A response to Nordic Model Now – Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill: The Debate
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated in real-time the dangerous effects that reducing demand for sex work has on sex workers. Exclusion from government support means many sex workers face a near-impossible choice between continuing to work or attempting to survive on Universal Credit: a scheme found by the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty to only intensify poverty.
As inadequate Universal Credit drives dependency on sex work in the first place, some sex workers have had to keep working throughout lockdown. However, lower demand for sexual services during the pandemic means that these workers may have to offer lower rates, provide services they might not otherwise be comfortable with, and accept dangerous clients.
Despite this, some lobbyist groups continue to ignore the wealth of evidence showing that criminalising clients under the “Nordic Model” is extremely dangerous. They argue that the Nordic Model will abolish prostitution by eliminating the demand for paid sex, which they conflate with gender-based violence.
In doing so, they refuse to listen to sex workers who explain that prostitution exists because of poverty and discrimination, not simply male demand for paid sex. They dismiss the countless studies showing the dangers of the Nordic Model, such as increased violence, stigma, and state harassment towards sex workers. They ignore that sex worker safety must be at the centre of legislation: or who is it for?
Nordic Model Now! (NMN) recently made a statement supporting Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill, which passed its first reading in Parliament in December 2020. Due to COVID-19, it is not clear when or if the second reading of the Bill will take place. However, if passed it would introduce the Nordic Model to the UK. In its statement the NMN attempts to dispute facts presented by Lyn Brown MP, who argued against the Bill. Below we refute some of the most inaccurate myths contained in the NMN statement.
Myth: sex work exists because it is ‘lucrative’ business
The NMN statement claims that the sex trade continues to exist as “there are huge profits to be made in the sex industry – often with very little risk.”
To the contrary, overwhelming evidence shows that prostitution exists because of poverty and discrimination – not because of profits made by third parties. Since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of teaching assistants, waitresses, cleaners and beauticians in the UK have made inquiries about starting sex work for the first time. One sex worker explained that:
“Fifteen years ago, you could make money in this industry but now we can just about get by. People think we are s***ting diamonds. Nothing could be further from the truth. We were scraping getting by before Covid. Now we’re in debt.”
Of the approximately 72,800 sex workers in the UK, 88% are women and most are mothers working to support families. With harsh austerity measures proven to disproportionately affect women, sex work for many provides a vital source of income.
Discrimination also restricts the employment opportunities available to other minorities who are over-represented in sex work, such as migrants, people of colour and/or LGBTQ+ people. For example, the Hostile Environment confines many migrants to illegal work, such as sex work.
Criminalising clients does not address the poverty and discrimination that drives many sex workers to depend on it for income. Instead, we call for support for sex workers, including the decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution, the abolition of Universal Credit, affordable childcare, a real living wage, an end to benefits cuts and sanctions. Considering that the majority of sex workers are mothers and the increased visibility at this time of a pandemic for the importance of caring, we have also joined the campaign for a Care Income to recognise and reward this vital contribution to society.
Myth: the sex work industry is comparable to other dangerous jobs such as the asbestos industry and therefore should be banned
Supporters of the Nordic Model often claim that sex work is gendered violence, not work. Despite this, by comparing sex work to the asbestos industry, NMN inadvertently demonstrates that sex work is work. For many, sex work is simply job: like any other service-based job, it can be gruelling, underpaid, and undervalued. Due to criminalisation and stigma, it can also be dangerous. This means it should be made safer, not illegal.
Asbestos-related cancer was caused by the use of asbestos in manufacturing processes. This did not lead to the elimination of the manufacturing trade: instead, laws and policies were introduced to eliminate this risk. If NMN are concerned about risks faced by workers, their support for laws proven to increase these risks is entirely illogical.
Claim: the “sex trade lobby”, made up of pimps, is behind the calls for decriminalisation
NMN’s statement claims that demands for decriminalisation in the UK are driven by the “sex trade lobby”, consisting of pimps and business owners. This “lobby” simply does not exist. Organisations dedicated to decriminalisation in the UK, such as the ECP, SWARM and National Ugly Mugs, are led by sex workers, not pimps.
The NMN claims that Amnesty International, UNAIDS and the WHO only support decriminalisation as they are affiliated with the “sex trade lobby.” For example, they claim that Amnesty International’s policy was written by Douglas Fox, owner of an escort agency. This is entirely false: Fox was not involved in the policy.
Instead, these organisations, along with Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Development Programme, base their policies on extensive global research, and have reached the conclusion that decriminalising sex work maximises legal, human rights and health protection for sex workers.
