By Aishling Heffernan

In recent years, the Nordic Model has been found to be inadequate by the realm of academia. For example, LSE has published blogs about the claimed inefficacy of the model since 2014. You might know the Nordic Model as the Swedish Model, or the law that criminalises the solicitation of sex, but not the seller of sex. Oft-cited in these critiques is a study from Medecins du Monde, which claims that since the inception of the Nordic Model, in France in 2016 the sex industry has become infinitely more dangerous for sex-workers and prostitutes, inviting in more predatory clients with more violent demands and a lack of condom use. More specifically, the study by Medecins du Monde is detailed in the European Sex Workers Alliance research, and  in a released Questionnaire by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Tlaleng Mofokeng. Additionally, the report is covered by Nordic Model Now, an organisation campaigning for the institution of the Model.

The difference between the review of the Medicins du Monde study  between all three organisations (ESWA, the office of the Special Rapporteur, and Nordic Model Now) is found with the last source – NMN, who make the case that this study began at the time of the implementation of the model, and lasted barely two years. Here is what was published on the Nordic Model Now website about the study, in an article about the debate of Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill:

“The implementation of much of the approach is devolved to the local and regional administrations and there has been considerable variation in how thoroughly they have undertaken this, if at all. This was confirmed by the 2019 official assessment, which found that implementation was less successful where there was a lack of support for the approach from key high-level officials, including prosecutors and préfets. It seems that in some French regions there has been little or no commitment to prosecuting sex buyers and investing in services for women involved in prostitution – meaning that in practice the Nordic Model is not in operation in those parts of France. Yes, the Medecins du Monde study found that “sex workers” are exposed to violence, but there was no evidence to suggest that this had significantly increased or was a result of the Nordic Model. In fact, the official assessment did not find evidence of any increase in such violence.”

One of the most prevalent distinctions for those against the Nordic Model and those who are in support of it, is that those against the Nordic Model view it as a model against workers – for those who are, in some way, able to choose sex as work. For the ones in support, this is a model for those who have no choice in selling their bodies, their bodily-autonomy at the command of unregulated systems of power. When we look to the Nordic Model, we are not looking to redefine prostitution into a new career choice, we look to it to protect those that cannot protect themselves. How do we get a view into why this Model is so important when those of us in the liberal west have a barrage of messages directed at us about reasserting the autonomy and dignity of women as sex workers, as well as, the empowerment element of selling sex?

My reality is warped when I looked at the numbers released in 2008 by the International Journal for Equity in Health that 800,000 women and children (then) were trafficked across borders, with 80% ending up in prostitution. In Ireland, the “Turn off the Red Light” campaign in 2010 found that 500,000 thousand women per year were trafficked and forced into prostitution, with 89% stating that they wanted to leave, but have no other choice. Moreover, 11% of those trafficked in Ireland are under 18. Interestingly,  we see the same 89% figures reported by Nordic Model Now, which additionally states that 75% of women in prostitution had also experienced homelessness. This connection between poverty and prostitution is addressed again by Nordic Model Now in their review of Mac’s and Smith’s ‘Revolting Prostitutes: The fight for sex workers’ rights.’

Appropriately, the author, Anna Fisher, writes that: “When prostitution is accepted as a legitimate form of work, it inevitably becomes institutionalised as a form of welfare for single mothers and other women in poverty, and official motivation is lost for addressing women’s poverty and inequality through positive policy measures”.

The arguments against the Nordic Model often come with a request to fully decriminalise prostitution. The claim is that this model is the only way to truly protect either sex workers and or migrants. However, real life experiences point in the opposite direction. On 25 October, 2022, Chelsea Geddes, a survivor of the sex trade in New Zealand (in New Zealand prostitution is already decriminalised), made clear in a speech at a conference named: “Students for sale: Tools for resistance” that, when the sex trade is decriminalised and validated, it forces young women looking for jobs into an industry which promises glamour and reward, without any understanding of the brutal cost prostitution can incur.

Geddes was taken in as a homeless teenager by a known paedophile, who would abuse her and others, forcing her into sex with boys while recording it. By the time she was 15, he was already forcing her into prostitution. She detailed the ‘money management’ of her later work in a club:

“They were 12-hour shifts. The men paid $250, the club took their cut of $150. Then the club charged me a $40 shift fee, a $40 ad fee, and $20 for condoms and lube, making the first booking of the night a freebie, for which I was paid nothing. This is standard. There weren’t any friendly gentlemen. These were rapists. Even accepting that you had to have sex, they constantly pressured and forced more.”

