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Why the ‘Nordic Model’ for sex workers does more harm than good

By Megan Wallace

Human rights

Jan 16, 2019

This summer, Peruvian-born Vanesa Campos was murdered at the hands of five men in the streets of Paris. Who was to blame? According to the activists and sex workers who rallied together following her tragic death, it’s less a question of “who” and more “what”. Namely, the finger was pointed at legislation in France which seeks to curb prostitution by targeting sex workers’ clients.

Implemented in April 2016, the laws threaten customers with fines of up to €1,500, and sees France adopt the Nordic model already in place across Scandinavia and other countries like Canada, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Clearly, the thinking behind these measures is that such a system can curb prostitution whilst also avoiding the legal persecution of sex workers. However, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry—and that’s certainly the case here. Sex workers’ rights advocates have convincingly argued that the measure has made working conditions significantly less safe. According to them, clients now pressure and coerce sex workers into riskier situations due to concerns about being discovered by the police.

Furthermore, while the legislation may gesture in the direction of a more humane attitude toward sex workers, it ultimately perpetuates their marginalisation by maintaining the illicit status of their work. The law basically feeds upon the kind of rhetoric which classes all sex work as forms of violence against women, heavily stigmatising those who purchase prostitutes’ services. It’s important to recognise that arguments like these only serve to belittle sex workers and are nothing more than an attempt to minimise escorts’ sexual and professional agency. Yes, there are many sex workers who are subject to abusive labour conditions, but more often than not these are a direct result of the precarity produced by illegality.

Whenever we see a salacious headline about another male celebrity “caught” with an escort, it only serves to harden attitudes against sex work and, by extension, sex workers. Demonising those who purchase sex is just another tactic to stir up moral panic and ensure that those who offer their services are never able to do so in safe environments or unionise to fight for better conditions. Criminalising the purchase of sex is still just another violent measure against sex workers, one that threatens their livelihood and puts their lives in danger, all whilst pretending to have their best interests at heart.

Concerningly, however, despite its many downfalls, the Nordic model appears to have hopped over the pond to take root in the U.K.. Earlier in the year, the London borough of Redbridge implemented new rules which give plain-clothes police officers the power to distribute fines of up to £1,000 to those found trying to buy prostitutes’ services. Rightly enough, advocacy groups have been keen to speak out about this matter. One of these is Organisation National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a group which aims to end violence against sex workers.

Speaking to local newspaper the Ilford Recorder, a spokesperson from the group said, “We feel that such action could lead to sex workers being displaced and working in areas in which it is less safe for them to do so. This increased vulnerability means that sex workers are more likely to fall victim to dangerous offenders, as was Mariana Popa, a 24-year-old woman who worked in the borough and was murdered in 2014 during a period of similar heavy enforcement from police.”

At the end of the day, legislation which seeks to fine or punish punters but seemingly spare prostitutes is still just another form of criminalisation, and one which is notoriously negative for sex workers. As Dr Holly Davis, a professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh who specialises as a researcher in the field of sex work, puts it, “We must exercise caution in supporting carceral approaches to sex work. Criminalizing purchase does not achieve safer conditions for sex workers rather it can have a profound negative impact; the further marginalization of workers leaves them more vulnerable to violence, harassment, and stigmatization. The Nordic model ultimately doesn’t address the larger patriarchal cultural, social, economic and political systems which perpetuate and support violence against women and/or more specifically violences towards sex workers.”

As Davis convincingly argues, the Nordic model doesn’t offer an “ethical” framework for criminalisation, because ethical criminalisation just doesn’t exist. Operating under the shadows of illegality, sex workers are currently denied basic workers’ rights—and this definitely won’t stop, even if the weight of persecution falls on the person buying rather than selling.

Moreover, arguments that the Nordic model combats sexual exploitation could not be further from the mark. Reasoning such as this rests on the dangerous conflation of sex trafficking and consensual sex work, one which leads to paternalistic policing rather than any effective measures to help trafficking victims. Legislative frameworks such as these do little to prevent trafficking given that they in no way constitute an attack on organised crime. Ultimately all that it does is make working conditions considerably less safe.

It’s time to wake up to the fact that the Nordic model is nothing more than another moralistic effort to clamp down on sex workers’ livelihoods. If legislators truly want to make escorts safe, they need to avoid all forms of criminalisation and ultimately recognise sex work as a valid form of work. We need to stop tinkering with a broken system and start taking decisive action. It is vital that we push for the only solution to improve the lives of sex workers: complete decriminalisation.

