When people become a commodity

2009-07-17 Globalisation has made a huge impact on the Nordic market for sexual services. More women from abroad are now active in the Nordic market, and the politicians are struggling to keep legislation up-to-date and cut down on prostitution and human trafficking.

The Nordic prostitution markets have become internationalised over the last decade, according to the first joint Nordic research programme on the topic, a wide-ranging project entitled Prostitution in the Nordic Region.

Prostitutes have become mobile and travel of their own accord – or are forced to work in the most profitable markets. For example, a pronounced shift was noted in Denmark when Romania joined the European Union on 1 January 2007. Within weeks, coaches began to arrive full of Romanian women selling sexual services, just as women from Russia, the Baltic states, Nigeria and elsewhere had come to the Nordic Region a decade earlier.

Unhelpful regulations

Dorit Otzen manages a drop-in advice centre called Reden in Copenhagen, which has been involved in Nordic partnerships for a quarter of a century. She has seen the number of Eastern European and African prostitutes in the city rise sharply since 1997. The nature of the industry and its moral code have changed dramatically, because many of the foreign women will do anything – and will do it cheaply.

Trafficking victims are only discovered during police raids, but the number of unrecorded foreign women active in the Danish market is incredibly high.

“At our Reden International crisis centre we’ve had 170 women who the police think are trafficking victims,” Otzen continues. “They give nothing away, but if their papers are forged then they must have been paid for by traffickers. These women couldn’t afford them otherwise. Because of the papers they’re treated like criminals and deported within 100 days.”

Otzen believes that the biggest single problem in the war on trafficking is the fact that the regulations for granting residence permits contained in the Aliens Act are incompatible with the aims of the 2007 Danish action plan to combat human trafficking.

“The law provides the women with no security. They are sent home – and often fall victim to trafficking again,” she explains.

Trans-national partnerships

The dynamics of trafficking have changed in recent years. Nowadays, any given country can be a country of origin, a transit station, a recipient nation and witness domestic trafficking – all at the same time.

The Nordic Region and the Adjacent Areas face many of the same trafficking problems, so they must be tackled on a trans-national level. The Nordic Council and Council of Ministers work with Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on this issue.

Trafficking for purposes of prostitution means that the women are caught up in the world of organised international crime. As revealed in the Prostitution in the Nordic Region report, foreign women enter the Region illegally, and are classified as criminals as a result.

Social problem or legal problem?

The Nordic countries have traditionally defined prostitution as a social problem and addressed it by providing women with social services. Over the last decade, the focus has shifted – legislators are now less concerned with how much prostitutes earn from sex and focus more on criminalising the purchasing of sexual services. However, the different countries deploy different arguments.

“In Sweden a decade ago, prostitution was seen as part of the debate about gender and equality, and purchasing sexual services was considered chauvinist,” explains May-Len Skilbrei, a researcher at the Institute for Labour and Social Research (FAFO) in Oslo and project manager for Prostitution in the Nordic Region at the Nordic Gender Institute (NIKK). “The other countries placed greater emphasis on the perils of trafficking and on criminalising the purchase of sexual services as a means of controlling and reducing prostitution. By stopping people paying for sex of various types, it was hoped to reduce both trafficking and foreign prostitution.”

Delayed legislation

The research project also revealed that legislators find it difficult to keep up with market trends in sexual services. It is exceedingly difficult to build up a clear picture of the trafficking situation, as nobody really knows how many people are involved. All of the data is based on estimates by the social services.

“The protracted nature of the legislative process makes it too difficult for the legislators to keep up-to-date with market trends,” Skilbrei says. “Take pimping, for example – the ban on advertising prostitution and on renting out property for use in prostitution was not introduced until several years after both had become widespread.”

She thinks the politicians have been far too busy targeting laws at specific sectors of the prostitution market.

“General legislation refined by reallife precedents would be preferable. That way, you wouldn’t have to stipulate specific conditions in each and every amended version of the act. For example, we have an overarching law that outlaws murder. We don’t have individual bans on different ways of killing. But to combat the phenomenon of prostitution, the politicians have passed law after law just to show that they’re doing something.”

The project manager praises Prostitution in the Nordic Region for establishing a joint Nordic body of knowledge about how the countries deal with prostitution and trafficking, and believes it can serve as the basis for future policies.

First published in 7 Nordic Tales 2009:720 © Nordic Council of Ministers

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