The rise and fall of the Joint Action in Norway
While Norway’s sex purchase ban went into effect in 2009, one might have expected a Norwegian sex purchase act much earlier. Norway had a broad coalition of activists campaigning against pornography and prostitution in the 1970s and ’80s. Using both militant action and public awareness raising methods, the movement gained some legislative success, but ultimately disbanded after internal division.
This phase of feminist activism against pornography and prostitution started in 1977, with the formation of Women’s Joint Action Against Pornography. Formed on the initiative of the Women’s League of the Centre Party, the Joint Action was a broad, makeshift coalition including feminist groups such as the radical feminist Women’s Front, far left parties such as the Maoist Worker’s Communist Party, Christian Democrats and church parishes, trade unions and housewife assocations, joining forces in the struggle against prostitution and pornography. At its peak, it gathered some 30–40 organisations claiming a total membership of ca 500,000 people and local groups across the country.1
The Joint Action was triggered by a series of events which had put pornograpy on the public agenda in the mid 1970s. For instance, two female train conductors in Oslo were fired after having refused to collect tickets in wagons with advertisement for a pornographic men’s magazine, but were re-employed after public outrage and intense campaigning by various women’s groups. Feminist activists also demonstrated to have strip clubs and massage parlours closed.2
However, pornography had been a hot topic in Norwegian politics for decades.3 Admittedly, these earlier debates had rarely discussed pornography in explicitly feminist terms, but rather in terms of Christian puritanism and traditional values versus sexual liberation and freedom of expression. On the other hand, feminist groups had initially paid little attention to matters of body and sexuality in the early 1970s, but the struggle for abortion rights drew such matters to the forefront, according to Unni Rustad of the Women’s Front.4
In the early years, a series of militant direct actions were directed against porn shops and strip clubs. Women’s Front activists would enter porn shops, seize magazines and put them on fire in public places while addressing the public. However, the Joint Action also aimed for broad, mass actions in which all grassroot members should be able to participate, such as postcard campaigns and petitions.
In 1981, the organisation changed its name to Joint Action Against Pornography and Prostitution (Fellesaksjonen mot pornografi og prostitusjon), which also reflected a partially broadened focus. “We decided to take on prostitution because a study about prostitution in Norway had suddenly made us aware of the conditions that women live under in the prostitution industry”, says Agnete Strøm of the Women’s Front in a speech tracing the history of the Norwegian sex purchase ban. The study by Liv Finstad & Lita Fougner summarised the so-called Oslo Project, which, according to Unni Rustad, “demonstrated how the two themes hung together.”5 The Joint Action now also allowed men to become members.
While the members of the Joint Action had different reasons for opposing pornography, they developed a common understanding over time, a process in which the Women’s Front seems to have played a leading role.6 The Joint Action’s 1984 platform – a short text, less than a page long – addresses pornography and prostitution in roughly equal length:
“Pornography gives a flawed and superficial view of sex life and love. The basic attitude in pornography is that women are sexual objects for men. Pornograpy has nothing but economic profit as its motive. … The Joint Action wishes to safeguard freedom of the press, but this freedom must be used with social responsibility. The Joint Action cannot accept that press freedom is used to degrade women.”
“Prostitution is a societal evil that must be fought. It is an expression of social problems and misogyni. For prostitutes, it implies a life in degradation and misery. Accepting prostitution strengthens the view of woman as an inferior sex object that can be bought for money, and furthers a use-and-throw-away mentality in relations between human beings.”
In the platform, the Joint Action also embraces criminalisation:
“The Joint Action supports measures to limit the supply of customers. We therefore wish for a legal prohibition against the purchase of sexual services. This would stress that society does not accept the purchase of human beings.”
