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.