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Pioneering legislation intended to protect women by criminalising the clients is now making prostitutes feel less safe. Steps to tighten the laws on buying sex in Nordic countries are winning adherents around Europe, but feedback from the sex workers they were drawn up to protect suggests that the regulations may be making their work more dangerous.
The jury is still out on the efficacy of the new laws, which depending on the country involved were drawn up to safeguard women deemed to be in vulnerable positions, stop violence against women and strengthen human rights and gender equality. Finland followed in with a partial ban, making it illegal to buy sex from a person who was trafficked or pimped. A deal was struck by the ruling coalition parties in December to do the same in Germany.
Ireland is considering a Swedish-style law. The vote was not binding. Some sex workers applaud the laws. But most sex workers interviewed in Finland, Norway and Sweden said the new laws made their working conditions more dangerous. Silvia, a year-old from Bulgaria working as a prostitute on the streets of Norway, agreed the new secrecy posed problems.
There is more risk that something bad happens. Police deny that the laws have made prostitution more dangerous. The acts do appear to have had an effect on human trafficking, police said. Some sex workers interviewed in Finland said they believed the law had increased demand for local prostitutes while cutting it for foreign ones as clients believed local women were less likely to have been trafficked or pimped.
And that is not a pleasant thought. A police report is the initial stage in an investigation and may not lead to prosecution. Police say the increase was a result of more funding for investigations, not a result of the law. The moral and ethical questions around prostitution complicate law-making on the issue. In Norway, the centre-right Conservatives and the populist Progress Party — the parties ruling the country since October — have said they want to overturn the law as they believe it infringes on free choice.