I’m a Sexual Exploitation Survivor and I Say ‘No’ to the Nordic Model
The Nordic Model sucks.
As a sexual exploitation survivor, those who don’t know me well often expect that I will support the current efforts of Dame Diana Johnson, among others, to bring in her new Sexual Exploitation Bill and/or add amendments to the (already deeply worrying) Police and Crime Bill.
I don’t. In fact, I strongly oppose them. I have attempted to reach out to the personalities and organisations concerned to speak about this. After all, they claim the whole point of this Bill is to prevent sexual exploitation. So they should welcome the voices of survivors, right? Unfortunately, I’ve been ignored, as have other survivors I know who have attempted the same thing.
The Bill aims to bring in what is commonly known as the ‘Nordic Model;’ whereby sellers of sex are (allegedly) decriminalised, buyers of sex criminalised, and there is an emphasis on encouraging sellers to exit the industry. It might, at first glance, seem like a good idea. It’s not. As a trafficking survivor, here’s how this would actually have worked…
I would not have been able to get near any ‘exit services’ as my abuser wouldn’t let me. I wasn’t on the streets, so I wasn’t at risk of arrest anyway (buying and selling sex is legal in the UK, but on-street solicitation is not). Buying sex from a trafficked person (or, rather, their abuser) is ALREADY illegal in the UK. These proposed laws would do nothing to stop exploitation or help it’s victims. All they do — and truly, this is what I believe they are intended to do — is criminalise sex work. Sex work, as opposed to exploitation, is consensual.
Whatever one’s personal feelings about sex work, people do choose it and for a variety of reasons, money being of course the prime motivator, as with all work. Abolitionists will often cite poverty as a form of coercion, but by this argument all low-paid work is coerced; this does not make it trafficking. Sex work is often the best option for people who have few options; it is often relatively well paid and allows for flexible hours, and is often chosen for very pragmatic reasons, for example by single mothers, carers and students. For those who have no access to welfare,such as migrants, it may be the only thing standing between them and complete destitution. Is this an ideal state of affairs? No. But it is the reality.
Survival sex work is a blurred area, because while the sex worker makes a choice, it is a choice born of desperation. While this can be true of any form of work, it should never be true of sex, and this is when sex work, to an outsider, starts to look like abuse and buyers like rapists. To buy sex off someone who clearly is only doing it for survival money or food, or even to fund a debilitating substance misuse issue, is clearly unethical and so it is easy to see why some might sympathise with the abolitionist argument here, but ultimately, I believe we have to take a harm reduction approach. Because my memory of the horror of feeling that I would have to choose between survival sex and not paying the rent and being evicted, as a single mother who had just escaped an abusive relationship, means I cannot support reactionary attempts to punish punters. Not because I have any love for punters but because these attempts only lead to less options for those who depend on them, however unhappily, for resources. I desperately want to see an end to survival sex work, but we will only achieve this by making sure people do not end up in those situations in the first place…not by adding more criminalisation to an already dangerous situation.
We can say that the sex trade as a system is exploitative without saying that every single person within it is abused. This is true of many industries, and it is also worth noting that plenty of industries use sexualisation and objectification as a marketing tactic, which can often spill over into abuse, yet no-one is advocating criminal bans (for example of the fashion, modelling and acting industries.)
Saying that absolutely all sex work is abuse is dangerous in many ways. It means sex workers are routinely ignored and infantilised when they insist they are not experiencing abuse, which in turn means actual abuse is minimised. Radical feminists — often abolitionists — tend to take the view that all prostitution is rape regardless of what the person involved says. This is not okay. One can think it is unethical for a man (it is still overwhelmingly men) to buy sex while still respecting the autonomy of the people involved.
Because if we say everything is rape then nothing is rape.
If sex workers are just always and routinely being raped then how are they to be taken seriously when they are assaulted? The old, misogynistic myth that ‘you can’t rape a prostitute’ is being inadvertently fed by this. Positioning sex work as VAWG also ignores all males and non-binary sex workers, and ignores the fact that they can be victims of sexual exploitation too.
However while it is important we draw distinctions between sex work and sexual exploitation, it is also important that we recognise where they may be assumed to overlap. This overlap is often with the buyer, who may not know if the woman is consenting or not, may not care, or may deliberately seek out people— and often in this case minors— to abuse. This is why supporters of the Nordic Model (which applies blanket criminalisation to the purchase of sex) often centre the buyer in their discussions of prostitution.
The obvious problem with blanket criminalisation of clients is that some do care. In other circumstances it may genuinely be difficult for them to tell. I saw plenty of clients who had no idea I was being exploited and who I’m pretty sure that, had I told them the truth, would have been horrified. A blanket Sex Buyer Law treats both types of buyers in the same way, and this seems to me to be grossly unfair. A buyer may, in many people’s eyes, be acting in an immoral way (if he is married for example) but this is hardly a matter for the criminal justice system, whereas a buyer who is violent or knowingly engages with traffickers is a rapist and should be treated as such. It always amazes me when abolitionists treat these things as being the same.
