An article from KILDEN Information and News About Gender Research in Norway

Foreign prostitution in itself is not a new phenomenon in Norway. In the 1980s prostitutes came from Thailand, and in the 1990s they came from Russia. (Photo: Colurbox)

Why Norway banned the purchase of sex

The demand for criminalisation of the purchase of sex gained momentum when Nigerian women began selling sex on Oslo's main street.

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KILDEN Information and News About Gender Research in Norway

KILDEN has the national responsibility for promotion and information about Norwegian gender research nationally and abroad.

The year is 2006. Suddenly it is acceptable to use the term “whore” in Norwegian newspapers.

According to the media, Nigerian women are flocking to Norway to sell sexual services, and they used headlines like “Stop the invasion of whores” and “Whore-town”.

“The press forgot that we are supposed to feel sorry for and rescue these women,” says social researcher May-Len Skilbrei. She has analysed the media coverage of prostitution from the 1970s to the present day in order to explain why Norway has criminalised the purchase of sexual services.

She characterises the 2000s as the decade of human trafficking. It was also the decade when Norway enacted the Sex Purchase Act.

Mai-Len Skilbrei. (Photo: Ida Irene Bergstrøm)

“Noone will admit that they supported criminalisation because they wanted to get rid of the black women. Many people, such as radical feminists, have an interest in defining the introduction of the Sex Purchase Act as a fight for women’s rights and a feminist victory – as the ‘good fight’,” says Skilbrei.

Norwegian men as victims

The analysis of the media coverage indicates that the 2000s were also the decade of migration fears. Foreign prostitution in itself was not a new phenomenon in Norway. In the 1980s prostitutes came from Thailand, and in the 1990s they came from Russia.

But migration did not dominate the debate before the Nigerians openly sold sex on the capital's main street.

“Several political parties suddenly wanted to criminalise certain ways of selling sex in Oslo. Prostitution was presented as a phenomenon that got worse and worse, and solutions had to be found. Some media depicted Norwegian men as victims of the ‘nasty’ Nigerian women, and the Norwegian women who sold sex became part of the ‘we’. They were interviewed about the Nigerian women,” says the researcher.

Society had pledged to rescue the victims of human trafficking. The highly visible Nigerian prostitutes, however, were a problem that society wanted to get rid of.

Limited debate in the public sector

Skilbrei’s analyses of the Norwegian debate on prostitution have been published in the periodical Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

“The analyses provide some answers to how and why Norway adopted a sex purchase law and how the discussion unfolded,” says Skilbrei.

There are few documents from the public sector on this issue, but a great deal of public debate, especially in the newspapers.

“Sweden often conducts more detailed planning processes before making policy changes. They carried out seven reports on prostitution before they criminalised the purchase of sex in 1999. In Norway, politicians presented their views in the media and in Parliament,” says the social researcher.

“When an issue is defined as a problem in the media, politicians have to deliver a solution,” she adds.

Women who deceive men

In newspaper articles from the 1950s and 1960s prostitution is depicted as an obvious and understandable social phenomenon, with young women deceiving men. The women are infectious, the men guiltless. But something happens in the 1970s.

“The 1970s was a decade of social movements. More phenomena were problematised and there was more concern for groups, not just for individuals,” says Skilbrei.

In this decade media writes about prostitution as a symptom of another not wanted phenomenon: Youth who roam the streets and use drugs.

Prostitution is not defined as a problem in itself or for the people involved. It is depicted either as exotic or a nuisance, often tied to criminal activity. Society must do something about the problem, but not through legislation. Social work is the new, up-and-coming solution.

The johns

In the 1980s, feminists come on the scene with a vengeance. Prostitution is clearly defined as a distinct social problem. It's about with women and it's about violence. The focus shifts from those who sell sex to those who buy it, from pimps to society. Prostitution is viewed as a matter of power; some have power and money, while others do not. The literature of the decade deals with culture, structure and gender.

The 1990s are dominated by discussions about where prostitution takes place. It happens indoors and across borders. Massage parlours are found in people’s neighbourhoods, and Russian women enter the local communities in Northern Norway. Prostitution occurs where people live, and the fear of normalisation, that buying and selling sex is becoming more acceptable, is a topic of debate.

Social work is not enough; the anti-pimping law is strengthened and laws to prevent migration-related prostitution are discussed.

Best on human trafficking

The 2000s: Norway signs the Palermo Protocols, the UN protocols against human trafficking. According to Skilbrei’s analyses, it is now almost impossible to discuss prostitution without including human trafficking.

Human trafficking is criminalised to a greater extent, and international research on the topic increases markedly during this decade.

“The concept of human trafficking is not problematised by the media or politicians. From the start the media embraces the issue, and politicians try to be best on human trafficking. The attention on foreign prostitution increases dramatically since it might involve human trafficking. Because Norway is a signatory to conventions, and because we want to be the best on issues like these, we move ahead full force. For instance, Norway has extremely generous programs for victims,” Skilbrei explains.

Norway draws up action plans against human trafficking before any actual cases have been identified.

“This has to do with wanting to be the best in class. It’s embarrassing that we have not produced any cases. Those working in the field are asked to find some. We must show that we are doing something, even though the international definition of human trafficking doesn’t always fit with reality,” Skilbrei continues.

Universal solution to prostitution

According to Skilbrei, the feminist argument that prostitution is violence is not strong enough in itself to achieve criminalisation. It is only when the situation is seen as being out of control, when the Nigerian prostitutes enter the public sphere, that strong action must be taken.

The gravity of human trafficking makes it possible to circumvent the discussion that there are different kinds of prostitution requiring different kinds of measures. It paves the way for a universal solution, a solution that will also get the upper hand on the Nigerian women. A principled argument meets a pragmatic one, and in 2009 the purchase of sexual services is criminalised in Norway.

“Feminist discourse and terms narrowed down what could be proposed. The discussion about human trafficking swept everything else out of the way. Many countries have immigration laws against people who sell sex, but we defined them as victims, and we are good at saving victims. The only natural next step was criminalisation,” says Skilbrei.

Ideological research field

Skilbrei describes a research field filled with ideological conflicts. Much of the literature on prostitution is unusable for research purposes because it is difficult to know if the conclusions are derived from the data or from the researcher’s political position.

“Other research fields are also dominated by strong ideologies. But I have conducted research in many other areas, such as education and working life, and I have never experienced so much crying and blaming as I have at the conferences on prostitution. People have trouble taking neutral positions. If you are not against all prostitution, then you are for it,” explains Skilbrei.

Several researchers have left their jobs to become activists and take part in protest marches, either for or against prostitution.

“I try to take a position in the middle,” she says.

Cultural expression

“I have analysed the view of prostitution presented in the media as a cultural expression," explains Skilbrei. 

Prostitution is in Norway basically seen as an unequal balance of power.

"The state is supposed to remedy inequalities, so something must be done. In other countries this might mean implementing preventive or social measures. In Norway we have concluded that we need to eliminate the entire problem. Many would say that this is attacking a symptom of a fundamental inequality. We could combat poverty and inequality instead,” concludes Skilbrei.


Read a version for this article in Norwegian at

Translated by: Connie Stultz

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