Deconstructing the “Nordic Model”: How It Brought about an Increase in Street Prostitution and Police Criminality in Norway

by Reidar Visser

British newspapers tell us England and Wales will be considering something called the “Nordic model” to tackle prostitution.

I don’t know much about prostitution in Sweden, which is the home of the idea of criminalising the buyers of sex (rather than the sellers) in order to deal with prostitution in a supposedly feminist-friendly way. But I know enough about police criminality in Norway as well as  the art of deconstructing political rhetoric  to say that a Nordic model does not exist in the real world, and certainly not as a success story.

The term “Nordic” has probably been attached to what is essentially a Swedish experiment in order to make it sound more universal and appealing. The problem is, there are only two other “Nordic” countries besides Sweden that have adopted the model. One of them, Iceland, is so small and the experience so recent (the law was passed in 2009) that it doesn’t make sense to use it as an example to argue for or against the Swedish model one way or another. The municipal area of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik – which presumably is where prostitution exists in any measurable way – has a population of a mere 100,000 or so, and as such represents just one of several dozen medium-sized “Nordic” cities.

Accordingly, the term “Nordic model” hinges on the inclusion of Norway, without which the bottom falls out of the whole concept. And the inclusion of Norway as a success story is clearly wrong. After the relevant law was passed in 2008 and enforcement began in 2009, the police and the Labour party used lots of resources on spinning the supposed success of its implementation. Eventually, however, even the official reports grew a bit more uncertain in their language, and the critics of the “Swedish model” in Norway grew louder. A good assessment was provided by Norway’s biggest daily VG in October 2012, when it found that prostitution had actually gone up during the period since the implementation of the law, and sex workers soliciting clients seemed to be more openly on display in central Oslo than at any point.

Apart from actually increasing the prostitution, the “Swedish model”  has also had the side effect in Norway of considerable police criminality on the part of the “organised crime” section of the Oslo police which was given a lead role in enforcing it through a separate project called Stop, headed by Harald Bøhler. The project has consisted of systematic harassment of sex workers, including throwing many of them on the street in a project officially called “operation homeless” (where the intention was just that, i.e. make the sex workers homeless even though the law only criminalises buying sex.) Other achievements of the Stop project include publicly belittling transvestites as a group. (VG 22 August 2011).

The Stop project of the Oslo police  is part of a general turn away from traditional prosecution- the good old days when the police actually tried to enforce the law – to the anything-goes world of “problem-oriented policing”. Here the police become white van men (quite often literally, too, give the prominence of unmarked police vehicles in these operations), trying to concoct stop-gap fixes to things they perceive as “problematic” . This goes mostly goes on in splendid isolation from judicial considerations of any kind, and often directly in conflict with the law of the land. for example through group harassment and police stalking of people they happen to dislike.

On the other hand, many of the attempted traditional prosecutions by the Stop project, some of which consist of absurd attempts at defining anything the police don’t like as “human trafficking”, have generally been dismissed by the Norwegian courts, and certainly at the higher level. Indeed, it is high time someone reminded the members of the organised crime section of the Oslo police that there is something called the Norwegian penal code which applies equally to them as well. But quite despite the fact that many of the Oslo police’s actions  are clearly punishable as psychological torture under article 117a of the Norwegian penal code with a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail (for example for threats putting pressure on sex workers to force them out of their home), the police officers involved in the Stop project have bragged about them publicly. That bragging, in the shape of systematic propaganda, Powerpoint presentations etc. is in itself punishable under article 140 of the Norwegian penal code for publicly glorifying criminal actions (maximum 8 years in jail).

So let’s nip this one in the bud: There is no succesful “Nordic” model regarding sex work. A “Swedish experiment” seems a better term.