Prostitution Policy Reform and the Causal Role of Ideas: A Comparative Study of Policymaking in the Nordic Countries

Statsvetenskaplig Tidskrift 110:1, 2008, 59–65.

7 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2013 Last revised: 5 Jun 2013

See all articles by Gregg Bucken-Knapp

Gregg Bucken-Knapp

University of Stirling

Johan Karlsson Schaffer

University of Gothenburg - School of Global Studies; University of Oslo - Faculty of Law

Date Written: May 25, 2012


Over the past decade, public policies aiming at regulating and combating prostitution in the Nordic countries have been subject to drastic change, but not convergence. Until 1999, the Nordic countries regulated prostitution similarly: buying and selling sexual services was legally tolerated, with pimping and procuring being illegal. Yet, in that year, Denmark opted for substantial liberalization, while Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalize the purchase of sexual services, though not the sale. This so-called Swedish model has generated global interest and resulted in similar proposals in other countries. In 2006, the Finnish parliament rejected a bill closely modeled on the Swedish law; while in the summer of 2007, the Norwegian justice department presented a draft bill that would ban the purchase of sexual services, increasing the likelihood that Norway will follow in Swedish footsteps. Against this backdrop, our aim is to account for cross-national differences in prostitution policy outcomes in four Nordic states: Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

In this study, we focus on the causal role of ideas for understanding how proponents of a given prostitution policy reform are able to secure support from policymakers. Over the past decade, the use of an ideational approach has shifted from the margins to the mainstream in comparative public policy analysis. Ideational approaches emphasize how policy entrepreneurs are able to portray desired reforms as being consistent with broader ideational frameworks held by key decision makers. Thus, by carefully studying how actors use ideas to achieve policy change, the ideational approach is an advance over approaches that have chiefly focused on the strategic resources held by actors within varying institutional contexts. Given that a central feature of the prostitution policy reform process in all four settings has been exceptionally heated national debates in which societal norms, expert knowledge and cultural values have figured prominently, we argue that an ideational approach is particularly fruitful for analyzing cross-Nordic variation in policy outcomes.

Drawing upon diverse public policy, comparative political economy, international relations, and feminist comparative policy scholarship, we employ an ideational approach to account for why it is that only Sweden has prohibited the purchase of sexual services.

Keywords: prostitution policy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, ideational, policy reform

Suggested Citation

Bucken-Knapp, Gregg and Karlsson Schaffer, Johan, Prostitution Policy Reform and the Causal Role of Ideas: A Comparative Study of Policymaking in the Nordic Countries (May 25, 2012). Statsvetenskaplig Tidskrift 110:1, 2008, 59–65., Available at SSRN: or

Gregg Bucken-Knapp

University of Stirling ( email )

School of History & Politics
University of Stirling
Stirling FK9 4LA, Scotland FK9 4LA
United Kingdom

Johan Karlsson Schaffer (Contact Author)

University of Gothenburg - School of Global Studies ( email )

POB 700
Gothenburg, SE 40530

University of Oslo - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 6706 St Olavsplass
Oslo, 0130

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