While making normative assertions and demanding political action, the platform also repeatedly makes factual claims: That pornographic films and magazines show increasing brutality, that the industry is growing rapidly, and that “several recent studies show clearly that violent porn increases violence against women and that child porn inspires sexual abuse of children.” Interestingly, the platform refers twice to the Malmö Project, which was influential in Swedish prostitution policy at the time. Claiming that the Malmö Project demonstrates that prostitution can be fought, the platform demands “support measures for prostitutes similar to the Malmö Project.”7
In the struggle against prostitution, too, activists used militant methods, if not mass actions, in order to draw media attention. For instance, in April 1981, radical feminist activists spray-painted “hore client” (“horekunde”) on cars, the drivers of which had attempted to pick up prostitutes in Oslo. Radical newspaper Klassekampen published de-identified photos of the stunt, which sparked a debate on whether such vigilante methods should be used in the struggle against prostitution. In 1986, similar controversy was stirred after Klassekampen had published photos of a prospective client who had been set up by activists at a café. While faces had been covered, the man later sued the newspaper, claiming to have been identified as a someone who buys sex. According to Nilsen, this series of events made it legitimate to talk of men who buy sex as “whore clients” (horekunder).
During the 1980s campaigns, the Joint Action seems to have put both prostitution and pornography on the political agenda. Proposals for criminalising the purchase of sexual services surfaced repeatedly throghout the decade. In 1982-83, the Justice Department evaluated criminalisation, and again in 1986-87.8
Members of the Joint Action lobbied within their respective political parties to have the pornography paragraph of the Criminal Code sharpened. In 1985, the law was amended, which seems to have brought some closure to the controversy. The paragraph still referred to pornography in terms of indecency, but also introduced the concept of “degradation of one or both sexes”, seen as a feminist claim.9 While partial victory for the Joint Action, the pornography law also signalled the start of the demise of the movement.10
For one thing, the new law seemed not to have the consequences desired by anti-porn activists. The Joint Action had claimed that the 1985 law would prohibit porn magazines to be put on display in kiosks, such as the partially state-owned chain Narvesen. A set of mass campaigns were directed against Narvesen in the 1980s. For instance, 25,000 postcards were printed to and distributed for people to send to Narvesen, calling on the kiosk chain to “respect the human dignity of women” by neither selling nor distributing pornography. Another action encouraged people to report Narvesen to the police for violating the anti-porn law. Independently of the law, however, many shops stopped selling porn magazines and the Joint Action awarded them stickers praising their contribution to “a porn free neighbourhood”.11
Toward the end of the 1980s, however, the Joint Action was torn by internal division over means and ends. One divisive issue concerned the use of pornographic material in campaigns. In lecture tours, school visits and exhibitions, a key method was to use “porn against porn”, that is, to display pornographic pictures and video clips in order to shock people. Re-evaluating such methods, some leading figures within the Women’s Front came to argue that the female porn models in these materials should be de-identified, so as not to objectify the porn models even further. In the words of Unni Rustad, leader of the Women’s Front:
“It struck me as lightning what I had done, for these women had agreed to have photos taken of them at some point in their life, I knew nothing about these ladies, other than what the porn mafia told me, and I pasted them on the wall in a giant format and let everyone look at them.”12
“We used the pictures as they were in pornography until we realised that when we used the pictures in that way, we excluded the women from women’s solidarity, from our community. I would never have used pictures of women I know in such a way that I had been using pornographic pictures for years. When I realised that, I felt ashamed for a long time.”13
Others, however, claimed that using porn against porn was an efficient method, and that showing the eyes of the porn models was essential to this strategy. These debates revealed a deeper dispute abouts means and ends in the struggle against pornography, described by Asta Håland & Ane Stø in the following terms:
“in 1989, the new leadership of the Women’s Front became positive both to [erotic magazine] Cupido and ‘feminist porn film’. The leadership of the Women’s Front also distanced itself from the grand alliance with traditional popular organisations. Puritanism and Christian people were again defined as the main enemy. To campaign against porn and prostitution was seen as a violation of the women in the sexual trade, and as an expression of puritanism. at the same time, the main strategy for more than ten years – porn against porn – was rejected by the same leadership. The reason for this was again that the method was seen as a violation of the female porn models, first they were exposed in porn magazines, and then we would divulge them again! … We who support the old line were not willing to give up such an efficient method. We thought that it was important to show the eyes, which show that they often are drugged and scared, rarely happy, and that they are real people. The eye-covering debate [Sladdedebatten] concerned the foundation of our political work, charity or solidarity.”14
The use of militant action against prostitution was also debated. While the militants claimed to take precaution not to mistake ‘innocent’ men for “whore customers”, some argued that the campaigns affected the innocent anyway, such as the men’s families.
