Honeyball has drafted a report recommending E.U. member states adopt a system known as the Nordic Model, which is currently in place in Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The model criminalizes buying sex, but legalizes selling sex, in theory treating prostitutes as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators. “According to the information we have from Sweden it actually reduces demand for prostitution, and if you reduce demand the consequence is that you reduce human trafficking,” she says.
If the report passes, it would not be legally binding, but Honeyball hopes it would help steer the debate in member states. France’s Lower House adopted such laws in December, and politicians in Ireland and the United Kingdom have also raised it as a possible way forward.
To countries with more repressive laws on prostitution and large religious or socially conservative communities, it may be a politically palatable first step. But no European country which has introduced a regulated sex industry – including Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland – is seriously considering rolling back to the criminalization of the client, although they are looking at ways to improve the laws.
One country that may amend legislation is Norway, held up as an exemplar of the Nordic Model. The new Conservative-led government is waiting for the results of an independent review in June before deciding whether to repeal the 2009 law banning the purchase of sex.
While the number of women selling sex on the streets initially decreased, social workers say they did not simply disappear. Some traveled abroad, while others started selling their services over the Internet. Bjørg Norli, director of Pro Sentret, which works with prostitutes in Oslo, says street prostitution is re-emerging, and under the current laws women feel more vulnerable than ever. Clients rush transactions to avoid detection, meaning women have little time to assess whether the client poses a danger. If they do have problems, they are unlikely to go to police out of fear they will then be monitored by law enforcement looking to catch buyers.
Behind Ghent’s windows, the heaters are on full blast as the women in their skimpy outfits negotiate via hand gestures with men bundled up against the cold outside. The going rate is €50 for 15 minutes, but a client may want more time, a lower price, or a special service. If a woman has misgivings, she just leaves the door locked and turns away. Zorha, a former civil servant from the Netherlands, says in a good night she will have sex with 25 men. It is not a life she particularly enjoys – she wants to open a restaurant – but when she found herself in debt a few years ago she decided it was her best option. She and other established Ghent sex workers worry about the new influx of younger women from Eastern Europe, who they say work long hours for cut-down rates.
The link between a regulated sex industry and human trafficking is unclear. While the first E.U. report on human trafficking released last year shows a high number of victims detected in the Netherlands, countries like Italy and Romania, where prostitution is illegal, also fared badly. Belgium, meanwhile, reported relatively low levels. Norway – not in the E.U. but included in the study – shows barely any change in the year before and after the law banning the purchase of sex. Similarly conflicting statistics exist in Sweden.
With a lack of reliable data, the debate often focuses on the moral rights and wrongs of sex as a commodity, with Honeyball’s report equating prostitution with “sexual slavery.” For many women working in the industry, being labeled mute victims of male aggression simply means their voices are excluded.
“[Politicians] don’t inform us when they are seeking to make our lives more difficult and dangerous,” says Catherine Stephens, a British activist with the International Union of Sex Workers. “There is nothing feminist about the criminalization of our clients and disregarding our consent.”
The ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution law is a myth.
Professor, University of Oslo.
Assistant Professor, Malmo University.
May-Len Skilbrei receives funding from the Research Council of Norway.
Charlotta Holmstrom receives funding from the Research Council of Norway.
The Conversation UK receives funding from Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Royal Society, The Wellcome Trust, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence, as well as sixty five university members.
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The “Nordic model” of prostitution is often heralded for being particularly progressive and woman-friendly, built on a feminist definition of prostitution as a form of male violence against women. France has moved to adopt a Nordic-inspired approach; policy makers are urging the UK to do the same. But the idea of such a model is misleading, and in no way tells the whole truth about what is going on in the region where it supposedly applies.