Whether to outlaw or decriminalise prostitution remains one of feminism’s most enduring, and divisive, questions. Now, as the UK once again considers calls to adopt the Nordic model, Lauren Crosby Medlicott takes a look at both sides of the debate…
As a feminist, what do I think about sex work?
The answer to that question troubles many of us – and yet, it directly affect the lives of thousands of sex workers and is increasingly an electoral issue, so it’s important to consider where we stand as individuals.
If you’re reading this to get my personal opinion on the matter, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I’m not here to tell you how I think you should think – but having now spoken to experts on both sides of the decriminalisation divide, I want to let you evaluate the opinions and decide for yourself.
So, first up, what’s the current state of play? Today, in the UK, it is legal to pay for sex – though kerb-crawling, soliciting in public spaces, pimping and working in groups is not, courtesy of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Now, as a result of the increased violence and hardship sex workers have been facing since the UK’s first lockdown, a host of women’s rights activists are proposing alternatives to our current legal system they say will better protect and support sex workers. The question is, are they right?
Last December, the prominent women’s rights campaigner and MP, Dame Diana Johnson, lodged a parliamentary proposal calling for the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services. She stated that the bill, promoting a system otherwise known as the ‘Nordic Model’, would “bust the business of sex trafficking in the UK”, adding that “our continued tolerance of this harmful trade puts vulnerable women and girls at an ongoing risk from traffickers and pimps who seek to profit from it.” Her proposal brought not only human trafficking but sex workers’ rights into the spotlight, and since then, the need to consider the true state of our sex industry has arguably only become more urgent.
More recently, this month, Dame Diana attempted to introduce an amendment to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would have criminalised the purchase of sex. The amendment, like dozens of others put forward, was rejected by government ministers, who used their majority to push the bill through unchanged.
But with the legislation now headed to the House of Lords and changes said to be on the cards, campaigners on both sides of the divide are once again raising their voices – and by and large, these feminist scholars and advocates have fallen into two theoretical camps regarding sex work.
‘Sex work isn’t consensual’
The first camp believes sex work is never entirely consensual and is, instead, always a form of oppression against women. In an interview with author Juno Dawson last year, MP Jess Phillips held to this view, explaining, “I will never think that a person procuring sex is the same as consent. The level of exploitation in sex work is not something that can be ignored.” Consent, she argues, is not something that can be purchased.
Both Phillips and Johnson advocate for the Nordic Model to improve the rights and protection of women working in the sex industry. It is an approach to sex work that decriminalises the workers themselves, provides support services to help them out of sex work, and makes purchasing sexual services a criminal offence. Currently, the model has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, Ireland, and Israel.
The Women’s Equality Party also favours this approach, arguing that the model is the one best equipped to support and protect women. “In a more equal world, this may not be an issue,” the party’s leader Mandu Reid, tells me. “However, the reality is that violence against women and girls – including through sex trafficking – is endemic, and current laws aren’t working.
“Sexual exploitation is a form of violence that is extremely gendered, which is why we support the Nordic Model – a model that criminalises the purchase of sex but decriminalises those who sell sex and gives them the support services or exit route they need.”
Sounds logical, doesn’t it? Why then, do so many sex workers themselves disagree?
‘A woman has the right to choose her work’
The other side of this debate argues that a woman has the right to choose whatever work she wishes, including sex work, as a means of making money. Here, the focus shifts away from a rescue model that ‘saves’ women from the sex industry, and instead, focuses on providing services that enable them to work safely in a fully legal industry.
The decriminalisation of sex work would involve the removal of laws and policies that can currently lead to prosecution in relation to transactional sex. In a decriminalised system, consensual exchanges of sex work between adults are legal, with no penalty to either workers or buyers for soliciting, renting premises for work, or working as a group. This decriminalisation, critically, does not remove laws that criminalise exploitation, human trafficking or violence against sex workers.
“You can’t be a feminist if you don’t support decriminalisation,” insists Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes. “If you are promoting the increased criminalisation of sex work and an increase in police powers, you are choosing to side with the state against sex workers and stand by while money is taken out of our hands and we are made more vulnerable to violence. And that is no real feminism at all.”
The English Collective of Prostitutes, along with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, hold that decriminalisation would actually increase the safety of sex workers by allowing them to work together in supportive environments, rather than alone. Campaigners on this side also argue that decriminalisation empowers sex workers to report rape and violence, without fear of arrest or deportation, offers indiscriminative access to health services, frees up police and court services and, ultimately, removes some of the stigma attached to sex work.
The New Zealand model?
Adams points to New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalised in 2003, as an example of how a legal sex industry could operate. “After New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003, over 90% of sex workers said they had additional employment, legal, health and safety rights;,” she tells me. “70% said they were more likely to report violence to the police, and 68% felt able to refuse clients.”
Adams also has no truck with the argument that sex work can never be consensual and is always exploitative. “It denies that we, like other people, can distinguish between the sex we consent to (for money or not) and that which violates our bodies and our will. Like other workers, sex workers’ consent is conditional: if we don’t get paid, it’s forced labour.
“And while it is true that sex workers face high levels of violence, to propose outlawing prostitution on this basis is to impose a moralistic double standard. Agriculture is the UK’s most dangerous industry, with 167 deaths over the past year. No one proposes that farming be banned. Two women a week are killed by their partner or former partner, but we have yet to see a feminist hazard warning against marriage. Instead, there are calls, rightly, to better protect farm workers and partners and wives of violent men. Why should the route to safety for sex workers be any different?
“Even before the pandemic, 86% of austerity cuts fell on women. As poverty rises, more women, particularly single mothers, turn to sex work to survive and feed their families. In some cities, massive rises in ‘survival sex’ are being directly attributed to the introduction of universal credit and benefit sanctions.”
What about trafficking?
Proponents of the Nordic Model, including Dame Diana Johnson, refer to studies they believe show a significant reduction in men’s demand for sex work in countries where the model has been implements. The less sex that is purchased, they argue, the less the sex trade remains viable for traffickers.
However, decriminalisation advocates counter that criminalising buyers only “drives sex workers further underground, making it more dangerous and stigmatising work.” Many also cite a 2014 Vancouver study which found that “criminalisation and policing strategies that target clients… profoundly impacted the safety strategies sex workers employed.”
Meanwhile, as the UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill heads to the Lords, campaigners on both sides of the divide insist that the conversation about its approach to sex work is far from over. Dame Diana’s crusade continues, while an open letter opposing her favoured Nordic model, and signed by a host of charities and NGOs, activisists and academics under the umbrella of Decrim Now, continues to gain traction.
That this is a pivotal time for political action to protect sex workers is unquestionable. The question remains: how do we do it?
Lauren Crosby Medlicott
Lauren is a freelance writer based in Wales. Her journalism focusses on human rights and social justice issues.