Finland’s prostitution law and the hope of Nordic unity
Does Finland have a law prohibiting the purchase of sex? Some claim that it does, and thus represents an emerging Nordic consensus on prostitution. Others argue, to the contrary, that Finland has followed Germany and the Netherlands in legalising prostitution. Let’s try to sort out the confusion.
In 2006, Finland’s parliament rejected a governmental bill proposing a sex-purchase ban modeled on the 1999 Swedish law, which prohibits the purchase of sexual services. Thus, while buying sexual services remains legal in Finland, the country is sometimes included as an example of Nordic convergence in the field of prostitution regulation, with Sweden, Norway and Iceland — and eventually Denmark, perhaps — as the other pillars of this unanimous Nordic stance.
- A recent issue of Nikk Magasin seems to imply that Finland has joined forces with Sweden and Norway in criminalising the purchase of sexual services: “Finland has its own version of the sex-purchase law, which has been in force since 1 October 2006. It is only forbidden to buy sexual services from victims of human trafficking or procuring.” (43) According to the magazine, the 2006 law signifies increasing convergence among the Nordic countries, mainly due to “the increased trafficking in humans to the region during the last few years [which] has provided a new and shared point of reference.” (24f) This re-emerging consensus shapes a united front against other countries. In the words of editor Bosse Parbring: “the Nordic countries all want to limit prostitution, while several other European countries regard prostitution as a legitimate occupation.” (31)
- Former law professor Madeleine Leijonhufvud suggests that “Norway is about to follow the Swedish example, Finland has criminalised sex purchase in circumstances of human trafficking. [...] Will Denmark follow the example of the other Nordic countries, in order not to become a brothel of Norden?” (SvD 2008-06-11)
While correctly describing the Finnish law as criminalising only the purchase of sex from persons subject to trafficking or procuring, these sample quotes may also give the impression of an emerging Nordic front in prohibiting the purchase of sexual services.
Other commenters disagree. Instead, they claim that Finland has legalised prostitution, thus breaking off from an earlier Nordic consensus on prostitution policy:
- In a column in Aftonbladet (2006-07-17), Louise Eek argues that Finland’s Riksdag in 2006 “voted against the previously prevailing consensus between our neighbouring countries on the issue of prostitution” and, like Germany and the Netherlands, has legalised prostitution, in Eek’s opinion under a false distinction between voluntary and involuntary prostitution.
- Similarly, while calling the Finnish law a “sexköpslag” (Sex Purchase Act), MEP Maria Carlshamre comments in Expressen (2006-06-18) that the Finnish law, by distinguishing between forced and voluntary prostitution, “leads to the legalisation of all prostitution”.
Interestingly, this disagreement does not concern the normative issue of whether Finland ought to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, but how to accurately describe its existing prostitution laws.
So what does Finnish law say on prostitution?
- By 1999, the Foreigner Act (378/1991) had been changed so as to allow the deportation of foreigners who can be reasonably assumed to sell sexual services, with an exemption for citizens of European Union or Schengen member states.
- In 2003, the Riksdag adopted the Public Order Act (proposed in Bill RP 20/2002), which among other things prohibits the selling and buying of sexual services in public places (612/2003 §7) and replaces earlier local ordinances on public order. Prostitution is included under the rubric of “Other activities causing disturbance”, but while the other activities mentioned (urinating and defecating and arranging public performances) are prohibited only to the extent that they disturb public order or cause health risks, etc, prostitution as such is considered a disturbance of public order and thus generally prohibited in public places. Moreover, the Public Order Act defines public places rather widely, including restaurants and business premises.
- In 2004, prohibitions against procuring were reinforced, and trafficking in human beings introduced in the Criminal Code.
- In 2005, a government bill proposes the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services (RP 221/2005). However, after heated debate, criminalisation was rejected. Instead, parliament adopted a modified bill, stating that a person who pays for sexual services from someone who is a victim of trafficking or procuring can be fined or sentenced to prison up to six months. The law became effective in October 2006; two years later, nobody had been convicted according to the new law.1
- Buying or attempting to buy sexual services from a minor is a criminal offence (Criminal Code, 20 kap, §8).
