Prostitution policy change as a problem-driven process
Following a popluar trichotomy, interests, institutions and ideas form the basic categories for explaining policy change. Arguably, a fourth alternative rather takes its starting point in the changing issues or problems which policy makers struggle to solve. On this account, policy change is triggered by factors exogenous to politics, such as technological, economic and social developments, to which policy makers respond and adapt.
This so-called problem-solving approach to policy change assumes that actors respond to societal problems “by implementing new and better policy solutions arrived at through processes of learning.”1 Corresponding to the intuitive notion that events in the outside world trigger policy change, this perspective would assume cross-national differences in policy outcomes to result from differences in the nature of the problems actors face and the lessons that they learn.
While the problem-solving perspective has rarely been deployed as a self-standing, coherent theoretical perspective, any explanation of policy change needs to take into account, somehow, the phenomena in the external social world which policy is aimed at. In international relations theory, the nature of problems as such is sometimes attributed an important explanatory role. In a family of functionalist theories of international cooperation, the properties of certain common problems, such as climate change, transnational crime or pandemics prevention, are sometimes suggested to explain why actors successfully cooperate on certain issues, but not others. More recently, constructivist IR scholars have suggested that the properties of social problems might explain why some problems emerge as issues of international norm building, while others don’t. Keck & Sikkink argue that certain attributes of a social problem might make it easier to frame it as an issue, for example, “causes that can be assigned to the deliberate action of identifiable individuals; issues involving bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility; and issues involving legal equality of opportunity.”2
An example, if only partial and implicit, of problem-focused explanations of prostitution policy outcomes is a research report edited by Charlotta Holmström and May-Len Skilbrei.3 In their report, they suggest that recent changes in sex markets is a key causal factor explaining policy outcomes across the Nordic countries. As such, the causes for changes in sex markets are diverse and include geopolitical factors, such as the fall of the Soviet bloc, leading to increased migration across previously closed national borders; the economic downturn in the 1990s, affecting people both in the Nordic region and in eastern Europe; as well as new means of communication, such as the internet and mobile phones. All in all, such diverse factors have shaped prostitution markets and in turn, affect policy, the argument goes. For instance, the increasing number of foreign women in prostitution in the Nordic countries “produces new needs which require changes in the Nordic countries’ social and legal efforts.”4 In sum, they write: “Prostitution changes, the law follows behind.”5
Undeniably, changes in material, economic and technological conditions might have grave implications for politics and policy. Politicians and other actors in policy processes respond to societal problems around them. But as a theoretical account of policy change, the problem-solving approach needs to be complimented, both in theory and applied to the issues of prostitution and trafficking.
For one thing, the problem-solving approach seems to rely on a technical and depoliticised notion of societal problems and policy issues, which might seem politically naive. Not only do policymakers in different settings often respond differently to similar problems; moreover, problems come to be perceived and constructed as such through discursive processes. Thus, the inherent nature of the problem of prostitution never affects policymakers immediately; such impact only occurs through a process by which a phenomenon becomes represented as a problem.6 And those processes of construction, of course, open for a great deal of political maneuvering on the part of various actors with interests in constructing issues one way rather than another.
For instance, while changes in the sex market, triggered by geopolitical, socio-economic and technological developments, have affected the Nordic countries fairly similarly, policy-makers have chosen different policy solutions to those problems. And even those solutions that seem similar in a technical sense are quite differently framed and justified in public discourse, and have different consequences once they are to be implemented. For instance, whereas the Swedish sex purchase ban was presented as a solution to the problem of violence against women and gender inequality, Norway’s similar ban was also suggested to be a solution to the problem of Nigerian women aggressively soliciting in the streets of Oslo.
Thus, it is difficult to talk of changes in a “sex market” which exogenously triggers changes in prostitution and trafficking policies. As Laura Agustin argues, “transactions involving both sex and money mean do not mean the same thing everywhere; sociocultural contexts change meanings”.7 Indeed, the very notion of prostitution as a ‘sex market’, driven by geopolitical, economic and technological change, might be what’s contested and debated.8 Likewise, analysing prostitution debates in Sweden and Germany, Susanne Dodillet (2004) notes that German and Swedish politicians ascribe such different meanings to prostitution that they “do not speak of the same issues when they discuss the same question.”9 The politics of prostitution policy frequently just is a struggle to define what the problem of prostitution is.
On the other hand, if there are any inherent, essential properties to the phenomena of prostitution and trafficking, it is the lack of reliable knowledge. Skilbrei & Holmström emphasise how difficult it is to assess the extent of prostitution and trafficking. Information on such phenomena is usually produced by the police, social services and academic researchers. These different knowledge producers use different methods to gather official and semi-official data on prostitution and sex-trafficking, but all are inevitably biased in their focus. Moreover, as Agustin argues:
“The vast majority of prostitution research bases its conclusions on a small portion of the total of people who offer sex for money, whether researchers conclude from the evidence that prostitutes are victims or not. […] gatekeepers play a large role and researchers’ choices regarding the populations they consider reflect a bias from the beginning.”10.