SWERF politics gaining power in U.K. is a cause for concern

Amid growing restrictions of women’s rights policies in Western democracies, moves made by ‘women’s rights’ organisations to shut down strip and lap dancing clubs around the U.K. are exposing the dangers of allowing exclusionary campaigns to influence local government policy. Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEV) licensing legislation differs throughout the U.K., but many local authorities are pressured by anti-stripping campaigns (under the general title of SWEFT, sex worker exclusionary radical feminism) to give way to the Nordic Model

This model, some feminists argue, protects women from violence and poverty by criminalising those purchasing sex, rather than sex workers, and banning strip clubs allegedly increasing demand for this. Yet, in Ireland, the introduction of Nordic-style legislation with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has since seen increased crime and abuse reported by users of sex worker safety app, UglyMugs.ie, and the recent criminalisation of two vulnerable migrant female sex workers in Kildare, who were sentenced to nine months in prison. Many are quick to report on such matters as the latest schism in modern feminist thought, with an unbridled scepticism reserved for strippers’ views and lived experiences. 

Comparatively few, however, seem as concerned with the hypocritical ethos of influential anti-sex work campaigners, as their refusal to engage with or ever set foot inside their workplaces compounds a willingness to overlook the autonomy and safety of dancers. One such group, Not Buying It, was revealed to have paid for male private investigators to enter Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino and film dancers working semi or fully nude without their knowledge earlier this year. Apparently left with “no choice” but to resort to “drastic measures” to get the club’s SEV license revoked, Not Buying It, with Women’s Equality Party (WEP) Sheffield branch leader, Charlotte Mead, presented this to Sheffield City Council as evidence that a Nordic style ‘nil-cap’ policy on SEVs be should enforced. 

Although the WEP has since declared it was not part of the sting, it nevertheless teamed up with the campaign to present footage drawing parallels to revenge porn as a misogynistic method used to intimidate, harass, and manipulate women. The argument that such tactics have any place in a feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression is an undoubtedly alarming one. A feminist trade-union representing sex workers alongside migrant, low-paid, and vulnerable workers, United Voices of the World, attested to this in its statement aligning the ‘harmful’ actions to the WEP’s “misguided campaign to abolish strip clubs for the imagined benefit of the women involved”.

Teela Sanders, Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester and researcher on stripping and sex work, asserts that “other feminists doing this to women […] is as damaging as the misogynist policies found in other labour environments that the women’s movement has been working so hard against”. In turn, Sanders locates the “harmful speech, influence and actions by so-called women’s organisations” as reflecting a wider trend: “We see across the globe the stripping back of rights for women, most recently in the abortion laws in the U.S. What we see in the U.K. is feminist organisations attacking other women for the work they choose, under a range of circumstances and real-life options, to make a living from”. 

Those campaigning for strip and lap dancing club closures insist strippers are treated solely as ‘sex objects’, that the choice of women to work in SEVs is mere ‘myth’ or illusion, and that these women are either victims or in denial of their circumstance. This “cowardly” approach, declares Sanders, whereby “sex workers, marginalised, stigmatised and sometimes vulnerable, are denied platforms to rebut claims of victimhood which many do not recognise as their experience”.

In Scotland, where the government considers stripping and lap dancing forms of ‘commercial sexual exploitation’, calls for a Scottish Model that criminalises sex work clients could gain greater influence over local legislation. In response to Glasgow City Council’s current consultation on SEV licensing, GMB Scotland deemed the process an “opportunity” for female strippers and sex workers to be heard by “a political establishment that, so far, has tried to exclude them from the conversation”. GMB Scotland Organiser, Rhea Wolfson, stresses that “the council must realise what is at stake here: hundreds of jobs in Glasgow could potentially be lost. The real consequences of ending club licences would be that workers no longer have access to their trade union and the industry would continue unregulated and underground”. 

The refusal to listen to, engage with, or empower the legitimate concerns of strippers and lap dancers exposes the inherent hypocrisy, harm, and hierarchical control of anti-sex work campaigners. As the United Voices of the World (UVW) Union emphasises that “dancers are best placed to advocate for their own rights and safety at work” and GMB Scotland supports “the regulation of clubs with workers’ safety at the core of any regulatory scheme”, better ways to protect strippers are clearly to listen, respect, and support their own, self-led campaigns for workplace equality. 

Indeed, often lost in a surge of dogmatic, sensationalised stances on the morality of sex work are solid suggestions as to how regulation could safeguard strippers from the precarity of working as self-employed while sometimes being expected to pay steep house fees to perform at their club of choice. Banning clubs completely limits any opportunity for the decriminalisation of sex work to be guided by strippers and their unions, shaped by experience, and vested in the interest of protecting dancers’ employment rights, job security, and safety above all else.