Norway is preparing to criminalize the purchase of sex -- though not the sale of it -- a move that is proving highly controversial among prostitute support groups, who argue that the policy will make sex workers more vulnerable.
Men who buy sex could face up to six months in jail, pay a fine or face both, under proposed legislation currently under consultation with relevant interest groups.
The law will ban paying for sexual services, but not selling them. Procuring, or pimping, and human trafficking are already illegal.
The bill, expected to be sent to parliament before the middle of next year, is certain to be adopted as all three parties in the governing coalition have said they will back it.
"We want to send a clear message to men that buying sex is unacceptable. Men who do it are taking part in an international crime involving human beings who are trafficked for sex," Norwegian Justice Minister Knut Storberget said.
"Criminalizing buying sex will make it more difficult for traffickers to organize themselves," he said, because they won't be able to find clients on the street, since the latter will be afraid of getting caught.
Prostitutes' support groups say the law will be ineffective.
"The law will end street prostitution but it won't stop women from working indoors or from going abroad" to work as prostitutes, said Liv Jessen, director of the Pro Center, an Oslo-based support group for prostitutes.
It is estimated that about 40 percent of deals between prostitutes and customers in Norway are made on the street, with the rest occurring indoors, for instance in hotels or at massage parlors.
Among prostitutes working on the street, about 80 percent come from countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Nigeria, via trafficking. The rest are Norwegians who tend to be drug abusers.
In recent years, street prostitution in central Oslo has become more visible, prompting calls for a ban. But critics say the law will make sex workers more vulnerable.
"The girls will have to rely more on pimps than before to get clients," said Janni Wintherbauer, the leader of the Organization for the Interests of Prostitutes and a sex worker herself. "The pimps will organize everything: the flat where they live, the choice of clients and how much money they get."
"In the street, the girls can choose who they go with. If they don't like the look of a client, they can say no. In an apartment, they can't," Wintherbauer said.
She fears there will be more rapes and attacks on prostitutes.
"The client will think: `I've already broken the law, I've got nothing to lose.' And in an apartment, a girl will be alone" where no one will be able to help her, she said.
The planned law is modeled on legislation passed in 1999 in Sweden. There, men who buy sex face six months in jail or a fine, set in proportion to their income.
No one has yet gone to prison for the offense, but one person was fined, police said.