“The Women’s Front emphasised that women should not suffer in these actions, the women should be in focus. But [those who later formed the more radical organisation] Ottar wished to take more drastic measures”, says Liv Finstad.15
Eventually, these internal differences over means and ends led to the dissolution of the Joint Action in the early 1990s. It would take another two decades before the purchase of sexual services was criminalised in Norway, and then on strikingly different grounds than the ones that moved the Joint Action in the 1980s. A Justice Department working group rejected criminalisation as late as in 2004, but mass media’s sudden attention to Nigerian prostitutes in the streets of Oslo changed the terms of debate. While the anti-pornography law remained in place, the Norwegian Supreme Court struck it down in 2005, making it legal to show uncensored sex between adults in print (though not in cable TV hardcore porn).
The controversy does not end there, though: In early 2010, Ottar called for reviving a broad coalition against pornography, demanding that the purchase of pornography be legally prohibited, per analogy to Norway’s recent sex purchase ban. Unsurprisingly, the Women’s Front disagreed to prohibiting all pornography and instead expressed a wish to invite Mia Engberg, the Swedish director of Dirty Diaries, a feminist porn film.
Still, from the NPPR perspective, the rise and fall of the Joint Action raises a number of intriguing questions.
- The Joint Action seems to have been closely interrelated with experts’ knowledge production, drawing on and acknowledging scholarly research as an important source of information and arguments. As a research report had led the Joint Action to take on prostitution too, scholarly knowledge production served a key role in mobilising the movement and shaping debates.16 Here, we see the velvet triangle at work, with tight links and sometimes blurred boundaries between activists, politicians and researchers.
- While the Joint Action campaigned against prostitution as well as pornography, the latter seems to have been the key target. Perhaps it was precisely the tight linkage between pornography and prostitution that served to both facilitate and limit legislative success. For one thing, there was already a law in place regulating pornography in Norway, which made it easier for the political establishment to accomodate the anti-porn movement’s demands, whereas criminalising the purchase of sexual services was uncharted territory in the 1980s.
- Interestingly, radical, militant action seems to have been a unifying rather than divisive factor, at least according to radical feminists writing the history of their own movement. While they sought to engage women across the country and to build a mass movement, they were surprised to see militant actions, such as book burnings, draw such a broad appeal among the most different groups of women and men. Naturally, this is history seen from the perspective of radical feminists. Were the militant measures accepted in other parts of the movement against pornography and prostitution?
- Why did the Joint Action fail in reforming prostitution policy? Given the broad, cross-political coalition of organisations representing hundreds of thousands of Norwegians, given the combination of elite and mass action which drew, at times, intense media attention, and given that criminalisation seems to have been considered by the Justice Ministry several times – why did the campaign fail? Who provided resistance and with what arguments?
