Photo: flickr/Kaytee Riek

As Justice Minister Peter MacKay prepares to table new laws governing sex work, Canadians are hearing a lot about the Nordic model of prostitution policy. The Nordic model approach penalizes paying for sex while decriminalizing the sale of sex.

However, that’s just one meaning of the Nordic model. The other also indicates Scandinavian socio-economic policy in general: “the combination of a free market economy with a welfare state.” The Economist recently hailed this as the “next supermodel.”

Distinguishing between these two meanings of the term Nordic model is crucial to understanding sex work debates. Conservative politicians, some feminists and religious supporters are focusing on criminalization while ignoring these economic and social justice solutions.

What does this mean for sex work in Canada?

What are the opposing views of sex work?

Just as there are multiple meanings of the term “Nordic model,” there are divergent views of sex work:

  • Decriminalization advocates (or sex worker rights advocates) hope to emancipate sex work from the strictures of law. Decriminalization and harm reduction advocates tell us “there is no representative sex worker.”

Both perspectives have a place in this conversation because each addresses different aspects of sex work:

  • Abolitionists emphasize the terribly high incidence of violence, suffering and loss of life in prostitution, especially among survival sex workers.
  • Decriminalization advocates emphasize the diversity of sex workers’ experiences and their right to self-determination.

These opposing viewpoints correspond to contrasting policy approaches:

  • Individualist perspectives range from defining purchasers as the “root cause” of prostitution and punishing “johns” and “pimps” to citing the diverse experiences of sex work in arguments for decriminalization.

Given Conservatives’ promotion of individual criminal justice, perhaps the crucial question is: Why aren’t questions of economy and poverty more central to sex work policy debates?

More specifically, why are advocates for the Nordic model excluding its social welfare aspect?

Promoting criminalization and ignoring welfare 

The Conservatives began drafting Nordic-style legislation long before launching their public consultation on February 17; now they intend to table legislation imminently.

Was the consultation a genuine inquiry into Canadians’ views or an exercise to legitimate Conservatives’ forthcoming legislation?

Days after the consultation opened, the Chronicle Herald quoted MacKay: “Going after the perpetrators, we believe, is both legally and morally the direction we should take.” MacKay says the consultation has been “instructive“; however, according to sex work advocates, the instructions accompanying the consultation were biased in favor of criminal justice approaches.

A focus on criminal justice is consistent with intentions adopted at the 2013 Conservative Convention, which re-affirmed the illegality of slavery before endorsing “a Canada-specific plan to target the purchasers of sex and human trafficking markets through criminalizing the purchase of sex.”

In response, sex workers argue that these laws are dangerous, especially for those practicing the most precarious forms of prostitution: people who sell sex to survive.

Conservative MP Joy Smith has promoted the Nordic model since 2007, when she recommended criminalizing sex purchasers in “Connecting the Dots: A Proposal for a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.” The day the Bedford decision was announced, Smith issued a press release promoting the Nordic model:

The Nordic model of prostitution is effective due to its three approaches: explicitly criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, a national awareness campaign to educate the public that the purchase of sexual services is harmful to women and finally strong support programs for those who seek to exit prostitution.

On February 6, 2014, three organizations — EVE, Sextrade101 and London Abused Womens Centre — launched a postcard campaign to “criminalize buyers and pimps and decriminalize prostituted women.” The press release for this campaign says the postcards, financed by “the generosity of a private donor,” are addressed to Smith, “who will then deliver them to Justice Minister Peter MacKay.” Six days before the Conservatives’ prostitution consultation opened, Smith tweeted a picture showing off the first of the postcards she received.

The “Criminalize Johns and Pimps Not Women” postcard campaign represents the Nordic model in three demands, which echo Smith’s definition:

We entreat the government to follow the lead of enlightened countries like Sweden and other nations by implementing the three-pronged approach of what is called the Nordic model of law and social policy around prostitution:

1. Decriminalize persons being sold

2. Penalize buyers, pimps and procurers

3. Mandate robust funding for services to women to exit the sex industry.

It’s no surprise that the postcard advocates for decriminalizing sex workers and penalizing purchasers. It also makes sense that feminist and religious supporters want to fund exit programs because people who run exit programs are leaders in religious and feminist movements.

The real question is: Why do the postcards’ demands stop at exit programs? Why do they ignore the Nordic model’s broader commitment to social welfare? Why don’t they argue for investing in systemic economic support?

Why are Nordic model supporters avoiding economic approaches?

The bigger economic picture reveals one reason why Canada has a problem with survival sex work: Sweden and Norway spent nearly 29 per cent and 24 per cent of GDP on welfare in 2012, respectively; Canada spent just under 18 per cent.

Precise calculations are better left to economists, but for Canadians, this deficit amounts to trillions of dollars of absent support for people in precarious economic circumstances. The existence of survival sex work in Canada is a symptom of our failure to provide this support to people in poverty.

Six to eleven per cent of GDP is an expensive oversight, but what if that’s the real cost of preventing human suffering and harm?

