Ban on the purchase of sex has changed attitudes

Ban on the purchase of sex has changed attitudes

The Norwegian ban on the purchase of sex was intended to reduce human trafficking and to convince people that prostitution is wrong. But has it worked? Both yes and no - according to researcher Andreas Kotsadam.

Illustration photo: Colourbox

When Norwegian authorities criminalized the purchase of sex in 2009, one of the law’s stated goals was to change people’s attitudes towards prostitution. According to a recent doctoral thesis by Andreas Kotsadam, they have only partly succeeded in this.

“Most Norwegians have not changed their opinion since the law was introduced. But there are a few important exceptions: People in Oslo have become more negative towards prostitution and more positive towards a ban on the purchase of sex.”

Most affected – most positive towards the law

Kotsadam believes that Oslo residents are different because prostitution is more visible and noticeable in the capital city than in the rest of the country.

“We often see that laws have a greater impact on the attitudes of the people most affected by them,” explains the researcher. According to Kotsadam, the reason that young people have become more negative towards prostitution than other age groups is that they are more inclined to change their opinions about political questions.

Unique opportunity

Prior to the introduction of the Norwegian ban on the purchase of sex, Kotsadam followed the debate from Sweden where he was researching the relationship between legislation and people’s attitudes, and spotted an opportunity to study a concrete example of the effect this type of law has.

“The challenge with studies like this is distinguishing the impact of the law from general trends of the times. For instance, did people take a more negative attitude towards hitting children when it was outlawed or was the law merely an expression of the change in attitudes that was already well underway?”

Together with his colleague Niklas Jakobsson, Kotsadam sent out a questionnaire to 2,500 Norwegians asking about their attitudes towards prostitution in general and the purchase of sex in particular. One year later, when the law came into force, the researchers asked the same Norwegians the same questions again. A similar procedure was followed with a control group in Sweden, a country which is comparable to Norway in many ways but which had not made any legislative changes during the same period. Since the researchers did not see the same changes among the Swedish respondents, they concluded that the law in itself had had an impact in Norway.

Less trafficking in countries with a ban

Another goal of the ban on the purchase of sex was to reduce international trafficking of women and children. There is widespread disagreement, especially among feminists, as to whether legislation is the best means of combating prostitution. Although many feminists support the ban on the purchase of sex, others claim that the result is not less prostitution but more hidden prostitution, which in turn affects the women in prostitution.


Andreas Kotsadam. (Photo: Kristin Engh Førde)

According to Kotsadam, none of these positions are actually supported by previous research. However, he has compared the incidence of human trafficking in various European countries and found a very clear tendency.

“The countries can roughly be divided into three categories: Those that prohibit either the buying or selling of sex, those that have no such laws, and those that have legalized prostitution. There is clearly the least human trafficking in the countries that have enacted bans, such as in Sweden, and clearly the most in the countries where prostitution is part of the legal economy, that is, The Netherlands, Greece and Germany,” Kotsadam explains. He believes there is a simple explanation for this.

“Prostitution is run just like any other industry. When the costs become too great, they close down or move their activities elsewhere. The ban makes it more expensive and more difficult to do business.”

Insufficient data

Based on his findings, Kotsadam believes it is highly likely that a ban on prostitution leads to less human trafficking, but he cautions that the data are insufficient.  He has based his analysis on a compilation of all reported cases of trafficking in the countries being compared, and his sources include the United Nations and various NGOs that work with the prostitution problem. However, according to Kotsadam, statistics on prostitution are not kept in a particularly systematic way.

“If we had better data, we could study developments over time and establish a better foundation for determining the most effective policy,” concludes the researcher.

Translated by Connie Stultz