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Why we shouldn't criminalise sex workers' clients

Posted at 15:00 on 8 Mar 2021 by Pandora / Blake

Oh look, the Nordic Model is back.

Well, alright - it never really went away. It has recently been discussed in Parliament, though, in the form of Dame Diana Johnson’s ‘Sexual Exploitation’ bill. The second reading of this bill has been delayed, and (fingers crossed) won't ever happen. Criminalising sex worker's clients wasn't in the Conservative manifesto, and this was a Private Member's Bill, which often get dropped unless they're picked up by Government.

It's always alarming to hear criminalising clients being debated by politicians. Even if this particular Bill seems unlikely to get anywhere, it's unlikely this will be the last we hear of the idea. It's recently been legislated in both France and Irelant, and it gets mooted with alarming regularity by those claiming to want to help sex workers, despite the fact it will do nothing good for anyone working in the sex industry.

Let’s take a closer look at that, shall we?

What is the Nordic Model?

So named because laws like this were first introduced in Sweden and Norway, the Nordic Model is the idea that we should make it legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. This way, sex workers aren’t breaking the law - in theory, solicitation is no longer punishable - but their clients very much are. It can be described as a ‘carceral model’ because it relies on punitive measures such as incarceration being brought against clients and other third parties.

It’s said that this model "reduces demand". The idea is that if fewer people will be willing to seek out the services of sex workers, there will be less sex work going on overall - and this is seen as a good thing.

Why is the Nordic Model bad for sex workers?

Let’s imagine, for a moment, a woman. She’s a working-class single mother, with limited childcare options and little support available from friends and family. She needs to find a job that is flexible and pays enough to provide for her family. She doesn’t enjoy sex work, but she doesn’t hate it any more than she would hate working on a supermarket checkout. It seems to her that it’s her best option, because it’s more flexible and has shorter working hours than the other jobs she could get.

She solicits on the street and gets into her clients’ cars. Under the Nordic Model, she's not breaking the law by doing so. She knows however that her clients are breaking the law at great personal risk, so they won’t want to approach her in well-lit public areas. She has to go out of town, to work on poorly lit streets with little chance of being overlooked. She knows she needs to avoid standing with or near other sex workers, because most potential clients will be too nervous to approach what is clearly a group of women soliciting, in case anyone sees - so she’s on her own.

There’s probably a police presence of some sort regardless, as they’re on the lookout for clients to arrest. So her friends - including women whose immigration status relies on their having “legitimate employment” (sex work doesn't count under this model), women who have a substance dependency, women who are on parole, and women in any number of other vulnerable situations - are in far greater contact with police than they might otherwise be. This puts them at even greater risk.

When someone pulls up to the kerb to speak with her, he’s nervous and agitated - so she has to get into his car almost immediately, or else he’ll drive away. She doesn’t get a chance to negotiate her fees, her boundaries or her safer sex practices until she’s already in a vulnerable position with a strange man.

This strange man, of course, is someone who is comfortable with the idea of breaking the law in order to buy sex. Should this man steal from, assault, rape or otherwise abuse her, he will face consequences scarcely worse than the ones he has already shown himself willing to risk. Many of the more polite, respectful and law-abiding clients have already been scared off when buying sex was criminalised. And when she gets into his car on a dark road outside town, she's far more vulnerable to abuse than she would be without the Nordic Model.

A single client isn’t going to earn her enough money to cover everything she needs to pay for - so she has to keep doing this, over and over again. There are fewer clients around, and every other sex worker is in the same boat. Fewer clients, but just as many mouths to feed. So what happens then?

Well, like any business she has two main options when competition ramps up - she can diversify her services (perhaps by offering bareback, anal, oral without a condom), or she can lower her prices (thus fuelling a race to the bottom as everyone tries to remain competitive). Ultimately she’s probably going to need to do both of those things, regardless of the increased risk of STIs, the degradation of her personal boundaries, and the fact that lower rates mean she needs to find more of these clients to pay the bills.

So now she’s doing a larger quantity of less consensual and more dangerous work, and being paid less money for it to boot. Congratulations, Nordic Model; great way of protecting vulnerable women you've got there.

This woman is fictional in that I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular as I told her story, but she’s also not fictional at all. According to the ECP, most sex workers are adults and mothers, living in poverty but working of their own volition rather than being trafficked or pimped. This is a daily reality for thousands of vulnerable women in Sweden, Norway, France, Ireland, and other countries where this model has been adopted. It’s also very close to the lived experience of many women working under the so-called ‘Managed Approach’ taken in the Holbeck Zone in Leeds here in the UK.

