The alluring yet broken ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution

Simultaneously criminalising buying sex, while legalising its sale is inherently contradictory and doesn’t work in practice

Last week the Guardian reported that:

The European parliament has voted in favour of a resolution to criminalise the purchase of sex.

On Wednesday, 343 MEPs backed a report proposed by the London MEP and Labour spokeswoman for women in Europe, Mary Honeyball, which recommends the adoption of the “Nordic model” of prostitution that legalises selling sex but criminalises buying it. Some 139 MEPs voted against;105 abstained.

The yes vote formally establishes the EU’s stance on prostitution and puts pressure on member states to re-evaluate their policies on sex work.

“Today’s outcome represents a vital signal from MEPs that we cannot continue to tolerate the exploitation of women,” Honeyball said. “Rather than blanket legalisation, parliament has backed the more nuanced approach already practised in Sweden as a means of tackling prostitution. This punishes men who treat women’s bodies as a commodity, without criminalising women who are driven into sex work.

“The idea that prostitution is the oldest profession leads some to think we should accept it as a fact of life, that all we can do is regulate it a little better. This course of action leads to an increase in prostitution levels, normalising the purchase of sex and ingraining the inequalities which sustain the sex industry.”

The distinction between turning someone into a criminal and criminalising someone’s industry instinctively strikes me as a rather semantic one. An intuition that’s largely backed up by this article from Foreign Policy:

Abolitionists typically insist that criminalization is imperative. Some have pushed for making the sale of sex illegal. Others, however, including feminists who oppose prostitution, support a different model: outlawing only the purchase of sex. They argue that criminalizing clients will force the sex industry out of business, liberating sex workers but not treating them as criminals.

Already, this model has achieved legislative success. Sweden outlawed buying sex in 1999; Norway and Iceland later followed suit. France is on the verge of joining the club, and a debate on the issue is even gaining steam in Germany. Feminist Kathleen Barry, author of Female Sexual Slavery and co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, has even called for an international treaty that would mandate “arresting, jailing and fining johns.” (She first introduced the idea in the early 1990s, but has recently revived it.)

In reality, there is no convincing evidence that punishing “johns” decreases the incidence of commercial sex. Troublingly, Sweden’s sex workers report that criminalization has simply driven the sex industry underground, with dangerous consequences: Clients have more power to say when and where they want to have sex, inhibiting workers’ ability to protect themselves if need be.

Evidence shows, too, that criminalization of sale or purchase (or both) makes sex workers — many of whom come from marginalized social groups like women, minorities, and the poor — more vulnerable to violence and discrimination committed by law enforcement. Criminalization can also dissuade sex workers from seeking help from authorities if they are raped, trafficked, or otherwise abused. These problems have been identified in many countries: A 2012 report by the Open Society Foundations documented sex workers being harassed, extorted, and intimidated by police in the United States, Russia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Kenya. And in Sweden, sex workers have reported that they are still targeted by police, including for invasive searches and questioning.

Sex workers, their advocates, institutions like the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and a growing number of experts in health and law argue for removing all criminal prohibitions for consenting adults. After all, sex will be bought and sold no matter a country’s laws. The question, then, isn’t how to get rid of sex work — it’s how to make it safe for those who do it. Decriminalization would allow sex workers access to government and international resources so they could better respond to threats like violence and trafficking, while also helping to ameliorate the social stigma and prejudice they so often face.

The latter option is not guaranteed to work and its success may depend very heavily on the design of the policy. However, there are cases like New Zealand where it appears to have worked. In the light of this the EU’s approach seems misguided.

One thought on “The alluring yet broken ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution

  1. Pingback: What happened when Rhode Island accidentally legalised prostitution? | Matter Of Facts

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