In contrast, punishing “the johns” is convenient to the neoconservative imagination. Emphasizing individual purchasers’ demands is akin to “war on drugs” rhetoric. The role of dealers and addicts is now performed by pimps and prostitutes.

The war on sex work locates the cause of transactional sex in bad individuals, placing responsibility in men’s self-restraint and women’s risk-management. This individual emphasis obscures how survival sex work is a symptom of systemic poverty and economic coercion.

Nevertheless, Smith and her supporters exclude economic relief from Nordic model demands and downplay economic injustice in their rhetoric about prostitution.

A neoconservative approach is unremarkable from a Conservative MP, but what about feminists and religious advocates?

The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution‘s campaign for the Nordic model — “We Want More For Women” — launched on International Women’s Day 2013. Their announcement rails against prostitution for six paragraphs before finally mentioning “women’s substantive equality through community resources, guaranteed liveable income, opportunity for education, access to support, et cetera” — but this economic caveat merely sets up an abolitionist punch line: “NOT through the decriminalization of the sale of their bodies for profit.”

Feminist groups remain leaders in the struggle for women’s economic equality, but when it comes to sex work, some of these groups appear to be putting Nordic-style criminalization before economic solutions.

Meanwhile, Smith’s religious supporters hail her as a “Modern-Day Wilberforce” while Smith herself represents anti-trafficking initiatives to parliament as part of efforts “to abolish modern-day slavery in our nation.”

The rhetoric of prostitution-as-slavery continues in Saskatoon Pastor Tyrone McKenzie’s recent suggestion that “Everyone should have the right to sell themselves, but no one should have the right to purchase them.”

This despite slavery’s abolition in Canada in 1833, and against the objections of sex workers who argue that sex work does not entail selling one’s body or one’s person, but rather, selling sex — an action, a service, a profession: sex work as work. The slavery motif may compel moral crusaders, but it also obscures the economic and labor aspects of sex work.

The individual, the collective and the political economy of survival sex work

The Bedford decision mandated that new laws must “not infringe the constitutional rights of prostitutes,” but the SCC never precluded parliament from considering alternatives to criminal justice. Meanwhile, legal scholars Jula Hughes, Vanessa MacDonnell and Karen Pearlston argue for thinking “beyond the criminal law when developing advocacy approaches.”

Yet, Conservatives and abolitionists continue to downplay, if not ignore, economic options. Why do Nordic model advocates promote individual criminalization and rescue instead of collectively addressing poverty’s role in creating survival sex work?

Prostitution and sex work are complicated practices, and we should respect their variety and complexity. Some people choose sex work as a calling; some peddle sex as a business; others sell sex to survive.

Some sex work happens at the nexus of desire and opportunity; some sex work occurs in a crucible of desperation and poverty. Different kinds of sex work have their own lived experience and their own political economy.

Freely chosen transactional sex requires protecting people’s right to do as they please with their bodies and their lives. Survival sex may represent a small fraction of transactional sex, but it remains a pressing social problem demanding immediate attention.

In this context, exit programs are a both an urgent necessity and a symptom of our failure to protect people to begin with. Exit programs are invaluable for people who need to escape desperate circumstances, but like a band-aid, they are applied only after injuries have already occurred.

Survival sex work is too often a matter of life and death. Women who have perished or disappeared from Vancouvers Downtown East Side, or from British Columbia’s Highway of Tears, or from across Canada in less visible locations — including aboriginal women, sex workers and other precariously positioned people — deserved something better and sooner than rescue missions or exit programs. We all deserve safety in the first place.

As a matter of rights, people who choose sex work must be free to do so safely, and people who abhor this choice must be free to do otherwise. As a matter of social justice, people in vulnerable positions require the protection of the collective, and fulfilling that responsibility is one of the state’s primary duties.

Maybe this is why the Nordic welfare state is absent from Conservative and abolitionist rhetoric. Perhaps this trade-off, which ignores protection in order to promote punishment, is necessary to maintaining the carceral constituency of Conservative and abolitionists.

Whatever their motivations, by maintaining this oversight, Nordic model advocates advance an ongoing pattern of shifting responsibility for protecting Canadians onto individuals and private agencies. This neoliberal move is part of the problem.

Effective solutions for survival sex, and dangerous work in general, require significant social spending directed at eliminating poverty. Considering that millions of Canadians struggle economically — some of whom turn to trading sex for money — the neoconservative imperative to punish with one hand, while withholding social and economic support with the other, is tantamount to willful cruelty.

The Nordic model says, “We will sanction your legal source of income, but don’t worry — we have a program for you.” Unless the Conservatives have a great deal more to offer sex workers than exit programs, the Nordic model seems politically, economically and ethically perverse.

If we truly wish to go to the root of these issues, we must stop neglecting our inequitable economy. Instead of trying to eradicate sex work by punishing “johns” and rescuing “prostitutes,” we need to redouble our commitment to economic equality and work harder to abolish poverty.


Jason Congdon lives in Vancouver, works for Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, and tweets about sexual politics at @elfeministo.

Photo: flickr/Kaytee Riek