The Ministry of Justice proposes more stringent regulations on paying for sex.

The recent proposal by the Ministry of Justice for increasing the responsibility of the customer paying for sex has been met with mixed reactions. Authorities in general back the proposal and many organisations are even prepared to criminalise paying for sex outright, while several non-governmental organisations are against more stringent anti-prostitution laws.

Under the new proposal, buying sex from a victim of pimping or sex trafficking would become illegal, even if the buyer is unaware of the sex worker's circumstances. A court could sentence a person paying for sex if it considers that there was reason to suspect that pimping or human trafficking was involved.

The proposal was sparked by a previous ruling by the Supreme Court in 2012 when the court dismissed the charges against a young man suspected of abusing a victim of sex trafficking. According to the court, the accused could not have known for certain that the Estonian woman was a victim of pimping, even though there were many circumstances that pointed to that assumption. Men who acted as the woman's pimps were found guilty of human trafficking.

The Supreme Court's ruling raised the threshold for sentencing a person paying for sex so high that the Ministry of Justice decided that a law reform was necessary. The ministry has now received reports on its proposal.

The proposed reform has garnered support from the National Police Board, the Tukinainen support centre for rape victims, the Finnish Bar Association and the Ombudsman for Equality.

"Prostitution is not something that only takes place between individuals but it also affects society on the whole. There is a great gender divide in prostitution: people selling sex are mainly women while the vast majority of people buying sex are men," emphasises Pirkko Mäkinen, the Ombudsman for Equality.

According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, however, the proposed reform fails to eliminate the problem arising from the burden of proof, which is why paying for sex should be made illegal under any circumstances.

"People paying for sex maintain demand for services provided by victims of the sex trade, and therefore help support human trafficking and pimping," comments the Office of the Prosecutor General.

Finland's Association of Prosecutors, National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, the National Council of Women and the Multicultural Women's Association are in favour of a total ban on paying for sex.

"Criminalising paying for sex sends a clear message that it is not acceptable to abuse victims of prostitution. Making buying sex illegal would help decrease the number of people paying for sex because most people balk at violating the law," says the National Council of Women.

But there are also several organisations that oppose the ban, arguing it would put sex workers in a more difficult situation. The Sexpo Foundation says that in no other field actions by clients when carried out in good faith have been criminalised. Abuse of workers occurs also in the restaurant and construction industries but clients are not held responsible for these offences, says Sexpo.

Human traffickers and pimps also try to cover up their tracks, making it difficult for clients to know the full circumstances, Sexpo argues, adding that the proposal creates a setting in which clients are discriminated against.

Many reviews of the proposed law reform slammed the proposal for relying too heavily on the Swedish government's report on the ban in Sweden, where paying for sex has been illegal for the past 15 years.

According to the Swedish report, the ban has succeeded in cracking down on sex trade while not weakening the position of sex workers.

Customer buying sex to have more responsibility

• In October 2006, a new regulation entered into force, making it illegal to buy sex from a victim of human trafficking or pimping. Anyone found guilty receives a fine or a maximum sentence of six months.

• In 2012, the Supreme Court dismissed charges against a man suspected of buying sex from a victim of human trafficking on the grounds that the man could not have known the real circumstances of the sex worker.

• The Ministry of Justice has prepared a proposal for a law, under which customers paying for sex face more responsibility.

• The maximum sentence would go up to a year.

The human rights organisation Amnesty International claims that several studies have disputed the conclusions of the Swedish report.

Amnesty International criticises the proposal for failing to take the human rights perspective into consideration.

"It is astounding that the proposal does not contain a report on how the reform would affect the rights of the victims of human trafficking and pimping or immigrants selling sex," says Amnesty International.

A Finnish men's association for promoting gender equality is in favour of abolishing all bans on paying for sex.

"We believe that the dwindling police resources would be better used to battle serious crime, rather than waste them on inefficient and unnecessary guarding of morals."

Susanna Reinboth – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
Janne Nousiainen