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zoenylargeLast week it was reported that there is suspicion that prostitution is being advertised under the veil of massage services in the classifieds of Icelandic newspapers.

For those who read the classifieds, this will come as little surprise. Advertisements in English that read “Brazilian whole body massage” or “The best whole body massage in down town any time 24/7. […] For the best man!” are quite clearly ads offering more than a shoulder rub.

A spokesperson for Stígamót, the Education and Counseling Center for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Violence, who spoke on a radio show on Rás 2, said the ads are likely to be for prostitution, and believes that organized crime and trafficking may be involved.

According to Björgvin G. Björgvinsson, supervisor of the sex crimes division of the police, one witness has already come forward.

Much of the media coverage and criticism focused on the fact that daily newspaper Fréttabladid was willfully printing the “massage” ads which were clearly for prostitution and questioned whether they were in some way responsible.

The Feminist Society of Iceland was among the most vocal critics of the decision to print the ads, but the police too suggested that the paper shares partial blame.

Ólafur Th. Stephensen, the paper’s editor, initially responded by arguing that it was not illegal to advertise massage services and that it was not the newspaper’s role, nor are its staff in a position, to investigate whether the ads were fronts for prostitution.

Björgvinsson confirmed that the ads are not illegal (they don’t specifically advertise sexual services) but says the matter needs to be looked in to further.

Stephensen later stated that the paper had in fact informed the police, as early as in 2009, of what they believed were suspicious advertisements, but never received a response. The police and the newspaper’s leaders will now meet to discuss the issue.

Stígamót has reported that they replied to the ads and were told that the cost for sexual services was ISK 25,000 (USD 212, EUR 157). The advertisements continued to be printed in the papers days after the criticism but it seems they have now been pulled.

However, the classifieds of the newspaper’s website, visir.is, continue to list and accept postings of the same ads. Five ads for massage, at least four of which, including ads for “The amazing and new whole body massage” and “luxury whole body massage,” appear dubious, were posted on the day of writing.

An anonymous ad has also been placed which reads “Buying sex is a crime. Big sister watching you,” in reference to the fact that the purchase of sex is illegal in Iceland and has been since 2009 when the parliament passed new legislation criminalizing the purchasing of sex (meaning that the client commits the crime but not the prostitute).

Steinunn Gydu- og Gudjónsdóttir of Stígamót says that prostitution continues to be advertised on dating sites. Fréttabladid also continues to include ads for phone sex and advertises other websites which are suspected of offering prostitution.

Representatives of one dating site commented in 2009 that while supervision of the website was limited during weekends, the company cooperates with police and suspicious ads are removed.

It reminds me of the Craigslist scandal in the US with its “adult services” section of its website and criticism that it may have been enabling sex trafficking.

The website later closed that section, despite the huge revenue (at USD 10 an ad the company was on track to bring in a potential USD 44 million in revenue in 2010 prior to them being blocked) they bring in, but the ads were reportedly only moved to other areas of the website.

Some argued that blocking these ads made it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor the sex trade, while others argued that it was an attack against free speech.

Of course prostitution and trafficking will not stop—at most it will make operations more difficult, if only temporarily— if these ads are shut down but does that mean websites and newspapers can ignore all responsibility and run them anyway?

And what about the argument that people have the right to sell their bodies if they choose to do so? The arguments surrounding what constitutes choice and what women actually stand to benefit by pursuing this form of work are too lengthy for this column, but it can be said with certainty that many women do not choose this form of work.

Earlier this year, Stígamót reported that between 30 and 40 women seek help in relation to their experiences in prostitution and the porn industry.

Margrét Steinarsdóttir, a board member of Stígamót has in the past called for the closing of dating websites which advertise the sale of sexual services. “In my mind it is illegal. Someone must take responsibility […] to ensure that illegal activities aren’t taking place,” she said.

While I certainly disagree with the idea of closing down these websites, Steinarsdóttir makes a very good point about shared responsibility—publishers of classifieds, whether online or in print, should take more responsibility for the advertisements they choose to run and of which they ultimately stand to benefit financially.

Zoë Robert – zoe_robert3 [at] hotmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.