Prostitution and the Nordic Model

10 min
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A world without sex for sale

Often referred to as "Swedish" or "Nordic," the model seeks to ban prostitution. Its main tool is the general criminalization of sex workers' clients, without regard to the conditions of sex work. Supporters of this approach emphasize that only clients, not sex workers, are punished, which is why it is referred to as "john punishment." Basically, it prohibits payment for sexual services rather than promoting fair compensation.

In addition, this model criminalizes all those involved in the prostitution environment, including renting work sites and other intermediaries, as well as colleagues and private contacts. It deregulates the prostitution sector, as the state no longer intervenes, and pushes the entire industry into underground business.

Although countries such as Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and France have banned sex buying, Finland and Denmark rejected this approach. Some experts argue that there is no "Nordic model" at all.

A strong anti-prostitution movement calls for the sex purchase ban, calling themselves "abolitionists," though the comparison to slavery is controversial. This group, often known in feminist discourse as "Radical Feminism," views prostitution as an act of violence and an expression of patriarchal oppression. Conservative forces also have an interest in the "Nordic model" to promote a general ban on prostitution, as seen in Canada and in the EU Parliament.

The core problem is the idealistic desire for a world without sex for sale, without facing the negative consequences and practical implementation issues. Prohibition is often presented as a panacea, although such simple solutions rarely exist. Critics of the model are often defamed, making open, democratic dialogue difficult.

Facts about prostitution and sex-buying bans

Prostitution has only shifted, not decreased: many advocates of the sex-buying ban claim that prostitution in Sweden has decreased, though estimates vary. The fact is that there are no accurate figures, especially since prostitution often takes place in secret. Comparative figures prior to 1999 are also lacking, so no clear conclusions can be drawn.

While street prostitution is less visible, that does not mean it has decreased overall. It has merely shifted, for example to the Internet. Customers are also moving to countries without such bans.

On the street, the decline in customers has led to increased competition among sex workers and thus to falling prices. This often forces them to engage in riskier acts. Customers expect more as they take a risk, making the situation more difficult for sex workers.

Escort prostitution, on the other hand, has increased in value. Some even report increased prices. This shows that the ban is not deterring customers or sex workers.

Regarding violence against prostitutes, there is a misunderstanding: just because they are not directly criminalized does not mean they feel safer. Clients don't want to leave a trail, which leaves sex workers defenseless in the event of violence. Many victims are unable to press charges because they have no information about their attackers. This anonymity allows violent clients to act with impunity, contributing to an increase in violence.

Finally, sex workers and victims of human trafficking are also affected by police violence. Migrant women are particularly vulnerable to such assaults. When such incidents occur in countries with low levels of police corruption, it is worrisome to consider how the "Swedish model" is implemented in more corrupt countries.

Prostitutes are not "decriminalized"

In Sweden, prostitutes get support only if they give up the profession for good and present themselves as victims. Other measures that could help prostitutes without quitting are considered prostitution encouragement. For example, condoms are considered such a means of encouragement. In 2009, social workers were criticized for distributing condoms. However, it is often overlooked that refusing to use condoms is also harmful.

The attitude of many social workers is that they should not support prostitutes in their activities. Thus, important health information and services are missing. The "Nordic Model" has also been introduced in France, but even here, exit programs reach few sex workers.

Despite claims that prostitutes are not criminalized, this group is disadvantaged in many ways. Landlords who rent to prostitutes can be prosecuted for pimping. This leads to homelessness for many sex workers. Likewise, prostitutes can be deprived of custody of their children. In 2013, a prostitute named Jasmin was murdered by her ex-husband, even though he was known for domestic violence.

Migrants engaged in sex work can be deported. This contradicts the claim that prostitutes are not criminalized. In Norway and Sweden, the ban mainly affects migrants. In 2011, it became known that Sweden was deporting sex workers from other countries. Police often describe these migrants as a danger.

While EU citizens have the option to fight deportation and were successful in doing so in 2011 (thanks to the freedom of movement granted by the EU), non-EU citizens do not have this option. As a result, many are reluctant to report violence or assaults to the police for fear of facing deportation for violations of immigration law. In Sweden, the general view is that foreign prostitutes should be deported. The Ombudsman for Justice described prostitution as a "dishonest" way of life that indicates a criminal offense. In addition, a Swedish court has ruled that women of Asian origin can be prevented from entering a pub based on the belief that they may be prostitutes. Under the pretext of fighting prostitution, this legitimizes not only racism, but also discrimination against sex workers and women who are considered potential prostitutes.

Sex workers and all relevant organizations oppose sex purchase ban

In countries that have introduced or are considering sex purchase bans, sex workers and opponents of the ban are systematically kept out of the policy-making process. They are often vilified by critics of the sex trade as "pimps" or "traffickers" to undermine their credibility. In Sweden, many people react with disgust to the idea of calling prostitution "sex work," even though they claim to respect prostitutes.

The review of the law in Sweden has not yet produced clear results. But there is evidence that critical opinions are being suppressed in order to paint a positive picture of the law. Sex workers who are considered victims under the law have difficulty communicating their perspective. If they do not present themselves as victims, it is assumed that there is something wrong with them.

A poll showed that about 47% of Norwegians and 54% of Swedes also want to criminalize sex selling. This suggests that there is a real risk of full criminalization of prostitution, which could have a negative impact on sex workers. Despite advocacy campaigns for the ban, it appears that the law is not leading to more respect for sex workers.

This attitude reflects the views of anti-prostitution activists. To eliminate prostitution, it must be socially frowned upon. This negative view, of course, affects the sex workers themselves. Reducing prostitution through increased stigma and a sense of superiority over sex workers is neither desirable nor effective.

Harmful gender stereotypes

The "Swedish model" perpetuates gender stereotypes in which men are viewed as potential perpetrators and women as their victims. This perspective suggests that men are helpless to their urges, while women must be constantly protected from male desires. In this mindset, women are portrayed as in need of protection and rescue by police officers or dedicated social workers , even against their own will.

Although it often goes unspoken, the reasoning often suggests that prostitutes are traumatized, perhaps by child abuse or other forms of sexual violence. While this is certainly true for some sex workers, it is problematic to generalize such assumptions. It is unethical to use individual trauma to call for a ban that harms sex workers.

Calls for a ban on prostitution based on the assumption that all sex workers have experienced sexual violence put them in an uncomfortable position. They must speak out about an experience they may not have had. This pressure, especially from feminists, is another form of victimization and can be seen as disempowering.

The "Nordic Model" severely limits reality by ignoring male and transsexual prostitutes. In particular, transsexual sex workers who face other forms of discrimination are not considered by this model.

Interestingly, in countries such as Sweden and Norway, although prostitution is not recognized as a regular occupation, taxes are collected from sex workers on their earnings. The state thus benefits from prostitution in two ways: by penalizing clients and by taxing the income from sex work. Meanwhile, crimes against prostitutes often go unpunished. This seemingly contradicts the original intentions of the law.

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