- Unni Rustad: Nytter det å slåss mot porno?, excerpt from “Vad tjänar vi på att föra kampen mot pornografi?”, in Pornografi – verklighet eller fantasi, ROKS, 1991. [↩]
- Unni Rustad, 2007: Kampen mot pornografi på 1970-tallet. [↩]
- For instance, having published the novel The Song of the Red Ruby in 1956, Agnar Mykle and his publisher were charged with publishing immoral, obscene material because of the novel’s allegedly pornographic contents. The book was withdrawn from the market, although Mykle and his publisher were eventually acquitted. In 1967, author Jens Bjørneboe and his publisher were similarly put on trial – and found guilty of violating the pornography law – for publishing the erotic novel Uten en tråd. At the peak of the porn debate of the 1960s, evangelical preacher Arild Edvardsen gathered 12,000 people in 1969 in a march under mottos such as “Get rid of the porn plague – love is pure”, “Norway needs old-fashioned child rearing” and “Norway! Remember Sodom and Gomorra”. In the 1970s, Leif Hagen started selling illegal hardcore pornography via post-order and founded the softcore men’s magazine Aktuell Rapport in 1976 – and reportedly drew a lot of controversy in the media. And in 1976, the Norwegian Housewives’ Union, which had campaigned against porn already in the 1960s, demanded a ban against putting porn magazines on display in grocery stores and kiosks. [↩]
- Unni Rustad, 2007: Kampen mot pornografi på 1970-tallet. [↩]
- Unni Rustad, 2007: Kampen mot pornografi på 1970-tallet. [↩]
- Magnhild Nilsen, 2008: “‘Når man gir seg ut for horekunde, får man finne seg i karakteristikken’: Kampar mot prostitusjon 1981–1991“, Rödt! Marxistisk Tidsskrift 2008:1. [↩]
- For an extensive, critical analysis of the Malmö Project, see Susanne Dodillet‘s dissertation Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970-talet (Vertigo Akademi, 2009). [↩]
- Synnøve Økland Jahnsen, Bergens Tidende 2008-11-04. [↩]
- Strøm, Agnete. “A glimpse into 30 years of struggle against prostitution by the women’s liberation movement in Norway.” Reproductive Health Matters 17, no. 34 (November 2009): 29-37. [↩]
- Five years later, Unni Rustad commented sarcastically on this anticlimax:
“Since 1985, activity has decreased. In that year, there was an election, and we had grown big, strong and numerous. … Suddenly, Norwegian politicians became very engaged against pornography. There was competition in Parliament who could run fastest with a law proposal in hand, who could be in the biggest photos in the newspapers and make the most serious face, the biggest tears and say that ‘this is horrible’. When this competition had been running for a while, a law was elaborated, even though that had never been our most important demand. Norway already had a law [against pornography]. But a new law was produced, and many people around the country thought that we had finally been heard, after so many years. … And then there was an election, and there was a law, and the law was thrown in the dust bin together with all the speeches that had been held during the election campaign, and then the law was forgotten. One of the activists said that the purpose had never been to stop the porn industry, but to stop us.” (Unni Rustad: Nytter det å slåss mot porno?)
- Nilsen, 2008. One suspects, though, that the decision not to sell porn magazines coincided conveniently with pornography shifting to video, satellite, and eventually Internet distribution. [↩]
- In Nilsen, 2008. [↩]
- Unni Rustad: Nytter det å slåss mot porno? [↩]
- Asta Håland & Ane Stø, “Kampen fortsetter”, Klassekampen 2005-05-14, cited in Nilsen, 2008. My translation. [↩]
- In Nilsen, 2008. The left radical, activist and militant feminist group Ottar, named after socialist agitator Elise “Ottar” Ottesen-Jensen, was formed in 1991, and it seems that its militant methods still stir up controversy. [↩]
- Four publications seem to have been especially influential:
- Liv Finstad, Lita Fougner & Vivi-Lill Holter (1982): Prostitusjon i Oslo. Pax Forlag. The book summarised a research project in 1979–81 on young prostitutes in Oslo.
- Ida Halvorsen (1982): Hard asfalt. Pax Forlag.
- Liv Finstad & Cecilie Høygård (1986): Bakgater: Om prostitusjon, penger og kjærlighet. Pax Forlag.
- Annick Prieur & Arnhild Taksdal (1989): Å sette pris på kvinner. Menn som kjøper sex. Pax Forlag.