Paying for sex has been illegal in Ireland for two years. At the time of the law’s introduction, proponents insisted that the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, a version of “end demand” or “Nordic model” legislation, would decriminalise sex workers while targeting pimps and punters. Such are the claims of Nordic model lobbyists across the globe, and it’s with this idea in mind that paying for sex is now illegal in not just Ireland but Northern Ireland, France, Sweden, Norway and Iceland.
Last week, however, two young migrant women living in Kildare, Ireland – one of whom is pregnant – were jailed for nine months for being sex workers, on charges of keeping a brothel, although in reality they were simply sharing the space. This week two women from Killarney were similarly arrested for brothel-keeping. So much for “decriminalisation”. To date, just one client has been charged with paying for sex.
In Northern Ireland, where similar legislation has been in place since 2015, a Department of Justice commissioned study has found that only 2% of sex workers were in favour of the law. In France, since the implementation of the Nordic model, 70% of sex workers have seen no improvement, or even a deterioration, in their relationship with the police. In Sweden, sex workers have been spied on as they have sex with clients, strip-searched for condoms and, big surprise, are still not allowed to work together for safety.
None of this is unintended. Commenting on the law in Norway, an adviser to the ministry of justice told Amnesty: “No one has said at a political level that we want prostitutes to have a good time while we also try to stamp out prostitution.”
Talking about “decriminalisation” lends the Nordic model campaign a veneer of progressiveness that a more honest “stamp out prostitution” is lacking. It’s a good PR move. Sex workers are seeing their decades-long call for full decriminalisation make gains. In the UK, the Royal College of Nurses has just voted to back decriminalisation, joining organisations like Amnesty International and the World Health Organization. On Monday, a ground-breaking bill for decriminalisation was introduced in New York, following DC, Maine and Massachusetts. Mexico City announced plans to fully decriminalise sex work just this month. A decriminisation bill has passed its second reading in South Australia.
Sex workers’ demands are clear, but in the media – aided by “end demand” lobbyists – there is confusion. In February, US Senator Kamala Harris gave an interview to the Root. A slew of headlines followed suggesting that the former prosecutor and voracious advocate of police crackdowns on prostitution “supports the decriminalisation of sex work”. In the UK, MPs like Labour’s Sarah Champion, who represents Rotherham, water down their message in similar terms, as do lobby groups like Nordic Model Now. Decriminalisation has become a buzzword.
The Nordic model is not, and never will be, “decriminalisation”. When paying for sex is illegal, sex workers’ bodies become the scene of a crime. A criminalised industry is a stigmatised one, and sex workers are already at the sharp end of hate-fuelled violence – as women, as trans people, as migrants, as prostitutes. The end goal of the Nordic model is to eradicate the sex industry. Fair enough. But we’ll get there by providing better employment and lifestyle options for people, not by criminalising the ones we have. When the central tenet of legislation is to eliminate prostitution by means of policing and prisons, it’s ridiculous to argue that sex workers will not be targeted. It does nothing to look at the societal factors that lead to people becoming sex workers.
Supporters of the Nordic model have no right to claim they advocate decriminalisation. It’s as misleading as anti-abortion lobbyists who situate themselves as “pro-life”. If we care about the lives of sex workers, then putting any aspect of their work on the wrong side of the law is dangerous.
• Frankie Mullin is a freelance journalist. She is part of the English Collective of Prostitutes, and the Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement