By Julia M. Hodgins
Regarding the oldest profession in history, policymakers face a central dilemma: are sex workers criminals or not? Is this profession legal or not? Around the world, some countries legalised and tried to regulate sex work by implementing control over sex trade venues in terms of formal operation and taxes, enrolling sex workers in programs controlling sexually transmitted diseases, and demarcating neighborhoods, being the most emblematic the Netherlands which in 2000 lifted the brothel ban. Kathryn Pataki argues that this policy has not, however, fixed the social stigma that perpetuates a double vulnerability effect: risking sex workers’ integrity outside their workplaces, and placing them in an asymmetrical relationship with their clients within that.
Regulations and policies, however, fail to address the key issue around which the industry is articulated: the demand for paid sex. Similarly, these policies perform an unintended structural abandonment of the vulnerable actors in that industry: the sex workers themselves. This perspective, adopted by Sweden in what is called the Nordic Model, brings a dramatic shift on the perceptions of who the perpetrators are and how to punish them, in a way that has led to (a) the protecting of the vulnerable actors; and (b.) disarticulating networks of abuse. This article addresses the question by contrasting the traditional standpoint about the legality of prostitution to the Nordic Model, explaining how the latter constitutes a replicable pathway.
The discussion about sex trade is complicated by the plethora of legality scopes. Excepting Nevada, sex work is illegal within the United States, punishing sex workers even if as a misdemeanor. The United Kingdom – and other European countries – limit the legality of sex trade based on age of consent, and control venues. In some cases, the organisation of sex trade is overseen as there are gaps in the jurisdictional law; for example in Canada since late 2014 it is legal to sell sex, but soliciting or organising it is illegal. In Peru, trading sex for money for over-age adults (18+ years old) is legal at a national level, though Lima’s bylaw overlaps by demanding the sex worker to carry a Sanitary Certificate. Also, when charged in an under- age court for breaking the Peruvian law, sex workers under 18 build a criminal record, while they are often controlled by pimps. This unseen inequality harms the vulnerable actor, the sex worker.
Sex workers take the legal burden of this business while being the less powerful ones in the unequal relationship with those who truly reap the profits. The stakeholders who do – legally or not – are those commodifying the workers: traffickers (i.e., dealers, pimps) and clients; therefore, they control sex workers’ lives, income, and legal and social stand. Also, this “business” is often connected to larger networks of human trafficking, child pornography, and other forms of abuse, facilitating its perpetuation. Traditionally, pimps and clients may not be liable for the most part since they are not selling sex. Also, traffickers may get away with child abuse when the latter’s presence goes unseen. The powerful stakeholders of this business, which resembles slavery, are generally less – if at all – punished, and obtain what they want, legally or not: sex for clients and profit for pimps. Meanwhile, the less powerful ones (sex workers) pay the social cost of the business, turning sex trade into the oldest oppression in the world.
The question of legality – that traps the person in a vicious cycle of prosecution, accusations, and condemnation – fades away when facing this crude and heartless reality. It seems reasonable that legalising prostitution in this context strengthens the dependence between workers and pimps, favoring the business for the latter, as observed by some analysts. Also, when the debate centers around the potential criminal condition of the sex worker, the discussion turns legal and thus further dehumanises the personal struggles against socioeconomic conditions, as well as de-emphasising the coercive power relations that stakeholders hold over those persons. The use of the plural form persons is purposeful, to perceive these individuals as humans by focusing on the pain they endure.
The system of regulation and legalisation implemented in Sweden, termed the ‘Nordic Model’, addresses many of the issues within the current debate. It places sex workers as victims of the abusive system, from which a small group of mighty stakeholders’ profits without being indicted. This new view legalises selling sex – but criminalises paying for sex – whilst simultaneously providing the victims with resources to overcome the abuse they have gone through, such as housing, training, and support. The goal is to help them exit the system that has them trapped, which they could not otherwise leave unharmed. After implementing the new perspective through policies, structural changes, re-education actions, new procedures, and systems, results show it is a win-win for both society and sex workers.
A feminist premise lies at the foundation of the Nordic model: sex trade is violence against women, and results from gender and power inequality. Under this perspective Sweden has developed a comprehensive set of sensitive policies and regulations, articulating official actors – police, social workers, prosecutors – into rescuing vulnerable persons and punish oppressive stakeholders. After 20 years, the results speak for themselves. Sex trade has seen a serious decline, buying sex cases have reduced to close to a half; and, it has become so shameful that offenders (“buyers”) prefer to plead guilty and pay the fine instead of going to trial. Moreover, the homicide of prostitutes in Sweden was zero in 2015 and one until 2018 by her ex-partner, while Germany – where sex trade is legal – registered ninety-one murdered plus forty-eight attempted murders between 2002-2018, either by pimps or by buyers.
The model raises a concern of under reporting as 0.8% of men in Sweden admit having purchased sex, as compared to twenty per cent in the USA (at July 2020 Sweden’s population was 10,202,491 while USA was 332,639,102). Also, the Swedish Association of Sexuality Education considers that the model increases the stigma, which leaves the sex worker in a more vulnerable position. Although the system is not perfect, by putting the human stories harmed by sex trade at the center, Sweden has achieved to revise the matter of prostitution structurally, disbanding the vicious cycle that traps vulnerable persons. Also, by punishing the sex consumer and the “dealers”, the opportunities for a small group of powerful stakeholders to control, illegally, the lives of sex workers are lessened, as well as international networks of trafficking.
Adopting and replicating the Model stirred the debate into new terrains, about the right of consenting adults who freely choose sex work, though is still unresolved, the counts of murdered sex workers decline.
The article’s question is answered: Prostitution does not need to be questioned as legal or not. It needs to be attended as the dramatic reality trapping persons due to structural drivers, including coercion. The real crime is, rather, exploiting that vulnerability to satisfy lust and greed. The Nordic Model provides an innovative, empathetic, and effective policy approach to sex trade, worth to replicate. Despite not being ‘perfect’, it has provided solid results in terms of safety for the sex workers and decrease on both, prostitution and trafficking networks, by addressing the key element: the demand.
Julia is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, holds a BA-Honors in Sociology concentrated in Social Research, has lived and worked in South America and Canada. Julia is a volunteer radio producer and an active member of feminist collectives. Her current interests are social equality, decolonization, gender security, cybersecurity, and strategy.