Last week the Norwegian government released a study it had commissioned on its 2009 law that criminalized the buying of sex. Abolitionists everywhere lauded the results: “success!” The law, which had been modeled after the Swedish Model of criminalizing buyers of sexual services (known as “Ending Demand” for sexual services), was passed in 2009. Even before its impact was weighed, it was considered ripe for exporting to other countries. As Canada debates the passage of C36, another law based on the Swedish Model, the need for robust analysis on the impact of these laws is only growing. However, a review of the study’s findings show that for those touting the Swedish model, success means all collateral damages and no real results.
The most basic premise of the study’s methodology, the reduction of prostitution, is deeply flawed. While many are touting the law as a success, the findings note that “There are no national estimates of the size of the prostitution market after 2010. There is also large uncertainty with regard to previous market estimates and other estimates of the market today.”  The claim that overall, prostitution has been reduced, is based only on a decrease in the visibility of street-based prostitution in Oslo after the 2009 law increased in policing of the area.  Further undermining this data, the researchers note that the methodology of observing these locations was inconsistent in date, time, and season, and simply tried to control for these challenges during the analysis. 
Indoor prostitution was even more challenging for researchers to estimate, and the result is acknowledged to be an assumption, claiming “Our best estimate – with a high degree of uncertainty– is a market reduction of 10-20 percent compared to the situation before the law.” 
Does the law reduce trafficking? While the study has assumptions, it lacks any evidence. While the law was based on the notion of a reduction in trafficking, the findings do not point to a single piece of evidence, or even make this claim. While it notes the reasoning of why it would assume a reduction, such as an increase in penalties, the findings neither claim nor support this assumption.
There is no police-based evidence that violence has increased – only evidence that people are less likely to report violence to police. The second claim that abolitionists are lauding is that the law did not lead to an increase in violence – but finding no evidence of an increase in violence is not the same as there being no increase in violence. No one is touting what they did find evidence for: sex workers report more safety concerns since the passage of the law and report being less likely to report violent clients. “People in prostitution are afraid that such actions will come back to halt them at later stages.” In the same breath, the report notes that police are not reporting higher instances of violence and that sex workers said they were less likely to report. The irresponsibility of calling this “no evidence of an increase in violence” is staggering.
What does the law do effectively? It increases vulnerability and contributes to poverty. The most disturbing parts of the findings were the many noted increases in vulnerability, while acknowledging the on-going need for resources and services. The findings openly state that “there is a need for providing more options for people that want to get out of prostitution. Language classes, work training and work options are considered to have clear positive effects and there is a need for more of such initiatives.” But despite this need for more options the study points out that for those in the sex trade, life is harder.
The increase in policing and targeting of those in the sex trade has only been able to increase the vulnerability of those in the sex trade. Interviews noted that sex workers reported a “weaker bargaining position” when interacting with clients, while at the same time lower prices mean taking on more clients. “Women in prostitution use the term ‘buyer’s market’ to address this tendency.” The results of this “weaker bargaining position” have been documented in a wide variety of circumstances, but in every case, it means that everything from physical boundaries to condom use to income is compromised for those in the sex trade. “Men and women in prostitution need to work harder now in order to secure 2008 income levels.” This means less discretion over clients, less autonomy, increased economic instability and a higher reliance on third parties.
Reducing the sex trade to the same supply and demand idea of butter and guns ignores the single most important factor: that those selling sexual services have demands of housing, food, and other basic resources. Being seen as simply a “supply” to an existing demand is a less-than-human status for which no one should stand. While the findings glibly note the need for more resources, it is exactly these options which will support those who want to leave the sex trade make their exit. We cannot define success as simply making the lives of those in the sex trade harder and creating laws that increase vulnerability and dependency is a basic violation of human rights. A study from the Sex Workers Project looked at the factors which led to the trafficking of 37 individuals from Mexico to the US. Of those respondents, 75% reported experiencing poverty, and often extreme hardship, prior to trafficking. Many reported food insecurity and a having to leave school because of financial reasons. We must expect and demand better from our laws and ourselves, and consider that dire collateral damage and economic instability should never be considered a success.