Normative Findings from the Evaluation Report of the Norwegian Sex Buying Act

Steinar Strøm, Ingeborg Rasmussen, Sidsel Sverdup and Vibeke Wøien Hansen

Paper presented at

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences
Human Trafficking: Issues Beyond Criminalization

17 – 21 April, 2015
Casina Pio IV, Vatican City


Norway criminalised purchasing sex in 2009. The main rationale for implementing the law (from 1 January 2009) against commercial sexual services was to prevent and reduce human trafficking. By making it illegal to purchase sex, the Norwegian government also wanted to change attitudes in the population, to reduce the size of the Norwegian sex market by constraining supply and demand, and to prevent entry into prostitution and hence to reduce possible sexual exploitation of men and women in prostitution. The law also seeks to protect people in prostitution and to help people with the transition out of sex work.

Five years after adopting the law, the Norwegian government wanted to evaluate its effects. The ban on purchasing sexual services is a topic of frequent debate in Norway, and law-making on this issue is complicated due to moral and ethical questions. There were worries that the law had caused negative side effects for those in prostitution.

Our evaluation was commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security in the autumn of 2013. Our evaluation work was conducted in the period between January 2014 and June 2014.

1.             Main findings

The prohibition against purchasing sexual services has reduced demand for such services, and thus contributes to reducing the amount of prostitution in Norway. The enforcement of the law, in combination with the laws against trafficking and pimping, makes Norway a less attractive country for prostitution based on trafficking than what would have been the case, if the law had not been adopted. The economic conditions for prostitution in Norway have worsened due to the implementation of the law.

These effects are in line with the intentions of the law. We found no evidence of more violence towards prostitutes after the ban on purchasing sexual services was implemented.

Estimates of the size and composition of the prostitution market is uncertain, in particular with regard to indoor prostitution. There is a declining trend in the market after the law was implemented. The market for purchasing sexual services was reduced immediately after the introduction of the law. Later the market showed an increase, but it has now stabilised at a lower level than before 2009. The most profound changes are found in the street prostitution market in Oslo (the capital of Norway). Here, systematic field observations by the Pro Centre (a private organisation funded by the government) show that the size of the market today has stabilised at a level of 40-65% of the market before the law.

One main source of our information has been the Pro Centre (Pro Sentret, 2008, 2012, 2013) that has been observing and counting both the number of street prostitutes and indoor prostitutes. Moreover, we have used information from the Church’s city mission, and from the FAFO research institute (Brunovski, 2013 and Tveit and Skilbrei, 2008). Both have been observing and counting street and indoor prostitutes. The police have provided us with very useful statistics and information. Finally, we have conducted a number of interviews with police, prostitutes and social workers.

2.             Street prostitutes

In Figure 1 we show the number of street prostitutes observed day and night along the vertical axis, and the period January-May (2008-2014) along the horizontal axis. We clearly see the reduction in the number of street prostitutes immediately after the law was passed (the 2009 curve). In the following years there was an increase in the number of prostitutes, but the level in these years was significantly below the level in the year before the law was passed (2008), see Figure 2.

Figure 1. Number of street prostitutes in Oslo, Norway. January 2008-May 2014.

A possible source of error in this data material is the timing of observations (i.e. when during the day/night the observations have been made and whether this timing varies over the years in the time frame). However, the market shows the same tendencies also when this bias is controlled. The street markets in Bergen (Norway’s second largest city) and Stavanger (another large city in Norway) show similar trends as Oslo after the introduction of the prohibition against purchasing sexual services. When the police have strategically targeted the market, we see a clear fall in the number of people in prostitution.

It was feared that the sex purchase act would lead to a change in market dominance, from street markets to indoor markets. Thus, we had to investigate the impact of the law on the activities in the indoor market.

Figure 2. Number of street prostitutes in Oslo, Norway. January 2007-May 2014.

