Prostitution and the Nordic model

10 min
Pic Prostitution and the Nordic model

A world without sex for sale

The model often referred to as "Swedish" or "Nordic" aims to ban prostitution. Its main instrument is the general criminalization of sex workers' clients, regardless of the conditions of sex work. Supporters of this approach emphasize that only the clients, not the sex workers, are punished, which is why it is also referred to as "punter punishment". Basically, it prohibits payment for sexual services rather than promoting fair pay.

In addition, this model criminalizes everyone involved in the prostitution environment, including renting places of employment and other intermediaries, as well as colleagues and private contacts. It leads to a deregulation of the prostitution sector, as the state no longer intervenes, and pushes the entire industry into the underground business.

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

A strong anti-prostitution movement is calling for the sex purchase ban and refers to itself as "abolitionists", although the comparison with 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 are also interested 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 up to the negative consequences and practical implementation issues. The ban is often presented as a panacea, although such simple solutions rarely exist. Critics of the model are often defamed, which makes open, democratic dialog difficult.

Facts on prostitution and the ban on buying sex

Prostitution has only shifted, not decreased: Many advocates of the sex purchase ban claim that prostitution in Sweden has decreased, although estimates vary. The fact is that there are no exact figures, especially as prostitution often takes place in secret. There are also no comparative figures before 1999, so no clear conclusions can be drawn.

While street prostitution is less visible, this does not mean that 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 take more risky actions. Customers expect more because they are taking a risk, which makes the situation more difficult for sex workers.

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

With regard to violence against prostitutes, there is a misunderstanding: just because they are not directly criminalized does not mean that they feel safer. Clients do not want to leave any traces, which leaves sex workers defenceless 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, which contributes 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 worrying to consider how the "Swedish model" is implemented in more corrupt countries.

Prostitutes are not "decriminalized"

In Sweden, prostitutes only receive support if they give up the profession for good and present themselves as victims. Other measures that could help prostitutes without quitting are considered to be encouraging prostitution. For example, condoms are seen as 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 work. Important information and services in the health sector are missing. The "Nordic model" was also introduced in France, but here too, exit programs only reach a 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. Prostitutes can also 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 involved 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 deports sex workers from other countries. The police often describe these migrants as a danger.

While EU citizens have the option to fight deportation and were successful 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 being deported for immigration law violations. In Sweden, the general view is that foreign prostitutes should be deported. The Ombudsman for Justice has described prostitution as a "dishonest" way of life that is indicative of 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 assumption that they might be prostitutes. Under the pretext of combating prostitution, this not only legitimizes racism, but also discrimination against sex workers and women who are seen as potential prostitutes.

Sex workers and all relevant organizations against sex purchase ban

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

The review of the law in Sweden has not yet produced any clear results. But there are indications 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 survey showed that about 47% of Norwegians and 54% of Swedes also want to criminalize the sale of sex. 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 is clear that the law is not leading to more respect for sex workers.

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

Harmful gender stereotypes

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

Although it often remains unspoken, the argument often suggests that prostitutes are traumatized, for example 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 traumas 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 have to 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 taken into account by this model.

Interestingly, in countries such as Sweden and Norway, although prostitution is not recognized as regular employment, sex workers are taxed 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 seems to contradict the original intentions of the law.

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