Claim: sex workers support decriminalisation because they lack agency and are controlled by men
Nordic Model supporters claim prostitution objectifies women. It is therefore puzzling that their stance is then based on the idea that sex workers are objects, incapable of independent thought:
“…Sadly many women still defer to the men who surround them and intuit when something disturbs their equilibrium. And so they too repeat the sex trade lobbyists’ propaganda because they have yet to untangle what’s really in their own interest from the web of misinformation and lies.”
This dehumanising and patronising language common of Nordic Model supporters deliberately undermines the autonomy of sex workers. As the UK Home Affairs Committee recently highlighted, “much of the rhetoric [used by Nordic Model supporters] also denies sex workers the opportunity to speak for themselves and to make their own choices.”
We reiterate that it is poverty and discrimination, not male control and demand, that drives the sex trade. In reality, data shows that less than 6% of UK migrant sex workers are trafficked.
Structural discrimination often means that the employment options available to minorities are limited. This does not mean that sex workers are controlled by men when they decide on sex work. Prostitutes, even when choosing from limited options, exercise agency to enter sex work, which can offer higher rates of remuneration and greater flexibility than other professions.
Myth: the “sex trade lobby” dominates academia
The NMN statement claims the dominance of the “sex trade lobby” means “it is difficult for academics to get or retain jobs […] if they diverge from the prevailing view that ‘sex work’ is empowering for women and a normal kind of work.”
This is wholly incorrect. The sex trade lobby as described NMN simply does not exist and the platform given to notorious anti-prostitution academics such as Julie Bindel contradicts this claim. Furthermore, decriminalisation supporters do not claim that sex work is empowering. As sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith highlight, many sex workers dislike or are ambivalent towards their job. This does not make it any less of a job, or any less deserving of the safety that should come with one.
Myth: a “breath-taking lack of intellectual honesty and rigour” makes studies showing the dangers of the Nordic Model unreliable
The foundation for this suggestion is entirely unclear. As explained above, there is no “sex trade lobby” monopolising academia. The NMN statement claims that studies exposing the negative consequences of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland and Norway are unreliable, yet they provide no evidence to support this claim.
One of the most striking examples of independent opposition to the Nordic Model comes from the largest-ever study on sex worker health, which included a systematic review of evidence from 33 countries from 1990- 2018. The study found that:
“Opponents of decriminalisation of sex work often voice concerns that decriminalisation normalises violence and gender inequalities, but what is clear from our review is that criminalisation does just this by restricting sex workers’ access to justice and reinforcing the marginalisation of already-marginalised women and sexual and gender minorities. The recognition of sex work as an occupation is an important step … this must be accompanied by concerted efforts to challenge and redress cultures of discrimination and violence against people who sell sex.”
Furthermore, in 2016 the Independent Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the UK government decriminalise brothel-keeping and sex work.
Myth: French study by Medecins du Monde showing the dangers of the Nordic Model cannot be trusted
In 2018, the NGO Medecins du Monde reviewed the effects of the Nordic Model in France two years after its introduction. It found that violence and stigma against sex workers had increased following the criminalisation of clients.
The NMN statement claims that the study cannot be trusted as it was conducted too early. Whilst two years is a relatively short period, the study was based on a comprehensive evidence base consisting of a quantitative survey with 583 sex workers, qualitative studies with 70 sex workers, and 24 interviews and focus groups. It was conducted by two researchers who worked with 11 organisations.
The statement also suggests that violence against sex workers in France has not increased, yet the study clearly evidences the opposite. 42% of sex workers were more exposed to violence and 38% have found it increasingly hard to insist on condom use. Concerns over the violence that would result from the Nordic Model were expressed by 98% of 500 sex workers surveyed in France in 2015.
Myth: violence is intrinsic to prostitution
There is no evidence to show that violence is intrinsic to prostitution. This idea is based on the outdated notion that sex workers cannot consent because their consent is paid-for. Most workers perform job duties only because they are paid: does that make all labour, forced labour? Similarly, domestic violence within marriage is rife: does that mean violence is inherent to marriage, and that we should ban it?
Evidence does comprehensively show, however, that laws directly impact the violence experienced by sex workers. In the UK, existing laws against brothel-keeping and soliciting expose sex workers to danger by forcing them to either risk arrest, or expose themselves to danger by working alone. These laws make prostitutes reluctant to report abuse, risking being called a liar or arrested if they do.
