Sex trade less visible, but still thriving in Scandinavia

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A prostitute in central Stockholm. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT/Scanpix file
09:12 CEST+02:00
Streetwalkers have largely disappeared from the sidewalks but prostitution remains alive and well in northern Europe where laws criminalising the purchase of sex have been in place for years, illustrating the limits of legislation.

France on Wednesday passed a law punishing the clients of prostitutes, following in the footsteps of Sweden, Norway and Iceland -- three countries at the forefront of women's rights.

Sweden was the first country to do so in 1999, and Norway and Iceland followed suit a decade later.

But prostitution is far from being eradicated in these countries, despite the fact that sex clients risk heavy fines or even prison sentences, though no one has been jailed so far.

"It resolves nothing," insisted "Rita", a Norwegian prostitute who spoke to AFP using a pseudonym.

"The sex trade has been around for hundreds of years and will always exist."

Authorities are however satisfied with the effects the legislation has had.

"The law has really had a deterring effect on clients. We see it in our daily work," said Simon Haggstrom who heads up Stockholm police's anti-prostitution squad.

The head of Oslo police's anti-trafficking unit, Thor Martin Elton, agrees.

"The prostitution market in Oslo has shrunk considerably. The most notable difference is that you no longer find family men among the clients, whereas that was common before."

A 2014 report published in Norway concluded that the law had had the desired effect, noting that prostitution had decreased by 20 to 25 percent since the legislation was voted through in 2009.

But the report's methodology and conclusions have been questioned.

"Prostitution volumes are about the same as before the law," said Astrid Renland, who heads the Pion organisation representing Norway's prostitutes, estimating their number at "between 2,500 and 3,000".

Street prostitution has clearly diminished as a result of the law, but the decline can also be attributed to increased efforts to expel illegal aliens and social programmes to help drug addicts get clean.

But more importantly, the sex trade has flourished on the Internet and on smartphones, and now takes place hidden from view of authorities.

In eight years, the number of prostitutes advertising their services swelled more than 20-fold to almost 7,000, a Swedish 2015 study showed.

However, it is difficult to quantify the sex trade as a single prostitute could be behind several different ads on a number of websites, and because a large number of prostitutes are foreigners only in the country for a short while.

While the question of whether or not the law has reduced prostitution remains a contested issue, the ban on buying sex has had a negative effect on prostitutes themselves, say sex workers' associations.

Prostitutes now have to ply their trade out of view to protect their clients' anonymity, putting them at greater physical risk.

"Many say their situation is worse now than before, not because it's hard to find clients" but "because the balance of power has changed," explained Bjorg Norli, the director of Pro Sentret, an association helping prostitutes in Oslo.

While many sex clients used to be your traditional family man, clients are now more likely to be shady types resorting to violence, threats, robbery and unusual and dangerous sexual requests.

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"The law, which was supposed to offer protection, on the contrary makes prostitutes more vulnerable. Selling your body has become a more dangerous business, more solitary," Swedish prostitute "Emma" told public television SVT in 2015.

Sex work remains stigmatised, and confidence in the police, who have them evicted from their work premises under other laws against pimping, has also plunged.

On December 17, on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a young Bulgarian prostitute was found murdered in Oslo.

"Her colleagues and friends had not dared tell police she was missing" for fear of ending up on the police's radar, Renland said.

"The different examples worldwide show that laws are not going to reduce prostitution significantly," said Norli.

"Rather, you need to address the socioeconomic factors that make some people resort to selling their bodies," she said.

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