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Human Trafficking Center

Decriminalization of Sex Work in Iceland: Unveiling the Assumptions


Feb 2014



By Jenni Hankel, HTC Associate

(Photo: Reykjavik, Iceland. Via Creative Commons)

Radical feminists have touted decriminalization of sex work as the silver bullet solution to sex trafficking. Unlike in the U.S., individuals in Iceland who sell sex cannot be legally prosecuted for their actions. This process, known as decriminalization, places the full burden of legal consequences on the buyers. Although some theorists claim decriminalization decreases sex trafficking, there is too little evidence to suggest this is true.

The emergence of human trafficking as a social issue during the early 2000s incited various philosophical and political responses. Social democratic nations like Iceland tend to approach sex work with a radical feminist perspective, resulting in the growing acceptance of decriminalization policy as a solution to sex trafficking. Unlike other policies, decriminalization purports to empower women and other vulnerable groups selling sex. This theme of empowerment is extremely attractive to nations influenced by radical feminist ideology.

Unlike radical feminism and decriminalization policy, the philosophy of liberal feminism perceives sex and sex work as rights and inherently private issues. Governments adhering to this perspective – such as the Netherlands – fully legalize prostitution and sex industries. By doing so, these nations hope to regulate the sex industry, thus increasing safety and empowering citizens to engage in legitimate work.

Proponents of Iceland’s decriminalization policy argue that women involved in sex work should be protected as victims, not treated as criminals. Legalizing the selling of sex will reduce the stigma associated with prostitution and empower sex workers to seek health and legal services. These advances will, in turn, reduce the likelihood that sex workers will be victimized by coercive/forceful pimps or violent buyers. Proponents of decriminalization claim that shifting legal consequences away from sex workers and onto pimps or buyers has already created safer work environments for sex workers and decreased sex trafficking.

Yet, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices written prior to 2009 – the year decriminalization legislation was ratified – show the Icelandic government has traditionally focused more on decreasing the number of commercial sex establishments than on its anti-trafficking efforts. Reliable information about the prevalence of sex trafficking before and after implementation of the decriminalization policy is lacking. Unfortunately, many reports on Icelandic sex trafficking levels combine unreliable information with ungrounded estimations. The 2007 report states, “Although information about trafficking is based on hearsay, the total number of trafficking victims during the year was less than 100” (emphasis added).

Notably, Iceland was not included in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons reports before 2009. The 2009 report, however, states no traffickers were convicted in either 2007 or 2008. In ad hoc fashion, NGOs operating in Iceland during the 2009 reporting period claimed to have identified “20 probable victims of trafficking,” again reflecting the lack of professional identification and reporting mechanisms necessary to accurately evaluate the prevalence of this issue. The 2010 TIP report claimed the existence of 59 to 128 human trafficking cases during the past three years.

The lack of relevant, reliable or exact data on sex trafficking is a barrier to accurately examining the true impacts of Iceland’s 2009 decriminalization law. Additionally, before conclusions are drawn, we need to research how this and related policy actually impacts sex workers. In general, increased research efforts in Iceland are necessary to find out where sex trafficking is occurring and to what extent. Only then will authorities be able to assess whether decriminalization policy is impacting Icelandic sex trafficking levels.


*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

3 Responses to “Decriminalization of Sex Work in Iceland: Unveiling the Assumptions”

  1. simone

    Iceland’s partial or asymmetric criminalisation model is based on an idea exported from Sweden. The harms of this model are well documented here, including how sex workers lives and livelihoods are in practice still heavily criminalised:

    There are four broad legal frameworks concerning buying/selling sexual services:

    full criminalisation >> partial criminalisation >> legalised regulation >> full decriminalisation

    The best outcomes in terms of health and human rights of sex workers have been documented under full decriminalisation in New Zealand, and New South Wales in Australia.

    The Netherlands and Germany have legalised regulated systems, that are almost as heavily criticised by sex workers as they are by anti-sex work activists. A major problem being that due to licensing restrictions such as registering with your real name, many sex worker prefer to work outside the regulations and are therefore as criminalised as they are anywhere else.

    It is true, that rad fems (who seek the end of all buying/selling sex and show little concern for the well-being of sex workers who must suffer in the meantime) are desperately trying to re-brand the swedish-nordic-unequal model as “decriminalisation.” However, this is because the evidence base for full decriminalisation is so strong that UNAIDS, WHO, and whole raft of other international public health and human rights bodies have backed full decrim as the way to go. Among evidence-based human-rights policy making types, the question is how to overcome the cultural barriers to make decrim a reality – not which model shall we choose.

    Touting partial-criminalisation as “decriminalisation” is a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and confuse people into supporting a system that is oppressive and harmful to sex workers. Sadly, many people are easily confused and misled – such as the author of the above article.

  2. chris sowa

    This article should be rewritten replacing “decriminalization” with “end demand.” That word doesn’t mean what you think it means. Radical feminists do not support decrim. And Iceland has not decriminalized sex work. They’ve instituted an end demand policy, which is very different. Yes, selling sex is no longer a criminal offense. But since buying it remains a crime this legal framework is not generally known as decriminalization.

  3. alistair

    The use of the word “decriminalisation” to describe the system in place in Sweden, Norway and Iceland is a misnomer. That system is a form of partial criminalisation. To adopt that language is to go halfway to accepting the ideology of the ‘radical’ feminists. Decriminalisation is what exists in New Zealand and New South Wales, where no one is criminalised for participating in a sex work transaction.
    This article is flawed in that it sets ‘legalisation’ and the Swedish model side by side as the two competing options. There is a third option, genuine decriminalisation.

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