3.             The indoor market

Estimates of the size of the indoor market are considerably more uncertain than the estimates of size of the street market. This is due to the increasing rotation of the market. The prostitutes frequently travel across cities and countries and only stay at one place for a short term. Furthermore, it is common to have several advertisements connected to the same telephone number (in the sense of a call centre), to have more than one telephone number, and to have more than one advertisement on the same website.

This makes it difficult to provide a correct estimate of the size of the market. Still, according to informants in this branch of the prostitution market, prices are lower now than before the introduction of the prohibition, which indicates lower demand. More travelling both across borders and within the country, more advertising and somewhat lower prices, show that competition has become tougher after the law was implemented, and demand is lower. It was reported that prostitutes in indoor market prostitution have to work harder now in order to secure 2008 income levels.

Our analysis of the indoor market is that it has stabilised at a somewhat lower level than before the introduction of the law. Our best estimate – with a high degree of uncertainty – is a market reduction of 10-15% compared to the situation before the prohibition. However, since the indoor market is less reduced than the outdoor market, we conclude that the share of indoors prostitution of the total prostitution market has increased.

4.             Prostitution in Norway without the law

In 2008 there was a global financial and economic crisis. This caused negative consequences for the labour markets in a number of countries. Norway, on the other hand, was not particularly affected due to good economic policies and healthy state finances.

The large increase in the number of prostitutes in Norway in 2008 has to be seen in light of the financial crisis which reduced the demand for sexual services in countries which were affected severely by the crisis. Higher unemployment rates in Europe may also have made prostitution a more attractive alternative for the unemployed. As long as the possible profit from prostitution is higher in Norway than in other countries, one has to expect that the market for selling sexual services will increase in Norway. The development in the rest of Europe over the last few years, with reduced revenues in the prostitution market, would thus most likely have led to a larger share of prostitutes in Norway had the law not been implemented.

Without the prohibition against purchasing sexual services, the Norwegian police would have lost an important tool for reducing human trafficking. For instance, the police takes advantage of information from penalised purchasers of sexual services to enforce the laws on human trafficking, pimping and pandering. The traffickers, i.e. those benefitting from the prostitution of others, would thus have faced a smaller risk of being caught had the law not been adopted.

We estimate – again with a high degree of uncertainty – that the market in 2014 without prohibition would have been approximately 15% larger than the market in 2008 and approximately 35% larger than the actual market in 2014.

5.             Attitudes

A survey conducted by Kotsadam og Jakobsson (2011) concludes that young men in Norway have changed their attitudes towards buying sexual services more than older men. Furthermore, people in Oslo are more liable to have negative attitudes towards buying sexual services than the rest of the population in Norway. This can be due to a more visible prostitution market in Oslo than in other parts of Norway. Our interviews with police in the largest cities also indicate that the prohibition against purchasing sexual services has had a normative effect on people’s behaviour.

It is somewhat early to conclude on this matter as it takes time to internalise a norm. Still, our findings indicate that the law has had an effect on attitudes. This is also the conclusion of the evaluations of a similar law implemented in Sweden in 1999 (SOU 2010:49).

6.             Prices and sales of sex, before and after the prohibition, and in Norway today without the law

As previously outlined, the prohibition on purchasing sexual services has led to reduced demand for buying such services. Women in prostitution use the term «buyer’s market» to address this tendency. The typical customer is now anxious of being caught by the police. This can result in shorter time for the prostitute to decide whether to strike a deal with the customer. A combination of a more nervous market and a market with lower demand for sexual services might be a result.

The prohibition on purchasing sexual services in combination with the prohibition on pimping and pandering have made it more difficult to sell sexual services in Norway, particularly if such activities are conducted in hotels and apartment collectives. The costs for the actors benefiting from other’s prostitution have thus increased and their profit has been reduced. Put together this has affected the supply side of the market and contributed to less prostitution in comparison to a situation without the prohibition.

A reduced market and increased law enforcement posit larger risks for human traffickers. The profit from human trafficking is also reduced due to these factors. The law has thus affected important pull factors and reduced the extent of human trafficking in Norway in comparison to a situation without a law.

