rights activist with Sex Workers’ Open University and Scot-Pep, told me upon the policy’s publication. “Obviously, for sex workers and advocates the location of sex-worker rights on the broader human-rights map has always been obvious, but this really makes that location clear (and undeniable) for more mainstream policymakers in the human-rights field.”
Sex workers in Scotland have fought back against Norway-style policies in recent years. In 2013, MSP Rhoda Grant wanted to pass new laws to criminalize sex workers’ clients (while retaining existing catchall laws that criminalize sex workers). In a published consultation, Grant even claimed the support of Amnesty for her policy—though it was later determined that it was just one local branch of Amnesty, going rogue.
“We already know, from that,” Molly said, “that policymakers and lobbyists on all sides of the issue value what Amnesty has to say, because Rhoda Grant attempted to co-opt their name into her campaign for more criminalisation!” The Scotland controversy was also one of the first times that Amnesty International had to publicly clarify its stance on sex workers’ rights—which, three years later, is now fully stated in this policy.
Since then, sex workers in Scotland have seen support for decriminalization grow, said Molly. “Jean Urquhart’s decriminalization proposals in the last session of the Scottish Parliament received widespread support, and sex-worker activists in Scotland are hopeful that this Amnesty policy will help us bring those proposals forward again.”
“In South Africa, where sex workers have been pursuing a law-reform campaign to decriminalize sex work for years, the announcement of the Amnesty policy put renewed energy into their efforts,” Chi Mgbako, clinical professor of law and director of the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic at Fordham Law School, and author of To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa, told me. Not long after Amnesty’s 2015 vote authorizing the policy’s development, said Mgbako, “South African sex workers publicly launched a broader coalition of activists advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work called ‘Asijiki,’ which means ‘no turning back’ in Zulu.”
Amnesty’s policy is very clear: The leadership of sex workers themselves is necessary when developing any sound laws on sex work. And for sex workers, it’s been a long time in coming. “For decades sex workers around the world have been documenting how the criminalization of sex work leads to devastating human-rights abuses against their community,” said Mgbako. “Far too often, their voices and inspiring activism are erased from discussions about sex work. I commend Amnesty for not only following the evidence but for refusing to ignore the voices of the people most affected—sex workers themselves.”
I asked Catherine Murphy at Amnesty about just that—how do you respond to opponents of sex workers’ rights who say that sex workers who want decriminalization should be ignored, because decriminalization is something they claim (impossibly) that only “the 1%” of sex workers would benefit from?
“There is absolutely no shadow of a doubt that what is going on in Norway is having the most detrimental impact on the most marginalized sex workers,” Murphy said, “who are predominantly migrant women working on the street, of Nigerian descent—the people pursued by the police the most, the most at risk for violence, the ones subject to being made homeless or deported. The impact is being felt most strongly for those women.”
“The argument that decriminalization is really about the interest of the privileged few? When you hold it up against the Norwegian experience, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”