In 2010 a law was passed in the UK that criminalised the purchase of sex from a person subject to force, coercion or deception. As a strict liability law the accused is liable for prosecution whether they were aware of the force or not. I admit to having mixed feelings about this. It seems unfair to criminalise someone who may genuinely have no idea that the person is a trafficking victim, and to treat them the same way as a buyer who does, because this is to accuse them of rape. However, I do feel that putting the onus on the buyer to at least attempt to ascertain that the exchange is a consensual one may be a good thing. Clients can be effective in the fight against trafficking if they are encouraged to report it if they think they have witnessed it or suspect it — and of course, buyers afraid of being arrested for the act of buying aren’t likely to report anything.
It also seems to me that with the existence of this 2010 law there is no need to continue to push for a blanket Sex Buyer Law. Abolitionists claim this law is unworkable as it is hard to prove, and indeed statistics show that while 43 people were convicted for this offence in 2010, it had dwindled to 2 by 2015. Yet it is difficult to see how the criminalisation of all clients is any easier to enforce. To prove that a man has bought sex is difficult unless they are literally caught in the act, and there is no realistic way to do this without invasive police surveillance of the women themselves. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in countries that have passed these laws.
In Norway sex workers report routine harassment by police, evictions under Operation Homeless and deportations of migrant sex workers (and often even of international trafficking victims) and monies being seized and not returned. It is difficult to see how this helps people in prostitution, which is what supporters of the Nordic Model claim is the point of the law. Sex workers across the globe report police harassment and even abuse and violence and criminalisation of any sort can only ever increase this. This is another barrier for sex workers to report abuse. Even international trafficking victims will often avoid police due to fear of deportation — this is clearly counter-productive.
The often high levels of punter violence may seem like evidence that client criminalisation is a good thing, but there is a –literally — fatal flaw here. If criminalising the purchase of sex will, as supporters claim, convince some buyers to not do so, let’s think about the types of buyers likely to be put off by this. Otherwise law-abiding citizens may be deterred. Violent men, rapists and child abusers are hardly likely to be deterred — they are already breaking laws that come with much harsher sentences. The danger of criminalisation of all buyers is that it leaves sex workers with a far riskier punter base. And what happens when all the ‘good’ punters are gone and a survival sex worker still desperately needs the money?
This isn’t just hypothetical. Nearly every country that has implemented the Nordic model reports increased violence towards sex workers. In Ireland, a safety organisation for sex workers called Ugly Mugs reported a rapid increase in violence against sex workers. The 2019 Department of Justice review of the law in Northern Ireland, implemented in 2015, reports an increase in several types of serious crime against sex workers. In France, violence against and murder of sex workers has increased. Trafficking has gone up in Iceland. In Sweden, the originator of the law and where it is often hailed as a success, it has in fact increased the dangers faced by sex workers. While not all of these phenomena can be proven to be directly caused by the change in the law, there is a clear correlation between this law being passed and conditions for sex workers becoming often dramatically worse. And many things, such as the creation of a ‘buyer’s market’ are an immediate consequence of the law. When buyers are concerned about arrest they are less likely to allow sex workers to take their details or agree to meet in a location of the sex worker’s choice. And as most sellers of sex are doing so out of economic need, they may have little practical option but to agree. Far from putting the sex worker in a position of power over the buyer, as Nordic Model enthusiasts often claim, the exact reverse is in fact true.
It seems odd then that so many feminist organisations support this law, when it only seems to cause harm to women and the women subjected to it themselves do not want it. In the course of my research last year I was not able to find any sex worker living under the Nordic model who believed that it had improved conditions, or any sex trade survivor who had exited under the Nordic model and felt it had been beneficial to her. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if there was a significant number, one would expect that abolitionist organisations would be platforming them.
Yet abolitionist organisations — often even those that are survivor led such as SPACE International — often champion the Nordic Model as being progressive and a win for human rights. With the mounting of evidence to the contrary and very little evidence to support it, this seems almost nonsensical.
The main justification for campaigning for the Nordic Model is that it decreases trafficking, but there is no evidence for this, either. In fact according to a recent and comprehensive review it may in fact function as a ‘policy irritant.’ In Sweden, the home of the Nordic Model, trafficking appears to have increased.
It doesn’t work. It isn’t working. However attractive the Nordic Model may appear to those looking for answers to sexual exploitation — including myself — the evidence points in only one direction.
The Nordic Model causes harm to both sex workers and trafficking victims, and no-one who cares about both or either of these things should be supporting it.
If you want to show your opposition to this, you can write to your local MP using this tool https://decrimnow.eaction.org.uk/nonordicmodel
and sign this open letter https://decrimnow.org.uk/open-letter-on-the-nordic-model/