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Sex Work and Hate Crime: research and policy knowledge interchange in Norway

Posted on 4 April 2019

Dr Rosie Campbell OBE of Social Policy and Social Work writes about her experiences participating in a seminar in Norway discussing sex work and hate crime.

Panel of speakers at seminar in Norway discussing sex work and hate crime.

During my ESRC White Rose DTP Post-Doctoral fellowship I received an invitation from Astrid Renland, the Manager of Pion Norway to take part in a seminar in Norway discussing sex work and hate crime. I was excited to be invited and a travel bursary from the ESRC Impact Accelerator Fund which promotes: knowledge share and building relationships beyond academia enabled me to go. I had long admired the work of Pion (The Prostitutes Interest Organisation in Norway) the Oslo based sex worker rights organisation who promote the health and rights of sex workers in Norway. They actively participate in public and policy debates about sex work nationally and internationally, providing sex worker voice. I was invited alongside the Red Umbrella (Changing Lives) Project, Merseyside one of the organisations I am working with as part of my post-doctorate impact work, building on my PhD study which was the first research to examine the innovative approach adopted by Merseyside police in the UK of treating crimes against sex workers as hate crime.

The Seminar took place on 18 February 2019 at the Litteraturhuset and was Chaired by Astrid of PION. Pion previously made a submission to a review of Norwegian hate crime law and was holding the seminar to reflect further on treating crimes against sex work, generating debate about the benefits for sex worker rights and to consider any shortcomings or challenges.

The relationship between sex workers and the police in Norway is a difficult one, research suggests that most violent and other crimes committed against sex workers are not reported to the police (Bjorndal 2012), also the case in the UK. Amnesty International (2016) reporting on research in Norway Amnesty International stated its deep ‘concern that sex workers…can face penalization in Norway when they report serious crimes’. (pg.2016)

In my presentation ‘Beyond hate: policing sex work, protection and hate crime’ I shared learning from Merseyside and my wider work in the UK including with the third sector sex work safety organisation National Ugly Mugs. I described the development of the approach of treating to crimes against sex workers in Merseyside and how my research found that the approach could bring real practical improvements for sex workers in terms of improved relations between sex workers and the police, improved policing of crimes against sex workers, increased reporting and convictions of offenders committing crimes against sex workers. At the same time, I cautioned it can only go so far in a legal framework of criminalisation and highlighted how some elements of the hate crime approach had been eroded and Merseyside. In 2017, work commenced to refresh the approach. Shelly Stoops took up the story from that point in her presentation describing the work currently taking place in Merseyside to refresh the hate crime approach including the work of a new sex work support service Red Umbrella Project, which she Manages.

Professor May-Len Skilbrei (University of Oslo) in her presentation ‘Prostitution law on paper and in action’ discussed the regulation of prostitution in Norway and the every shifting redefinition of prostitution through various policy filters. She noted how the Norwegian experience illustrates that policies introduced under the guise of protecting sex workers such as the law introduced in Norway in 2009 to make it a crime to purchase sexual services, can have negative impacts for sex worker and cautioned that there was a need to carefully consider how including sex workers in Norwegian hate crime legislation may impact on sex workers in ways other than intended.

Synnøve Jahnsen (Research fellow, Uni Research Rokkan Center) presented her book chapter ‘Condoms as evidence, condoms as crowbar’, which explored conflicts between social and criminal justice in prostitution policy and what she describes as ‘the punitive turn that is taking place in Norway as a response to anti-trafficking policies’.

Whilst much of the focus on sex work law in Norway has been on the law making it a crime to purchase sexual services, Vildhe Hallgren Bodal (Ministry of Justice and Public Safety) speaking in an independent capacity shared findings from her PhD which examined Penal Code Section 315- Controlling and Facilitating Prostitution of others, often referred to as the pimping provision which has a maximum penalty of 6 years for those who promote the prostitution of others or rent out premises and are aware they will be used for prostitution. A provision which leads to landlords obligation to evict people, if they are sex working at a rental property. yet it is concerning that the pimping provision criminalises lots of actions which do no harm and can lead to a considerable penalty.

Astrid Renland, Manager of Pion Norway and Bjørg Norli, Manager of Pro Sentret

Bjørg Norli, Manager of Pro Sentret, a local authority funded centre providing health services and legal advice for sex workers, shared findings from two research studies on sex work and violence in Oslo carried out in 2008 and 2012. These found that sex workers were victims of crime at much higher levels than the general population, there were differences, with those selling sex indoors experiencing less violence. Whilst stressing that sex work in not inherently violence and much sex work happens without incident, the levels of crime committed against sex worker highlights sex workers are one of the groups most vulnerable to violence which she linked to social marginalisation, stigma, law and associated policing.

Free Pink Competency Justice, works to improve efforts to address hate crimes against LGBT people, in Norway. Eirik Aimar Engerbretsen the Manager of the organisation described how in May 2018 they made a resolution to recognise sex workers as a hate crime group. Sex workers are now part of their political platform in recognition of their vulnerability to targeted hate crime.

Professor Dag Øistein Endsjø (University of Bergen) made a strong case for sex worker inclusion in hate crime policy and law, framing the discussion firmly within human rights framework, drawing on a range of national and international rights instruments. He emphasised that the question to government should be why are sex workers not included and given their basic rights to protection including in existing hate crime protections, exclusions from protections.

Sex worker advocates from Pion, Andrés Lekanger and Lilith Christine Nepstad Staalesen, PION described some of the hate crimes, employment and human rights violations sex workers in Norway experience. Andrés highlighted how laws on sex work including criminalisation of clients undermine the safety and screening measures they can put in place and makes sex work more hidden, the confiscation of condoms by the police jeopardises sexual health and the pimping provision deters sex workers working together for safety and has lead to sex workers becoming homeless. He identified crimes against sex workers as hate crime generated by stigma, criminalisation and lack of protection in law from discrimination. He also highlighted the intersectional nature of targeted hate crime experienced by sex workers with for example LGBTQ and migrant communities. Lillith highlighted discrimination against sex workers across society including employment, highlighting the importance of sex workers having the right to a range of protects including hate crime protections, which they are currently denied. Both advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work as well as the inclusion of sex workers in hate crime protections.

A clip from the new film ‘Crossings’ supported by the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe about the effects of criminalisation on migrant sex workers in Europe was screened. Pion were one of the five sex worker organisations who had been involved in the films.

The seminar finished with a panel of all the speakers, there were many questions to the panel with a lively discussion.

Whilst in Oslo we visited the base of ProSentret and learnt more from the Director Bjorg Norli about the services they provided to sex workers. This was followed by a visit to the PION office to learn more about their advocacy work.

Oslo looked beautiful in the snow and whilst the weather was much colder than in the UK the welcome from Norwegian colleagues was extremely warm. I hope to greet representatives from Pion at a seminar on sex work and hate crime that I am organising later in 2019.

The seminar finished with a panel of all the speakers, there were many questions to the panel with a lively discussion.

Whilst in Oslo we visited the base of ProSentret and learnt more from the Director Bjorg Norli about the services they provided to sex workers. This was followed by a visit to the PION office to learn more about their advocacy work.

Read more about Dr Rosie Campbell's research.