Are street workers the only sex workers harmed by this model?

Not at all. In fact, not everyone who is harmed by this model is either a sex worker or a sex worker’s client.

Most iterations of the Nordic Model criminalise ‘third parties’ in addition to clients. This is usually intended to mean managers ('pimps') and people smugglers, but to cover all bases it ends up including everyone who has things paid for by money from sex work. People who can be tarred with this brush include: 

  • Any other sex workers with whom you share an indoor working space for safety reasons (either or both of you can easily be recast as brothel-keepers or pimps in the eyes of the law, and charged accordingly)
  •  The landlords of sex workers (this also makes it harder for sex workers to secure accommodation, and therefore puts them at greater risk from landlords who are financially, emotionally or sexually abusive)
  • The partners and adult children of sex workers (who may or may not be aware that their rent etc is paid for by money from sex work)
  • Anyone hired by a sex worker to help them out - such as an admin assistant, a driver, a bodyguard, a receptionist or a social media manager (note that these helpers are more important than ever in the increasingly dangerous working environment that the Nordic Model promotes. Note also that this group would theoretically include my own freelance team members)

The Nordic Model is extremely isolating for sex workers of all kinds. It forces us to operate alone, without the support of trusted third parties, and without any of the checks and balances that could keep us safe. It opens us up to additional avenues of abuse, on top of the abuses we're already at an increased risk of experiencing.

One response you might hear to this is that the Nordic Model should also provide easier access to ‘exit services’: organisations designed to help people leave sex work and find other jobs. They’re a good idea in theory, but in practice they don’t meet the needs of sex workers - instead they're far more likely to stigmatise and infantilise us.

Sex workers who access these services are usually treated as helpless victims in need of rescue. They’re found and offered jobs they probably already had access to - jobs that pay less than sex work does, that have inflexible hours or no support for disabilities and an individual's unique needs. They’re offered in-house counselling predicated on the idea that sex work is bad, mmkay. They’re frowned upon for turning down these offers, and generally treated as if they weren't rational adults making hard choices in an unforgiving world. Exit services of this sort do nothing but reduce the agency afforded to sex workers.

What can we do about it, then?

While it’s always on the horizon, the Nordic Model is not law here in the UK just yet. If you’d like to ensure that remains the case, please support the kinds of decriminalisation sex workers do want for our industry, and assist the organisations helping us in ways that are actually valuable to us. There are plenty of ways to do that.

Further Reading

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Tags: law, Nordic Model, sex worker, sex worker's rights

76 comments

SISEA: The Fourth Horseman of the Pornocalypse

Posted at 15:00 on 4 Jan 2021 by Pandora / Blake

Recently I published a post discussing the substantial change to Pornhub’s community guidelines which has seen millions of videos removed from the site, and Visa and Mastercard removing billing from PornHub during their investigation into illegal content, which will hit content creators hard.

In what appears to be a response to these changes - or perhaps to the anti-porn fearmongering that prompted them - an invasive bill has been put forward in the US Senate with extensive regulation proposals for adult sites. The bill - known as the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act (SISEA) - proposes regulations such as a requirement for platforms to operate a 24-hour telephone hotline that you can contact to request removal of a pornographic image if you haven’t consented to its upload, and remove flagged videos within two hours of such a request.

Tackling unconsensual images is important, but this bill would represent the end of online porn. The privacy implications are terrifying (a global database of individuals who have indicated they do not consent, accessible by anyone uploading porn? Really?) and the impact on independent porn sites would be devastating. Show me a single indie producer who could staff a 24hr phone line, because I don’t know any. The full list of restrictions that SISEA is looking to bring in is alarming. Most online sex workers rely on platforms like OnlyFans and Clips4Sale, and advertise on Twitter. It seems likely that OnlyFans and Twitter would stop hosting porn rather than comply with these expensive and burdonsome regulations; and platforms dedicated to porn might well lack the resources to comply. If the umbrella term ‘platforms’ includes indie self-hosted porn sites as well, it's the end of online porn as we know it.

