Prostitution Policy and Law: What are the Options?

This article looks at legal and policy approaches to prostitution and why the Nordic Model is the human rights and equality-based approach. 

We’ll look at five possibilities – two of which, Health & Safety and Harm Reduction are policy approaches, and three – Legalisation, Full Decriminalisation and the Nordic Model – are legal models.

We’ll start with Health & Safety.

Many people argue that prostitution would be safer if it came under Health & Safety. But in any other occupation where there’s a risk of exposure to body fluids, you have to wear masks, gloves, goggles, and protective clothing, like the dentist in the picture.

Condoms slip and break, and punters refuse to wear them. And they don’t protect from saliva, sweat and other body fluids. Or from injuries and inflammation caused by friction, and prolonged and heavy pounding. Or from the psychological damage or deliberate physical violence.

Health and safety standards require employers to rethink working practices to eliminate unreasonable risk. Given the level of damage to those in prostitution, this would require participants to wear full protective clothing and the prohibition of any intimate contact. This would, of course, change the nature of prostitution itself.

When it’s not possible to make work safe, industries that are not essential are closed down – like the asbestos industry was closed down.

Next we’ll look at legalisation.

This photo shows Eddie Hayson, an Australian brothel owner, who’s in favour of legalisation, because it redefines him from a pimp to a respectable business man.

We’ll use Germany as a case study. Germany legalised prostitution in 2002.

Prostitution is now big business and generates large tax revenues for the government. There are about 3,500 registered brothels and large numbers of smaller unregistered ones in neighbourhoods throughout the country.

Advertising is almost everywhere. Although it’s prohibited in some areas, that doesn’t stop advertising trucks driving through and parking.

Prices have dropped. It’s now an average of €30 for sexual intercourse in a brothel and €5 on the street. The women must pay around €160 a day for a room in a brothel plus €25 a day in taxes. This means they have to serve six men before starting to earn any money for themselves.

Practices are becoming more dangerous with less protection for the women. There are “menus” where men can choose what they want from a long list, which includes things like anal fist fucking, group sex, man shits on woman, two men to one woman, and flat-rate “all you can eat” deals. There’s now even a demand for pregnant women, who have to serve up to 40 men a day, right up until they give birth.

Mega-brothels cater for up to 1,000 men at a time, and about 1.2 million men buy sex every day. Germany is now a sex tourist destination. Buses transport men from the airport directly to the mega-brothels, like the one shown here.

Police estimate there are half a million women in prostitution in Germany, of whom only 44 are registered. Most of the women come from poor communities in Eastern Europe, many trafficked.

Women are shipped from town to town, because men want “fresh meat.” They live in the brothels, eat and sleep in the same room they serve the punters.

They live under constant fear: of violent punters, of not earning enough to pay the daily fixed costs, of getting sick, of getting pregnant, of the police, of the pimps, of the competition…

A police inspector says the law has made Germany an Eldorado for traffickers, pimps and brothel owners.

This photo is of a brothel in Germany next to a McDonalds. Notice the larger than life-sized photos of semi-naked women – with surgically modified breasts – in pornified poses. No one can avoid seeing them.

Consider what this means for girls growing up, seeing such images. And what about boys? How would it affect them?

Is equality between the sexes possible in such an environment? Is the idea of equality even possible?

Ellen Templin, a dominatrix, explains how legalisation has changed things:

“Since the reform, adverts are more uninhibited, buyers more brutal. Now, if you say, ‘I don’t do that,’ they say, ‘Come on; don’t be so difficult, it’s your job.’

“Before it was forbidden to demand unprotected sex. Now, they want to piss on your face, do it without protection, do it anally or orally. Before, buyers still had a guilty conscience. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Dr Ingeborg Kraus, a clinical psychologist specialising in trauma says:

“The German model is producing hell on earth. The lives and rights of the women are sacrificed, but for what? Are they defending our democracy? Is it to protect our land from invasion or terrorism? No, these women are sacrificed so that some men can have sex whenever they want.”

