Why I reluctantly support the ‘Nordic Model’

I’ll start with an apology and a promise. The apology is to those who expect finance topics only – sorry folks. Click away and no hard feelings! The promise is to anyone reading who is upset or offended by any of the points or arguments raised below – I solemnly promise that everything I say below is written in good faith. I have no hidden agenda, I’ve no desire to upset anyone. I hope anyone who takes issue will choose to leave a comment explaining their objections – because I am genuinely interested to hear them.

For the uninitiated, the Nordic model is an approach to legislating sex work that criminalises buyers and brokers of sexual services, but not sellers. It is generally favoured by those who think that prostitution exploits vulnerable women, and is a form of sexual violence. It is opposed on two sides – by prohibitionists and various flavours of moral conservatives who believe that the whole activity ought to be ruled out of existence, and on the other by those who believe that it negatively impacts sex workers. For the sake of brevity, and because I am pitching this at the left / liberal readers, I want to focus on the latter group.

This group make many arguments that make sense to me. They say that:

– Criminalising the buying of sex forces sellers of sex to conduct their business privately and away from officialdom, ie, forces them underground. This has a negative impact on sex workers safety.

– Sex workers face economic hardship if demand for their services is impeded, leading to economic insecurity.

– Criminalising the act of purchasing sex, with only buyers being allowed criminal culpability, diminishes sex workers and reduces their agency.

– Many of those who advocate for the Nordic model believe that prostitution is intrinsically harmful and exploitative, which is offensive to those who choose it.

Until recently, I would have made at least the first 2 arguments and probably the fourth as well. I still believe that they are valid. However, their validity is limited in scope by the structural problems of sex work, and I’d like to explain why I no longer believe they stack up to a good case against the nordic model. I also want to lay out the evidence that would falsify my position – and invite those who disagree with me to provide it.

Firstly, let’s take sex worker safety. In a world without power relationships, where we are thinking about consenting adults entering into a commercial arrangement of their own free will, this is an entirely valid argument. Criminalising certain types of arrangements, on either side, will lead to those arrangements being made away from official eyes – and potentially increase the danger for both parties. However, this argument contains a seed of  a problem. Why is it that forcing prostitution underground is likely to increase the danger of the arrangement just for sex workers? Surely, if this is about regulating consenting adults entering into mutually agreed and beneficial arrangements, this going underground would endanger both sex workers and their clients? The argument admits to a power relationship. Sex work is dangerous. For it to be safe, recourse to law is required, and it is dangerous for sex workers not sex buyers. In this case, the a-priori assumption should be the party in danger ought have the recourse to law. This is the Nordic model. A sex worker who was the victim of assault would find it easy to shop the errant client.

This argument could easily be falsified by demonstrating that it the illegality of prostitution that puts sex workers at risk – not the activity itself.

Secondly, economic hardship. This I think is best addressed by turning again to the question of safety. Under the Nordic model, buyers of sex are no longer indifferent between purchasing the sexual services of someone who is being coerced, vs someone who is not being coerced. They have a strong incentive to seek out sexual services provided by someone who enjoys rendering them. If they fail to do this, they are likely to end up on the wrong side of the law. I have read critiques of the Nordic model claiming that it has made it very hard to make a living fro sex work. Equally, i have read critiques that it does not reduce the amount of buying and selling of sex. Neither appears to have much good evidence. However, given the incentives under the Nordic model, it’s clear that it’s by no means impossible to buy and sell sex, but it is imperative that the provider of sexual services you choose does not shop you to the authorities.

This argument could easily be falsified if there were evidence that people who wanted to become sex workers in countries applying the nordic model were not able to enter the sex industry.

The third argument I agree with, however I think that more fundamental questions of safety and liberty are at stake.

The fourth argument I also agree with to an extent, but again, I don’t think it matters relatively.

Both of these ‘dismissals’ could be falsified by providing evidence that negative attitudes to sex workers engendered by the Nordic model lead to material impacts on those people’s welfare.

I invite, as ever, your comments and criticisms! Some footnotes:

1. I have deliberately stayed away from using much empirical evidence, though I’d be delighted to be pointed in the direction of good evidence. Most empirical evidence on this topic is utterly flawed by:
– Selection or sampling bias
– Non-comparability of different regimes across countries/regions
– Self reporting biases

2. If you are reading this thinking, ‘How dare this person comment on sex work! They’re clearly not a sex worker, what do they know?’ I’d encourage you to consider that this may be a tribal response that you probably don’t apply in other areas of life.


4 thoughts on “Why I reluctantly support the ‘Nordic Model’

  1. R says:

    Good points. The idea that only sex workers can be harmed or that it is a delicate balance between being safe and being harmed during sex work leads nicely to the point about their always being a power dynamic. However, coercion is part of at least British law, it leans towards this model in that a buyer can be prosecuted for buying from a worker who was coerced or pimped, even if they didn’t know. It may be a symbolic law, but its there enough to be part of your argument.

  2. Socialite in the City says:

    You’ve never been mugged by a sex worker, have you? The clients tend to be desperate, and naked, often in unfamiliar environments controlled by the sex worker and/or their enforcement staff who often are the type you don’t want to enter a debate with if you want to finish the day alive. Not the best bargaining position, is it? Would be better for both parties if the business was above board so that whichever side gets a bad deal can have recourse to the law.

    Another angle is the homophobia issue: a well-founded argument against prostitution should work equally well in same sex deals as it does in straight ones, yet most of the abolitionists start from a straight and asymmetrical (and thus sexist) line which tends to become somewhat wobbly when you try to apply it in a non-sexist way.

    There’s also the absolute liberty point: let’s imagine an activity that is proven harmful for 99% of people who partake in it, is this enough to justify an absolute ban that also catches the 1% who do it in to the benefit of all participants? A more appropriate response here is to try to turn away the people for whom it is harmful, rather than throw away liberty in the process. The weighted average view of liberty is a slippery slope. Should people who buy derivatives be criminalised? They can hurt swap dealers!

  3. Well the derivs argument would work the other way, though I appreciate the cross post engagement! The market maker, one would hope, can be assumed to have greater market power as they’re the one standing a two way price which implies they believe they’ve got pretty good information. So really, one should criminalise the market makers if one is applying a nordic model approach to derivatives, it ain’t about who buys or sells, rather about who can be assumed to have the power.

    You’re correct to say I’ve never been mugged by a sex worker – nor purchased any sexual services for that matter. My post is written from a position of strict ignorance! I do agree with you about above board = legal recourse for both parties, my point was rather that pro legalisation advocates say that it’s for the protection of sex workers, not clients (for the most part), and I was trying to encourage some consideration of why that is.

    And yes there is the absolute liberty point. One can say the same thing about any contract or commercial arrangement from a financial derivative, to fast food workers, to bonded labour. Which of those contracts should be banned in which circumstances is not going to be a simple matter. I hope you agree there are a broad range of possibilities, and ‘legal or illegal’ doesn’t even start to cover it!

  4. Pingback: On Civility | Socialist in the City

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