Woman silhouette. Shutterstock/arda savascioguliari. All rights reserved.Oslo, December 17: it’s the international day to end violence against sex workers, and Pro Senteret present the report Am I not a human being like you? Violence in Oslo’s street prostitution environment[i]. A few hours later Bulgarian sex worker Galina Sandeva is found stabbed to death in her car in front of the luxury sky rises lining the waterfront.
Violence against sex workers is endemic on a global scale[ii]. Getting this group included in public health plans on interpersonal violence is a challenge. Although violence is considered a societal threat in Norway[iii], inclusion of the violence faced by sex workers is not high on the agenda.
Pro Sentret is the Oslo Municipality’s social- and health agency for persons with experience of selling sexual services, as well as a national centre of expertise on prostitution. We offer drop-in social- and health services, and do outreach in the streets.
We have previously reported on the violence our service users’ face. Survey-based reports in 2008 and 2012 documented frequent exposure to violence, often grave in character. The perpetrators were clients and partners, as well as acquaintances and family members.
In the new report, we wanted to focus on the service users’ own narratives of violence. The service users were eager to share their stories, as they believed that if society recognized the amount of violence, discrimination and harassment they experience, it would precipitate action. We supplemented with field observations from outreach work in the street prostitution environment.
An absolute majority of our service users define themselves as women, and around 90% are migrants. Many of them come from extremely deprived backgrounds and/or belong to marginalised ethnic groups such as the Roma. Ethnic discrimination often interacts with gender discrimination and stigma in a particularly toxic way. Harassment of street-based sex workers is ubiquitous, and often carries a component of racism; black women are particularly exposed. Men carry out almost all the harassment, and it includes both planned and impulsive acts. We have observed episodes in which male passers-by subject the women to severe verbal abuse, or throw coins or food as this excerpt from our field observations show:
We are standing in the street talking to two women we know. Two men start walking towards us, they are clearly intoxicated. One of them is eating a bun, and when he walks past us he throws it at one of the women. Both men laugh.
In addition to the passer-by harassment exemplified above, violence from customers is rife, spanning from non-psychical violence, such as trying to negotiate sex without a condom, to brutal attacks and murder attempts:
A few years ago I had a bad experience with a customer. He picked me up in his car and drove to a place outside the city centre. When we were finished, and on our way back to the city we drove through a tunnel. Without warning, he suddenly took hold of my jacket, opened the car door and pushed me out while the car was still moving. There were cars coming towards me, but I managed to crawl against the side of the tunnel. I was choked and covered in blood. I did not go to the police.
The excerpt above shows two topics that are consistent throughout the service users’ narratives: the severity of the violence and the reluctance to report the incident to the police. Strangulation attempts, cut injuries and injuries from punching and kicking are common. In the report, we describe an incident where a woman came to us with visible cut wounds and bruising after being attacked on the street. She wanted medical attention for her injuries and only gave us a very sparse description of what had happened, adding “that’s life”. For many of the service users, trivialising the violence seems to be a coping mechanism in order to survive the hardships of their everyday lives.
There are several factors that influence the women’s choice of whether to report incidences of violence or not. Often, there is a general mistrust of authorities, especially of the police. This distrust is founded on previous, negative experiences of authorities in both the country of origin and other countries. Adding to this are rumors and misconceptions in the street-sex work environment, and a fear of being shamed or not believed by e.g. the police and/or reprisals from the perpetrator.
The fear of reporting episodes of violence to the police is not necessarily unfounded. We know of incidences where women have reported violence, only to find that the illegality of their residency has taken precedence over the crime they have been subjected to. The outcome is then forced return. Ultimately, this can lead to a situation where the women choose to deal with the violence themselves, and leave the perpetrators free of any repercussions.
Aside from the risk of being deported, many women also express concerns with losing their homes. The Norwegian penal code § 315 [iv]on procuring includes renting out premises for prostitution, in the procuring offence. A strategy of the Oslo Police[v] has been to contact landlords on the basis of § 315 for letting premises to sex workers. This has been done regardless of whether the address has become known to the police through a sex worker reporting a crime or not. As you are obliged to state your home address when reporting a criminal offence in Norway, it puts the women in a highly precarious situation which further adds to the reluctance to report.
Although few of our service users actually knew Galina Sandeva, her murder triggered a reaction of fear; the murder stoked memories of violence where only luck and coincidence stood between life and death. Thankfully, murders of sex workers are rare in Norway, but considering the amount and severity of the violence they are subjected to, it is quite perplexing that it does not occur more often. As we have shown, violence is seen as something normal, even expected. Or in the words of one of our service users: “When you’re standing in the rain, you can’t expect not to get wet”.
Editors note: A Norwegian 24 year old man has been arrested for, and admitted, the murder of Galina Sandeva.
[i] Warpe, Sangesland Sarah (2015): Am I not a human being like you? Vold i Oslos gateprostitusjonsmiljø. Pro Sentret.
[ii] World Health Organization, United Nations Population Fund, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Global Network of Sex Work Projects, The World Bank. Implementing comprehensive HIV/STI programmes with sex workers: practical approaches from collaborative interventions. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2013.
[iii] Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet. (2013b). St.meld. 15 (2012-2013) Forebygging og bekjempelse av vold i nære relasjoner. Det handler om å leve. Oslo: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet.
[v] This strategy by the Oslo Police was referred to as Operasjon husløs (operation homeless). Initiated in 2007, the strategy ran until 2011. Pro Sentret are however aware of several cases where this strategy has been employed after 2011.