An article was published recently in The Independent looking at the Nordic model in Sweden. The journalist, Joan Smith, took a ride in a squad car to see how a model wherein the buyer is criminalized and the prostitute is decriminalized actually worked. What she found will likely be met, by any progressive, intelligent, feminist person, with a resounding “Duh.”
Of course the cries of “uptight!” “freedom!” “choice!” “meandmydick!” will likely continue, regardless of facts, because North Americans have their hearts set on buying into ridiculous and illogical notions of liberty that imagine sex and SUVs to be some kind of human right. But here’s how it actually works:
Smith and the squad car pull up to a car park at the top of a hill where johns tend to go with prostitutes. She writes:
What happens next is a textbook example of the way Sweden’s law banning the purchase of sex works in practice. The driver of the car, who’s brought a prostituted woman to the island to have sex, is arrested on the spot. He’s given a choice: admit the offense and pay a fine, based on income, or go to court and risk publicity. The woman, who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.
So, dude pays a fine and the woman is offered alternatives without pressure. OPPRESSION!
It’s so obvious it makes your head spin. Some of the most progressive, egalitarian countries in the world have adopted this model and it’s working. Meanwhile, those who’ve opted for legalization or those like Canada and the U.S. who continue to treat prostituted women like criminals while offering them few alternatives, flail.
Julie Bindel points out that the only thing the Dutch government’s 12 year experiment with legalization succeeded in doing was to increase the market. The illusory labour-based approach, put forth by confused lefties, wherein prostitution is imagined to be “a job like any other” hasn’t worked either:
Rather than be given rights in the ‘workplace’, the prostitutes have found the pimps are as brutal as ever. The government-funded union set up to protect them has been shunned by the vast majority of prostitutes, who remain too scared to complain.
Under the “labour” model, assault and rape is no longer violence against women, but “an ‘occupational hazard’, like a stone dropped on a builder’s toe,” Bindel writes. There’s simply no reason for police to charge men for doing something they feel they are legally entitled to do. Without reeducation and training, which is a key aspect of the Nordic model, the police are unlikely to change their attitudes towards marginalized women, prostituted women, and, more generally, with regard to women’s human rights.
Those who argue that prostitution is dangerous due to “stigma” turned out to be wrong too, as Bindel reports: “Only 5 per cent of the women registered for taxation, because no one wants to be known as a whore — however legal it may be.” The stigma remains, as does the exploitation.
In 2009, the police had to shut down a large number of brothels in Amsterdam’s red-light districts due to organized crime having taken over.
Under legalization, trafficking increased, organized crime moved in, and women have continued to be abused and degraded. Is this the “liberation” we’re looking for?
Talking about sex work as work doesn’t help women. It doesn’t help women leave the industry, it doesn’t create gender equality, it doesn’t stop the violence, and it doesn’t destigmatize prostitution. Reframing legalization as ending the “stigma” has not only been shown to be untrue, but it distracts us from the reality that violence and inequality doesn’t happen because of stigmatization — it happens because of male power and systemic injustice.
Detective Superintendent Kajsa Wahlberg, Sweden’s national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings, is quoted as saying: “The problem is gender-specific. Men buy women.” Which is why a feminist approach is needed. And, as of yet, the only legislation that is specifically feminist in nature is the Nordic model.
Smith writes that prostituted women who come to Sweden from the Baltic states or Africa, who have sold sex in other countries say “they’re much more likely to be subjected to violence in countries where prostitution has been legalized.”
Men in Sweden, on the other hand, are afraid to commit violence because they know the women they are buying sex from have more power in the situation than they do. They know they will be charged if the woman calls the cops and so they behave better.
