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

By Megan Wallace

Jan 16, 2019

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Human rights

Jan 16, 2019

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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.