I don’t say this lightly - if this bill gets through it's the end of porn on Twitter, and the end of fan sites, clip sites and membership sites. Sex workers are already being squeezed out of most social media spaces by commercial regulations making it harder and harder to advertise. Selling sexual content online is accessible, COVID-safe work. In a pandemic, destroying the online sex industry means taking much-needed income away from struggling individuals. The callousness is staggering. Do they want people to be mixing households by meeting clients in person, and putting themselves at greater risk of violence and arrest by selling sex outdoors, instead of performing in the safety of their bedrooms? Because that’s exactly what will happen with the introduction of this bill into law.

Even if SISEA doesn't pass, the threat alone is enough to put us in our place - as our governments desire so much. Porn creators are in an abusive relationship with financial institutions and governments. They can ruin us any time they care to -  and they like showing it. Bills like this remind us of our precarity, and it's humiliating.

In my sex positive online bubble, working hard to build my business, I sometimes forget that  much of the world thinks I should stop doing what I'm doing. This bill serves as an unwelcome reminder that the mood out there is hostile. 

It is absolutely essential to the health and diversity of our sexual culture, not to mention the survival of sex workers worldwide, that we prevent this from becoming law. If you're in the US, write to your senator - and I encourage you to donate to the Free Speech Coalition to support them in their battle against SISEA.

This isn't the happy tidings I hoped to start the year with. It's a timely reminder that porn censorship never goes away completely - it just recedes for a while.

This post was funded by my 110 Patrons. To power my activism and my writing on sexual freedom and social justice, join my Patreon community here

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Tags: censorship, Free Speech Coalition, independent porn, law, Porn Censorship, porn law, Pornhub, pornocalypse, SISEA

7 comments

The abuse of the "rough sex" defence

Posted at 13:03 on 5 Dec 2019 by Pandora / Blake

There's been some worrying stories going around about defendants in murder trials trying to get lighter prison sentences by claiming that the murder was just "rough sex gone wrong".

In New Zealand, 21 year old British backpacker Grace Millane was killed while on a Tinder date to celebrate her 22nd birthday. She messaged her friends to say she was having fun, but later that night her date killed her by "pressure to the neck". 

He told jurors it was an accident during consensual kinky sex. But after she was dead, he searched online for ways to dispose of the corpse - and then went straight out on another Tinder date. After Googling for large duffel bags, suitcases and car hire, he later shoved her body in a suitcase and buried it in the forest.

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Tags: BDSM, erotic asphyxiation, in the news, kink acceptance, law, media, violence against women

296 comments

Age verification faces ongoing delay

Posted at 11:30 on 22 Jun 2019 by Pandora / Blake

According to the Guardian, age verification "faces indefinite delay" due to bureaucratic incompetence:

"It is set to be delayed for legal reasons after government officials failed to notify the European commission of key details."

I shouldn't laugh, but this is comedy gold.

The massive privacy failings of this policy should have been a deal-breaker. Legislators should never have tried to regulate the internet by force of law when they don't understand how it works. Thanks to the tireless efforts of campaigners such as myself, Myles Jackman, Jim Killock, Alec Muffett and the rest of Open Rights Group, Backlash UK, Misha Mayfair and others, the threat that age verification represents to the privacy of internet users is well attested, and is now mentioned in any news coverage about the issue.

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Tags: age verification, AgeID, BBFC, DCMS, Digital Economy Act, Dreams of Spanking, in the news, law, legislation, MindGeek, Myles Jackman, Open Rights Group, porn, privacy

33 comments

Feminism, Sexuality & Obscenity at Housmans

Posted at 10:29 on 25 Jul 2018 by Pandora / Blake

I recently chaired a panel at Housman's Radical Booksellers in Kings Cross, discussing Feminism, Sexuality & Obscenity. This was a bittersweet opportunity. The event had been devised by journalist and author Catherine Scott, author of Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture. Catherine had just finish her second book, To Deprave and Corrupt: Obscenity Battles in British Law and Culture

Catherine organised this panel to bring together feminist thinkers, sex workers and activists, to discuss the issues facing women around sex and obscenity today. It was with great sadness that I learned that Catherine suddenly passed away a couple of weeks before the event.

Her friends knew how much she had been looking forward to the panel, and how much it meant to her. They felt that these were important issues that deserved a platform, and they wanted to honour her memory by making sure it went ahead.