So, what does this mean?
- Unlike Sweden and Norway, Finland has not criminalised sex purchases in general. Prostitution is not outlawed as such, neither the selling nor the buying of sexual services. The 2006 law only criminalises a special category of sex purchases: from minors or trafficking victims. But that does not amount to a full sex purchase law (if that were the case, Germany would also have a sex purchase law, as paying minors for sex is illegal there as well).
- The ban against prostitution in public places under the 2003 Public Order Act is also peculiar to Finland, compared to its Nordic neighbours.
- On the other hand, unlike Germany and the Netherlands, Finland has not legalised prostitution fully. Proponents and opponents agreed that rejecting the 2005 bill would imply tolerating prostitution as a legal activity, by and large (if not in public places). However, procuring remains illegal, which prohibits advertising sexual services, brothels and other organised forms of prostitution. Moreover, prostitution is not officially or legally recognised as a legitimate profession. To the contrary, in connection with the 2006 law, Riksdagen stated that it presupposes that “adequate support services will be arranged for prostitutes in order to give them better chances of leaving prostitution and entering work life.”
Thus, it is incorrect to claim that Finland has joined forces with Sweden (and later Norway) in criminalising sex purchases, but it is also wrong to suggest that Finland has legalised prostitution. There are considerable differences between Finland and, on the one hand, Sweden and Norway, and, on the other hand, Germany and the Netherlands. Finland regulates prostitution in a way similar to most West European countries, rather than to either of the outliers.
Now, why have Swedish proponents of criminalising sex purchases arrived at such contradictory understandings of the Finnish law?
For radical feminists, the outcome was obviously disappointing, as witnessed by Eek and Carlshamre. Thus, they chose to emphasise the differences between the Swedish stance and the Finnish law. In accordance with dominant discourse on prostitution in Sweden, prostitution as such is seen as an expression of violence against women and one cannot really separate forced prostitution or trafficking from voluntary forms of prostitution. Under those binary premises, rejecting the Swedish model implies being in favour of prostitution.
For moderates, on the other hand, understanding the Finnish law as a partial sex purchase ban opens up the possibility of re-crafting Nordic unity by keeping Finland as an ally in the campaign to spread the Swedish (and Norwegian) model internationally. Obviously, though, this is just as much a misrepresentation of the Finnish prostitution laws as is the radicals’ claim that Finland has sided with the Netherlands and Germany. Both accounts exclude the possibility that Finland has taken a different, intermediate position.
One might even dispute whether Sweden and Norway represent a (re-)emerging Nordic consensus on prostitution policy. Not only its extraterritorial dimension distinguishes the Norwegian ban from the Swedish ban a decade earlier; the ban was also adopted for quite different reasons. Whereas the Swedish law was largely framed in terms of gender equality, the Norwegian ban achieved legislative success only once it was grafted onto public discourses identifying prostitution with Nigerian women soliciting in the streets of Oslo. In that way, a similar ban became a solution to a problem quite different. (On the other hand, justifications of the Swedish law have mutated successfully over time.)
Still, it’s interesting to see actors fall back on the notion of Nordic unity in seeking to mobilise support for their preferred policy stances.
Ole Waever has characterised the idea of Nordic identity as being different from the rest of Europe: Enlightened and morally superior. Whether in terms of its foreign policies or welfare state regimes, the Nordic countries, this narrative claimed, had found a viable solution to the conflict between capitalism and communism which divided the continent.2 As the end of the Cold War dissolved the division of Europe, which Norden claimed to stand outside and above, Waever predicted that Nordic identity would disintegrate.
However, there is still some force in the norm of Nordic unity, as indicated by the struggle over defining the Finland’s prostitution laws. While different commenters disagree as to whether or not Finland is on the inside or the outside of Nordic unity, both sides share a deeper ideational framework in which Nordic unity is laden with normative salience.
- Prostitution i Norden, p. 20, 140 [↩]
- Ole Waever: ”Nordic nostalgia: Northern Europe after the Cold War”, International Affairs 68:1, 1992 [↩]