Crime statistics show that trafficking has decreased since the Nordic model was enacted in Sweden. Places like Victoria (Australia), where prostitution has been legalized since the 80s, adopted the model in order to “contain the rampant growth of the highly visible brothel and street prostitution trade, eliminate organized crime, to end child prostitution and sex trafficking, and eliminate harmful work practices.” Instead, what’s happened is that “Victoria has created a two-tiered system—a regulated and an unregulated prostitution industry.” There are minimal exit programs for women who want to leave the industry (perhaps a moot point for legalization advocates, as the whole idea of exiting services seems to exist in opposition of the “job like any other” mantra — because what other, just, you know, “jobs” require therapy and exiting services in order to quit? The military, perhaps?), illegal brothels are rampant and trafficking has increased.
These facts fly in the face of the argument that criminalizing buyers will drive the industry underground. It seems that, in fact, legalization encourages the “underground” (illegal) industry. It’s no coincidence that those who wish to operate illegally or as part of a “black market” flock to countries where prostitution is legal.
There is, in fact, zero evidence that shows that criminalizing johns has driven prostitution underground. Under the Nordic model, there’s also absolutely no reason why, if prostitution is “underground” the cops wouldn’t be able to find these industries: “If a sex buyer can find a prostituted woman in a hotel or apartment, the police can do it,” one of the detectives Smith interviews says, “Pimps have to advertise.” Because the police have the resources and a vested interest in charging the exploiters, they have reason (and the support) to look for them.
In South Auckland, NZ, where prostitution has been legal (fully decriminalized, meaning that running a brothel, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are all legal — which is what some are advocating for in Canada) since 2003, street prostitution has increased dramatically and recent reports show child prostitution is on the rise. Just like in Victoria and Amsterdam, illegal prostitution has increased.
In contrast, since the Nordic model has been in effect in Sweden since 1999, street prostitution, organized crime, trafficking, and pimping have decreased. The country also has strong social safety nets and exiting programs for women who want to leave the industry.
In a recent debate about the legalization of prostitution, hosted by New Internationalist Magazine, human rights lawyer, Diane Post begins her argument by saying:
Legalized prostitution cannot exist alongside the true equality of women. The idea that one group of women should be available for men’s sexual access is founded on structural inequality by gender, class and race.
As far as equality goes, there’s no argument here and we need to stop pretending there is. Prostitution doesn’t promote the status of women. Societies and countries that have been shown to be progressive, egalitarian, and “sex positive” (like Iceland, a place that has a much more open-minded and “liberal” approach to sex and sexuality than the U.S.) are also societies that have adopted legislation that works towards an eventual end to prostitution, supporting the women who are in it in the meantime, and teaching men that buying sex isn’t acceptable. It’s no strange coincidence that Iceland, which ranked first place in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, has also banned strip clubs, is considering a ban on hardcore pornography online, and has adopted the Nordic model.
The argument for the legalization of prostitution is largely about individual rights. But we do, sometimes, have to choose between prioritizing the rights of certain individuals and building an equitable society.
The popular position among some American feminists and progressives is to pretend as though prostitution is simply something open-minded people do “on the side” for kicks. This is to pretend gender, race and poverty don’t factor in. But prostitution isn’t merely a “zoning” issue. It isn’t, either, about fashion. To these people, I point you to commentary from Margriet van der Linden, chief editor of the feminist magazine, Opzij, who said, in left-liberal daily De Volkskrant:
The daily practices of prostitution are portrayed as a romantic world full of mistresses with fishnet stockings and jovial laughs who embody the liberal values of the Dutch, and complaints ring out about the spread of narrow-minded bourgeois values. But not a word is said about the current legislation that has been such a disaster and has contributed to the shocking figures according to which approximately seven in ten prostitutes are victims of violence.
Prostitution hurts some individual women and benefits some individual men. But it is also part of, as lawyer, Gunilla Ekberg says, “a structure reflecting and maintaining inequality between men and women.”
Post points out that “the answer to poor jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions for women is not to consign them to a lifetime of abuse.”
“There is no alternative,” is, after all, what conservative British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said. The response from the left has always been that, indeed, there is an alternative, and we’re going to fight for it.