She further relayed that: “In New Zealand brothels, under decriminalisation, police can’t help anyone. The men can do absolutely anything short of killing someone and nothing will be done”. 

Finally, and most relevant to the focus of this article, she stated the following :

I have been speaking out against prostitution since around 2009… I wish I could have stood and fought for my country to get the Nordic Model of prostitution reform which reflects the reality of prostitution as sexual abuse and exploitation, holds the abusers – the pimps, traffickers, and buyers – criminally responsible, allowing survivors to access justice, and provides support services to its victims rather than gaslighting them into thinking there’s something wrong with them because they don’t feel empowered when men violate them. But I was only 14 at the time of our prostitution reform in 2003.”

When I read Geddes’ speech, I was struck by the reality that her choice was taken from her by the ‘liberalisation’ of prostitution, reframed as sex work, long before she had a legal right to make her voice heard . It is of importance to remember that despite the first-hand accounts of Geddes, and activists like her, academics and human rights institutions are calling the Nordic Model into question in totality. But let’s pause for a moment, and continue into related, first-hand experience in Europe.

On EU Anti-Trafficking Day, the European Migrant Women’s Network Instagram account (in conjunction with the Coalesce project) posted a trafficking survivor story. In it, the survivor detailed the abuse she experienced at the hands of her house Madam in Italy, and how she was forced to sell her body to pay back the brothel for bringing her to Europe. She spoke about being raped at gun point, about getting pregnant from rape and about being forced to get an abortion – which she refused to do. She then decided to ran away from the Madam, and consequently became homeless.

Thankfully, the woman had a friend who she asked for help when her homelessness was close to leaving her cold and starved. It was a man who sheltered her until “the money stopped coming in”. She was still pregnant, and was forced to leave his house, ending up homeless again. Once more, she found herself “selling her body to raise money to leave Italy”. She decided to go to Germany, where she stayed at a camp before getting an appointment with SOLWODI – solidarity with women in distress. Her story is harrowing, SOLWODI acting as a bright spark in the events of her life. As the woman stated of her experience of making contact with SOLWODI: “they helped me in ways I cannot begin to explain”.

I have grown up in liberal spaces – spaces with the best of intent, I am sure, where they say that prostitution should be defined as work, and given the dignity it deserves. But Geddes, and this latter story are not ones that speak of choice, of consensual acts and renumeration that gives the worker a stable, safe and comfortable standard of living. People should have dignity regardless of gender, orientation, race or class, but when we live in a world where that is not a reality, what are we doing to protect the vulnerable who not only fall into the gaps left by well-intentioned liberals, but are thrown into exploitation with the full intent to take advantage of their more vulnerable states?

We need to take a minute to look at the current definitions of sex work and prostitution: The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM, for short) includes this definition of sex work, and sex workers, on page 7, in its document on ‘Safeguarding the human rights and dignity of undocumented migrant sex workers’:

“Sex work: refers to the exchange of sexual services (involving sexual acts) between consenting adults for some form of remuneration with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer.”

“Sex worker: refers to adults, aged 18 and older of all genders who receive money or goods in exchange for the consensual provision of sexual services, either regularly or occasionally. A sex worker may be the victim of abuse, but the term ‘sex worker’ is not used to refer to victims/ survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse who are not sex workers or would not identify themselves as such.”

The Open Society has this to say about the difference between the terms sex work, and prostitution: “The term “sex worker” recognises that sex work is work. Prostitution, on the other hand, has connotations of criminality and immorality”. 

In 2006, Ayers’ & Barber’s working paper ‘Statistical analysis of female migration and labour market integration in the EU’ speaks to this perspective issue (p.24) – the abolitionist position, which is feminist and sees prostitution as inherently violent, and the voluntary position, which sees the selling and buying of sex as consensual. Nordic Model Now also argues, with data, that prostitution is inherently violent. In their words: “Prostitution is inherently violent because, by definition, it involves unwanted sex. When both parties actually want sex, no one needs paying, because sex in those circumstances is its own sweet reward.”

After reading the accounts of trafficked and prostituted women, as well as reviewing the data that the Nordic Model publishes highlighting the glaring gaps between perspectives from those more obviously in privileged places in society (academia), it is of interest to look into a world, our world, in fact, where some of the largest names in European human rights work put their names in support of a coalition that seems to actually further disable the voices of the most vulnerable. The Nordic Model was not built for those with choice in work but for those without choice – and surely, these people need a different level of protection, one that simple labour laws and “technical support” cannot provide.