Furthermore, countless studies show that prostitution has become more dangerous in countries where the Nordic Model has been introduced. In Sweden, for example, numerous studies show that stigma, violence, police abuse and harassment have all increased: with no clear reduction in demand for paid sex. These findings were recently confirmed in a 2019 study by Fuckförbundet which reviewed 20 years of evidence.
In 2012, a report on sex work Oslo found that violence, including extreme violence, had increased after the sex purchase ban was introduced. The violence was mainly perpetrated by unfamiliar clients, but also included harassment from society at large. It noted a decrease in demand from “nice” customers and increased demand from “mean” customers who:
“do not stick to the boundaries of the agreement, tries to haggle, do not wish to use a condom, show a lack of respect for the women by treating them in a derogatory manner, are violent/threatening, are intoxicated, are psychologically unstable/ill or who seek the women out with the intention to humiliate them.”
Similar conclusions have been reached following independent studies in Canada, along with the studies mentioned earlier on Northern Ireland, Norway and France. For example, the Northern Ireland study found that reported assaults against sex workers have increased by 225% from 2016 to 2018 based on reports from National Ugly mugs, and that demand from violent clients was not reduced by the law change. In the UK, the Home Affairs Committee review declined to recommend that the model was adopted as it “can be misused to harass and victimise sex workers.”
Myth: evidence shows that decriminalisation in has not worked
It is, again, entirely unclear what the basis is for this argument.
In 2008, the Prostitution Review Committee published a five-year review of the impact of decriminalisation in New Zealand. It found that it had a “marked effect in safeguarding the right of sex workers to refuse particular clients and practices, chiefly empowering sex works through removing the illegality of the work.” The NMN statement highlights that the review also found that further progress could be made: this is a far-crying from suggesting that decriminalisation does not work.
According to a 2021 study, exploitation in brothels in New Zealand significantly decreased as a result of decriminalisation. Studies in 2007, 2010, 2014, and 2017 that brothel workers feel less pressured to accept clients, and, in general, sex workers have a better relationship with the police, can manage risk by openly screening clients and discussing the services they are willing to offer, and perceive themselves as having more rights and autonomy. Since the PRA 2003, at least two allegations of sexual harassment of a sex worker by brothel management has resulted in damages being paid to the sex worker.
NMN’s statement claims that the NZPC, an organisation that works with the New Zealand government on sex worker rights, is a “lobby group” that supports brothel owners. To the contrary, the NZPC was formed in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to encourage safe sex amongst sex workers. It is highly-respected by a wide range of political parties, organisations and public health professionals because of its proven success in improving sex worker safety and supporting those who wish to exit sex work.
The only report cited to support the claim that decriminalisation has been ineffective is research by two members of SAAFE (Stand Against Sexual Exploitation), commissioned by Family First. Given NMN’s alleged concern for non-biased research, it is interesting that it relies only on a paper funded by a conservative Christian lobby group.
Myth: the Nordic Model does not push sex work underground
Lyn Brown MP rightly argued that the Nordic Model increases violence against sex workers, makes it more difficult to engage in sex work safely, forces prostitution to occur covertly due to clients’ fear of arrest, and creates further hostility and distrust between sex workers and the police. Prostitutes in Sweden, for example, are targeted for arrest for pimping if they work together and deportation for working illegally despite the apparent decriminalisation of sex workers.
All of the studies mentioned demonstrate this same pattern in countries that have adopted the Nordic Model. However, the NMN statement barely attempts to refute this. It simply dismisses evidence from Sweden and France as “implementation problems.” The only evidence it points to in order to suggest the Nordic Model does not push the sex trade underground is a testament from #intedinhora, an organisation for people who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation: not sex workers.
Myth: sex work is exploitation
The Nordic Model Now article concludes by stating that ”it’s easier to think that women involved in prostitution are plucky creatures with a high sex drive’ rather than simply ‘sexual exploitation of women and girls in the sex industry.”
This is a false dichotomy, constructed from misinformation and ignorance. Reports by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and DecrimNow show that the more prostitution is pushed underground, the more vulnerable sex workers become to exploitation and, in worse cases, trafficking. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation are horrific human rights violations which prostitution are committed to eliminating: the Nordic Model only makes this more difficult.
It is vital that we listen to sex workers themselves, and that legislative changes are aimed at reflecting lived experience, rather than at gaining political clout. If Diana Johnson MP’s motives are steeped in as much of a desire to protect women from violence as she claims, we ask that she listens to those affected by this legislation and seeks to protect them, financially empower them, and understand the realities of their situation, not place them in further danger.