The Nordic Model is touted as a way to abolish the sex industry without harming or criminalising sex workers. Under the Nordic Model, at least in theory, providing sexual services in exchange for money is not criminalised, but paying for sexual services or living off the earnings of another’s sex work are criminal acts.
In practice these laws endanger and even criminalise sex workers. Most industry groups, including the Scarlet Alliance in Australia, support full decriminalisation of sex work, as do the World Health Organization and the United Nations, because it has been shown to have the best worker health and safety outcomes.
Laws that criminalise living off the earnings of sex work are meant to prevent pimping but in reality they criminalise support networks and have even been used against sex workers.
These laws force sex workers to work alone, making it illegal to provide security or drive a sex worker in exchange for payment. Rather than being a pimp, a driver or security is often someone a sex worker has engaged to provide an extra level of safety while on the job. The same goes for engaging someone to handle the administration side of the work.
These people can be friends or co-workers or they can be people who do this as their career. Blanket criminalisation of living off sex worker earnings makes it harder and more dangerous for sex workers to do their job.
It makes renting out a property for the purpose of sex work illegal. This makes it more difficult for sex workers to rent suitable work spaces, reducing their options and leading to more outdoor work.
It also takes away the avenues available to sex workers if a tenancy dispute arises. If a landlord knowingly rents to a sex worker, they are breaking the law. If the landlord engages in unfair practices, the only avenue available is the police, and doing so will lose the sex worker their place of work.
Options like mediation or tenancy tribunals are not available if the rental agreement is illegal. This lets landlords who know that their tenant cannot lose their place of work by going to the police exploit them.
Prohibitionists claim the Nordic Model takes power away from the client and gives it to the sex worker, but in reality this is not the case. It is not a lack of laws that make it hard for sex workers to get legal justice against abusive clients — it is already illegal to commit sexual or physical assault. The barriers faced by sex workers in pressing charges and achieving successful prosecution of abusers stem from stigma and dehumanisation.
Laws criminalising all clients will not help this. Changes in attitudes towards sex work are what will give sex workers the power to achieve justice.
An alternative model that addresses violence against sex workers, without criminalising the purchase of sex or sex industry workers is the Merseyside Model, in which crimes against sex workers are classed as hate crimes.
The conviction rate for rape committed against sex workers has increased dramatically (up to 90% in 2009 and 67% in 2010 for reported crimes) in the parts of Britain that have adopted this model.
Of course, this model on its own is not enough and the statistics do not show how many sex workers were still not comfortable reporting rapes, but it is a model with proven results, that does not make sex work more difficult or riskier.
When clients fear arrest, and their arrest will lose the worker the money they need, sex works are forced to take measures that make the work more difficult and more risky.
Workers have complained of having to move around to avoid police detection, because no client will book them with police there waiting to pounce. This often means not working in better lit areas they know well.
They have complained about having to make the choice of whether to take the booking and get into the client’s car on the spot. When all sex work is decriminalised and clients aren’t under fear of arrest, workers have more time to talk to the client before deciding.
Decriminalisation also allows for the creation of safe houses, where outdoor workers can take clients for bookings, rather than doing the job in the car if the client has nowhere to take them. Not only is this a safer option, but with access to bathroom facilities and free condoms, dams and lube, it has health benefits too.
The Nordic Model is an example of ideology trumping real life. Whether you believe sexual services should be bought or sold, if you believe that the rights and safety of sex workers should be paramount then please listen to sex workers when we say that full decriminalisation is the model that best achieves this.