The prostitution market in Norway has changed over the last decades, from being a domestic market with mostly domestic actors, to a more globalised market.

From 1980 to the end of the 1990’s prostitution in Norway was controlled by national pimps and by the prostitutes themselves. Prices and sales of sexual services were coordinated. We call this the semi-cartel period. As shown in Figure 3 this semi-cartel implied prices above the perfect competitive level and consequently with a volume of paid sexual services below the perfect competitive outcome.

Figure 3. Supply and demand in a semi-cartel (collusion).

During the last 15-20 years there have been more prostitutes from abroad; from Asia, Africa, South-America and East-Europe. Prices fell and the amount of prostitution increased, see Figure 4.

Since 2009, after the prohibition was implemented, demand was reduced, and prostitutes left Norway and went to other countries where selling and buying of sexual services is legal (Denmark, Germany, Netherland). The effect on the volume of paid sexual services is clearly negative, while the impact on prices is more uncertain. A lower demand implies lower price, while less supply due to prostitutes leaving Norway may increase the prices. The net effect is most likely a reduction in prices, see Figure 5.

Figure 4. Supply and demand with international competition, compared to a perfect competitive domestic market.

Figure 5. The market effect of the ban on purchasing sexual services.

7.             Working conditions for the prostitutes after the law

Prostitutes in the street market report to have a weaker bargaining position and more safety concerns now than before the law was introduced. In the indoor market prostitutes experience concern for “outdoor calls”. However, they prefer to have customers visiting them at their own apartment or own hotel room. The threshold for reporting a violent customer to the police also seems to be higher after the law. The prostitutes are afraid that such actions will come back to halt them at later stages (i.e. losing their apartment in a police action).

Even so, we found no clear evidence of increased violence against women in the street market after the introduction of the law. The police have no indications of increased violence as a result of the prohibition against purchasing sexual services. The indications we received from meetings with prostitutes and social workers are that the violence changed in character after the law was implemented to become less harsh and devastating.

8.             International actions needed

The prostitution market in Norway is, like in the rest of Europe, characterised by an increasing share of immigrants from middle-income countries and poor countries.

Most of these immigrants are women with few other real options than entry into prostitution. Human trafficking is part of this rotating market. The entry into prostitution is based on economic motives.

Internationally there is the need to provide more options for people who want to get out of prostitution. Language courses, work training and work options are considered to have clear positive effects. Most of the prostitutes in Norway come from Nigeria. Due to the politics of open borders in Europe, lately the number of prostitutes coming from Eastern Europe has grown considerably. Higher economic growth, more ordinary jobs and better social policies in the countries of origin may reduce prostitution in Europe.

If some countries in the EU continue to allow the buying (and selling of sexual services), then prohibition against purchasing sexual services in some countries may result in growing prostitution markets in countries where purchasing is legal. Coordination of laws at the EU level may be needed.


Brunovskis, Anette (2013). “Erfaringer i fem prostitusjonstiltak gjennom et halvt år, februar til juli 2012”, Fafo-report, 2013-29.

Jakobsson, Niklas and Andreas Kotsadam (2011). “Gender Equity and Prostitution: An Investigation of Attitudes in Norway and Sweden”, Feminist Economics 17(1): 31-58.

Pro Sentret (2008). Fritt vilt. En undersøkelse om voldserfaringene til kvinner i prostitusjon. Velferdsetaten: Oslo kommune.

Pro Sentret (2012). Farlige forbindelser. En rapport om volden kvinner i prostitusjon i Oslo utsettes for. Velferdsetaten: Oslo kommune.

Pro Sentret (2013). Året 2013. En oppsummering av aktivitetene ved Pro Sentret. Velferdsetaten: Oslo kommune.

SOU (2010). Fȍrbud mot kȍp av sexuell tjȁnst. En utvȁrdering 1999-2008.

Tveit, Marianne and May-Len Skilbrei (2008). ” Mangfoldig marked”, Fafo-report. 2008:43.


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