Race and prostitution in Norway
A few months after Norway criminalised the purchase of sexual services, many Norwegians of African descent welcome the new law, while others raise concerns that it might intensify discrimination, according to recent media coverage. These debates say something important about the way prostitution has been framed in Norway.
From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem strange to frame the issue of prostitution in terms of race in Norway, since race is usually not a salient category in public debate in the Nordic countries. However, over the past few years, Norwegian media have intensely covered the issue of Nigerian prostitutes in the streets of Oslo and other major cities, and this appears to have reinforced a frame wherein the entire problem of prostitution is largely identified with black women, to the degree that African women feel harassed and stigmatised as prostitutes.
Thus, many Norwegians of African descent seem to regard the ban against the purchase of sexual services both as a symbolic statement and a tool for the police to counter presumptive clients who harass ordinary African women in the streets of Norwegian cities.
Jimmy Anthony, a West African who last year proposed vigilante groups to scare Nigerian prostitutes and their clients off the streets of Oslo, welcomes the ban: “The Karl Johan is clean as in the old days”, he says to Klassekampen. “African women can walk the streets safely without being taken for prostitutes”. The article also cites Harald Bøhler, leader of the police task force against prostitution, who believes that the harassment of African women will decline as the absence of visible prostitution becomes permanent.1
Elvis Chi Nwosu, leader of African Cultural Awareness, similarly says that “Many women tell me that they feel better. It has to do with self respect and self esteem. Women must be able to walk down the Karl Johan Street without being regarded as sex workers.”2
Likewise, Victoria Rweikiza, a parliamentary candidate for the Left-wing group Rödt, suggests that the law will improve the situation for black women in Norway. In a letter to the editor, she writes that she doesn’t “like being taken for a prostitute. A month ago, it was impossible to walk down the Karl Johan without ‘getting proposals’. The reason is obvious: I am a woman, and my skin is black.” Welcoming the new law, Rweikiza argues that it gives “me and all women a possibility to walk in the city without being harassed. It’s incredibly liberating!”3
Some, however, raise concerns about the effects of the law. As one of the likely effects of the ban is that prostitution moves indoors, some fear that this, in conjunction with continuing stigmatisation of black women, might lead to discrimination.
Dagsavisen runs a story about Jessica Kiil and Susan Namuddu, two young women of African origin who are both happy for the new law, but also fear that it might lead to intensified discrimination. Shortly after their interview, their fears are confirmed as the women are approached by a presumptive sex buyer, in broad daylight in the Karl Johan Street.
“Imagine being asked ‘how much’ by men each time you move about Oslo city centre, being called whore by doormen and thrown out of night clubs, taxi drivers turning the light off and driving past you when you try to cath a cab. And if you’re a teenager, you’ll have to take detours to school or look into the ground so as not to be harassed. Just because you have the same skin color as Nigerian prostitutes who up until recently dominated the city scene in the capital. Many have also experienced threats from street prostitutes because they are seen as competitors.”4
Likewise, a married couple in Bergen reportedly have experienced that men assume that the wife is a prostitute, “just because she is from Thailand”. The husband fears that the new law could make things worse for the couple when they appear together in public places.5 Similar fears are voiced by Beate Gangås, ombudsperson for equality and discrimination, who argues that municipalities now are responsible for preventing discrimination in restaurants and bars.6
Klassekampen interviews a hairdresser in an African hair salon, which had been frequented by prostituted women, and a woman running a nearby African deli. Both shops have been subject to raids and surveillance by the police. One of the interviewees seem to suspect that the new law will be directed against the prostitutes rather than against their clients:
“Since they introduced the sex purchase ban, I’ve heard on the news that the police has made several raids. In the last one, it was the women who were caught for violating the Foreigner Act. Why are the women harrassed, and not those who buy sex?”7
Others are less sympathetic to the prostituted women. In a letter to the editor, Jessica Kiil suggests that:
“few of us feel sympathy for West African women who have sold sex on the Karl Johan Street. I have African friends who think that it is unjust that the state should help these women with residence permits, a place to live and so on, when other Africans in Norway are struggling with the social consequences of a sex market of which they themselves are not part.” 8
However, Kiil also fears that the new law might imply that “regular African women like myself will be met with even more malicious control when we want to get into” a restaurant or bar, as managers and security guards try to protect their establishments against suspicions of sheltering prostitution. In another newspaper, Kiil bears witness about such an experience: “The doorman told us that his boss wanted us to leave because they did not like having Nigerian prostitutes in the discoteque.”9
In Stavanger Aftenblad, journalist Isioma Daniel, a Kenyan in exile, writes that she hopes “that the law will liberate the majority of African women in Norway who live under an insanely common stigmatisation as whores.” But she also suspects that the feeling of liberation she experienced on New Year’s Eve might be short-lived, referring to the worries expressed by Jessica Kiil.10
This illustrates that the public discourse in Norway to a large extent has come to identify the complex phenomenon of prostitution with Nigerian women visibly selling sex in the main avenue of the national capital. Norman Idehen, a newly elected leader of the Nigerian Community and Friends association in Stavanger, testifies that the “large supply” of Nigerian prostitutes has shadowed everyday life among black women in Norway:
“Sex sellers bring both joy and shame to the Nigerian scene. We are glad that there are more Nigerians in Stavanger, but we also feel ashamed for the reason of their presence. My wife has experienced being asked how much she costs when she’s out in the city. Unfortunately, a black woman has come to be synonymous with prostitution.”11
Thus, regardless of their evaluation of the new law, these press stories all testify that prostitution in Norway seems to have been almost exclusively identified with black women offering sexual services in the streets. From the perspective of NPPR, this is interesting for three reasons.
‘First, it highlights that other aspects of the complex phenomenon of prostitution have been eclipsed by the narrative about female Nigerian prostitutes working the streets of Oslo.
Second, it also suggests that it was only once this connection had been established, between the proposed ban and the African women in the streets, that norm entrepreneurs were successful in grafting the ban onto ideational frameworks in Norway. However, it remains to be explained exactly how they managed to achieve that fit between the media coverage of Nigerian prostitutes and the proposed ban.
Third, the Norwegian case also significantly differs from the Swedish prostitution policy reform process a decade earlier, where the ban was rarely advocated as a means of fighting trafficking or cleaning up the streets of foreign prostitutes, and the race dimension was completely absent. While the anti-prostitution laws of the two countries may be similar in ther design, they have come about under radically different circumstances.
- Klassekampen 2009-01-29 [↩]
- Dagsavisen 2009-01-24 [↩]
- Aftenposten 2009-02-09 [↩]
- Dagsavisen 2009-01-24 [↩]
- VG 2009-01-11 [↩]
- Dagsavisen 2009-02-02 [↩]
- Klassekampen 2009-02-09 [↩]
- Aftenposten 2009-01-22 [↩]
- Dagsavisen 2009-02-02 [↩]
- Stavanger Aftenblad 2009-01-30 [↩]
- Stavanger Aftenblad 2009-02-16 [↩]
- Finland’s prostitution law and the hope of Nordic unity | Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform
- Bonos mores and the sex purchase ban in Norway | Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform
- The rise and fall of the Joint Action in Norway | Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform
- Prostitution policy change as a problem-driven process | Nordic Prostitution Policy Reform