To complicate things further, the way in which official discourse conceives of the problem at hand often informs and guides research. For instance, research on prostitution across the Nordic countries tends to regard the problem in the same gendered terms as official discourse, thus reinforcing the notion that prostitution is a problem mainly affecting women, while neglecting other conceivable problem-frames, for instance those including men as both providers and consumers of sexual services.11 In such cases, the knowledge produced would tend to support already established problem frames, indicating circularity between policy-making and knowledge production.
Even so, the problem-solving approach would need to emphasise the mechanisms through which policy makers learn about the social problems they are addressing. For instance, how do they select useful information from available knowledge? For what purposes do they employ it, and in what ways?12 How do they deal with epistemic uncertainty?
And yet, the lack of knowledge rarely constrains policy makers from taking action. Indeed, actors often seem unbothered by the real extent of the phenomena they construct as problems. For example, Spanger notes a discrepancy in Denmark between the politicisation of trafficking in public debate and the relatively few cases reported by the police.13 Likewise, studying the social construction of trafficking, Ronald Weitzer argues that US trafficking policy has been informed by empirical claims that are exaggerated, unverifiable or demonstrably false.14 Thus, sometimes there is no direct link between social conditions and the particular construction of policy problems.
Thus, problem-solving approach adds important pieces to the puzzle of explaining prostitution policy change: No account of policy change can discount the underlying phenomena in the social context which policy aims to regulate. As regards the the social phenomenon of prostitution in the Nordic countries, political events and long-term developments have changed its nature over the past decades. Yet the important part here is to explicate the process through which actors come to perceive of such changes as problems, as social issues needing solutions in the form of policy, legislation, regulation, resources, etc. In that process, experts play a crucial part, but expert knowledge is not neutral, raw data. For our purposes, the problem-solving approach needs to be complemented with a more elaborated theoretical account of such processes and the ideational approach seems a fruitful start.
- Bleich, Erik. “Integrating Ideas into Policy-Making Analysis: Frames and Race Policies in Britain and France.” Comparative Political Studies 35, no. 9 (November 1, 2002): 1054-1076. [↩]
- Cited in R. Charli Carpenter. “Studying Issue (Non)-Adoption in Transnational Advocacy Networks.” International Organization 61:3, 2007, pp 643–67. [↩]
- Charlotta Holmström & May-Len Skilbrei (eds.), 2008: Prostitusjon i Norden. Forskningsrapport, TemaNord-rapport 2008:604 [↩]
- p. 17 [↩]
- p. 18 [↩]
- M. Edelman, Constructing the political spectacle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); C. L. Bacchi, Women, policy and politics : the construction of policy problems (London: SAGE, 1999). [↩]
- Laura Agustín: “Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution.” Sexuality Research & Social Policy 5:4, 2008, p. 73-86. [↩]
- See for instance Synnøve Jahnsen’s critical discourse analysis of media narratives about Nigerian prostitutes in Norway: Synnøve Jahnsen, 2007: Women who cross borders – Black Magic? A Critical Discourse Analysis of Norwegian newspaper coverage of Nigerian women in prostitution in Norway. Master`s thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Bergen. [↩]
- Susanne Dodillet, “Cultural clash on prostitution: Debates on prostitution in Germany and Sweden in the 1990s”, in M. Sönser Breen and F. Peters (eds.) Genealogies of Identity. Interdisciplinary Readings on Sex and Sexuality (Rodopi, 2005). [↩]
- Agustín, op. cit., 78 [↩]
- Holmström & Skilbrei, op. cit. [↩]
- In a different policy setting, Christina Boswell argues that organizations might use expert knowledge instrumentally to expand their power or adjust policy output, but they might also value knowledge as a source of legitimation, which they can draw upon in order to establish epistemic authority, or as a way of substantiating their policy preferences, lending authority to particular policy positions. Christina Boswell: “The political functions of expert knowledge: Knowledge and legitimation in European Union immigration policy.” Journal of European Public Policy 15:4, 471-488. [↩]
- Marlene Spanger, 2008: “Socialpolitiske tiltag og feministisk gennemslagskraft indenfor menneskehandel i Danmark”, in Holmberg & Skilbrei, Prostitusjon i Norden. Forskningsrapport, TemaNord-rapport 2008:604 [↩]
- Ronald Weitzer, 2007: “The social construction of sex trafficking: Ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade.” Politics & Society 35:3, 447-475. [↩]