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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

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