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Tags: Catherine Scott, censorship, feminism, gender politics, Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, law, obscenity, politics, porn, Zak Jane Keir

3 comments

Sextech, Porn and the Law - event writeup and slides

Posted at 17:30 on 18 Oct 2017 by Pandora / Blake

The Regulatory Framework Controlling UK Porn - by Pandora / Blake

I very much enjoyed the SCL (Society for Computing and Law) event on Sextech, porn and the law last week. It was hosted by lawyer Neil Brown, and chaired by Daniel Cooper. There was a sizeable audience and four speakers in total; in addition to Neil and myself, Sarah Jamie Lewis and Dr Kate Devlin.

Dr Devlin kicked things off with an engaging talk about sex robots, one of her areas of research. She shared some of the hype and misinformation that the media tends to indulge in around sex robots, and why a lot of it is hyperbolic and sensationalist. She talked about what sex robots can and can't offer; including a preview of the Harmony bot which is being developed in California at the moment. Dr Devlin went to visit the lab working on this project, and she describes the robot as a beautifully crafted silicon sex doll with an animatronic face and a recorded voice controlled by AI. They've got an in-house AI team and the AI is apparently remarkably good; you can chat to Harmony. The robot head mounts onto the standard sex dolls, meaning the body is poseable, but doesn't move independently. Read Engadget's report on meeting Harmony here.

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Tags: anonymity, Dr Kate Devlin, events, law, obscenity, politics, porn, privacy, public speaking, queer politics, Sarah Jamie Lewis, sex robots, sex toys, talks

2 comments

Sextech, Porn and the Law - A glimpse into the future of sex and sexuality and its regulatory framework

Posted at 09:00 on 21 Aug 2017 by Pandora / Blake

I am delighted to have been invited to speak at an event in October, organised by the Society for Computers and Law (SCL), entitled 'Sextech, porn and the law - a glimpse into the future of sex and sexuality and its regulatory framework'. 

I shall be on a panel with the fantastic Dr Kate Devlin, Sarah Jamie Lewis and laywer Neil Brown, and the event will explore the technology of sexuality in detail including its history, current and future developments, privacy and security, and legal issues affecting production and sales. My talk will centre on how the legal framework affects the production and distribution of online pornography, with a focus on the new Digital Economy Act and its forthcoming policy of mandatory age verification. After the four talks there will be a Q&A session which provides an exciting opportunity to ask the opinions of some of the leading experts in this field. 

The idea for the event was prompted by the interest in Neil Brown's excellent article 'Sextech: sticky legal issues?' which talks about sex toys that have internet connectivity, and the resultant data collection, privacy and security issues; and about sex robots and the various ethical issues around them. I really recommend a read. 

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Tags: age verification, events, law, obscenity, porn, public speaking

6 comments

Discussion on the Digital Economy Bill in London next week

Posted at 21:00 on 4 Apr 2017 by Pandora / Blake

Open Rights Group

Next week I shall be speaking alongside Myles Jackman in a discussion with Martin Ashworth of ORG London (Open Rights Group), on the potential impact of the Digital Economy Bill and Age Verification on individuals in the UK. ORG London has over 1200 followers on Meetup, so hopefully this will be a well-attended event and will help to get the word out prior to the upcoming vote on the Bill.

If you're in London next Tuesday evening (April 11th), come along to Newspeak House in Bethnal Green to learn more, and to meet me and Myles!

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Tags: age verification, censorship, Digital Economy Bill, kink activism, law, Myles Jackman, ORG, public speaking

4 comments

Restricting niche porn sites is bad news for people with marginalised sexualities

Posted at 09:41 on 30 Nov 2016 by Pandora / Blake

Restricting niche porn sites is a disaster for people with marginalised sexualities - Pandora Blake for The Guardian

Last week I had an article published in the Guardian about the impact of the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill, and its proposed restrictions on online porn. You can read it here - Restricting niche porn sites is a disaster for people with marginalised sexualities.

The article has received over one and a half thousand comments - and I was pleasantly astonished to discover that the majority of them are sympathetic or supportive. It seems that many people share my outrage that the Government think it a worthwhile use of time and money to legislate what consenting adults do for fun - or think that this bill is a proportionate, workable answer to the problems emerging from young people's lack of sex education.

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Tags: age verification, BBFC, classification, Digital Economy Bill, Dreams of Spanking, ethical porn, feminist porn, Guardian, in the news, kink acceptance, Kink Olympixxx, law, media, Myles Jackman, Obscene Publications Act, obscenity, porn, protest

11 comments

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