Why The ‘Nordic Model’ for Sex Workers Does Not Work

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This article is written in response to a recently published article about whether sex tourism is morally wrong.  It’s important to note that there is much in the original article that is entirely agreeable; coercion into sex work, either through trafficking or economic conditions, is certainly not ‘fun and games’, and is a concern that any government worth its salt would take seriously.

Likewise, I share the concerns about lad culture and the role this has to play in the belittling of women to nothing more than objects that exist for men’s pleasure. However, I fundamentally disagree that the Nordic model is the right solution, as it fails to address many of the concerns raised.

Primarily this is due to the fact that the Nordic model continues to force the sex industry underground. Though shifting criminality from the worker to the client offers increased security to sex workers in the sense that they can report abuse to the police without fear of prosecution, it does little to prevent the abuse taking place. A recent House of Commons report highlighted that there is little proof that criminalisation actually reduces demand, and that evidence from Sweden suggests that criminalisation has only pushed sex work further underground, where workers are even more liable to exploitation. There is also a fear that criminalising clients only shifts the power dynamic further in their favour, as not only are they the ones paying, they are also the ones breaking the law, weakening a sex worker’s bargaining position and making clients even more demanding. Fear of being caught has caused clients to refuse to give sex workers their contact details, and also insist on going somewhere more isolated, including often their own homes, both of which dramatically increase the dangers that sex workers face.

This is not to say that the system we currently have is any better, but instead of a Nordic model we should aim for full decriminalisation of both supply and demand. By bringing sex work out from the underground and into the light we could better ensure the safety of sex workers; not only could they report abuse to the police without fear of prosecution, they could also work together rather than in isolation (increasing safety and opportunities to share expenses), and receive the same protection as workers in other professions under employment law.

There is of course also a liberal argument for full decriminalisation. Far from ‘one in every thousand’ sex workers enjoying their work, research by the University of Leeds suggests that those who enjoy it are in the majority, with 66% describing it as ‘fun’ and over half as ‘rewarding’. The Nordic model does not take this into account, treating sex workers as the same regardless of whether they were coerced or entered the profession voluntarily. Full decriminalisation meanwhile would not seek to criminalise the actions of consenting adults, allowing precious police resources to be refocused on combatting trafficking. The government providing a strong social security net, rather than continuing to put those who enjoy their work at risk, would better allay fears that many turn to sex work out of economic necessity.

Even those who oppose sex work on moral grounds need not fear decriminalisation. In New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalised since 2003, there has been no evidence of an increase in the overall number of sex workers, nor in recorded instances of illegal sex trafficking. Meanwhile not only have working conditions for sex workers greatly improved, so too has the use of condoms, meaning that there is a very low rate of HIV amongst New Zealand sex workers.

Whilst the case for the Nordic model may at first glance be appealing, it is nowhere near as effective as full decriminalisation. This would suggest why it is official party policy of both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, whilst also receiving support from Jeremy Corbyn and Amnesty International. Laws regarding sex work should be reformed in order to best reduce the threat of harm that workers face, and it is clear that compared to both the Nordic model and the status quo that full decriminalisation is best placed to do just that.

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