Two journalists concluded that the intention to improve the position of prostitutes through legalisation has in fact achieved the opposite.

“Women have become a resource, to be used as efficiently as possible for profit.”

Many people say of course we don’t want what has happened in Germany. It has legalised prostitution – which means it’s subject to regulations. The solution, they say, is full decriminalisation, like they have in New Zealand.

Full decriminalisation means that the sex trade, including its pimps, brothel keepers and profiteers, are decriminalised and taken outside regulation – more or less.

And pimps and brothel owners, like John and Michael Chow shown here, are regarded as respectable businessmen.

First let’s note New Zealand’s geographical location. Unlike Germany, which is in the heart of Europe, New Zealand, a country with a population of only about 4.5 million, is uniquely isolated. It’s nearest neighbour is Australia and on the other three sides is the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Since the law changed, New Zealand has also become a sex tourist destination. However, its isolation and the expense of getting there, mean numbers are relatively low. Were New Zealand situated in Europe, no doubt numbers would be closer to Germany’s.

New Zealand changed the law in the middle of 2003, when the Prostitution Reform Act (known as the PRA) was passed. Before that, soliciting was illegal, along with pimping and brothel keeping; and police violence and corruption were common. But within those constraints the women were able to negotiate their own deals with punters, and maintain clear boundaries, including banning kissing and not using condoms.

This all changed after the PRA. Brothels set the price through “all inclusives” and prices fell. Men started expecting more, including anal, kissing, and no condoms. Where before the men paid for the act – direct to the woman – now they pay the brothel, by the hour or half hour, and they expect whatever they want as many times as possible within that time.

Although police violence is now less common, women seldom report pimp and punter violence to the police.

People campaigning for the PRA wanted to improve things for the women – to give them more power. But just like Germany, this hasn’t happened, and in fact it’s had the opposite effect. More power has gone to the pimps and punters.

Local authorities have some control over where the larger brothels are sited but not the smaller ones that are classified as “Small Owner Operated Brothels” (or SOOBs). This means that residents have no say about them opening up in their local area.

Think about the impact of having a brothel on your street or on the other side of the shared wall in your block of flats. Would you want punters in your street or the communal stairs of your block while girls are returning from school?

There’s been an expansion in the number of SOOBs, and in practice many are run by pimps.

SOOBs are excluded from the official brothel data, which therefore gives a distorted view of the reality.

Since the change in the law there’s been a significant rise in reported rape, sexual assault and other male violence against women and girls in the general population. This is not surprising given there’s been an increase in the amount of prostitution, and what we have seen about how it makes men more prone to sexual violence.

This chart shows the New Zealand government’s publicly available crime data for reported rapes and serious sexual assaults. It shows a significant upward trend at a time that most other crimes were decreasing.

Prostitution did not exist in New Zealand before the arrival of the white man in the mid-17th Century. Everywhere Europeans went in the world, they took prostitution with them. And it was an intrinsic part of the colonisation process – alienating the indigenous men from the indigenous women, and making it harder for them to unite in resistance.

Māori and Pacific Islander women and children remain disproportionately represented in prostitution in New Zealand, many as trafficking victims. The PRA has failed to stop this.

It’s also failed to stop the prostitution of children, which remains a major problem. Let’s hold the reason for this firmly in our minds. It happens because men are willing to pay to rent children to sexually use and abuse.

Mama Tere Strickland, a community worker, said: “At least the old law kept a lid on the numbers, but with no law on the streets, the pimps and gangs have moved in.”

The children typically have a background in family violence and sexual abuse.

Rachel Moran was prostituted in Ireland for seven years from the age of 15. She’s written about her experience, including a best-selling memoir, “Paid For.”

She spent time answering brothel phone lines, and says one of the commonest questions was, “What age is the youngest girl you’ve got?” This has been confirmed by other women, such as Jacqueline Gwynne, who was a receptionist in an Australian brothel.

Rachel says:

“When I was fifteen I was FAR more in demand than I was at twenty-two, even though at twenty-two I was slim, pretty, and an extremely youthful woman; but therein lay the problem. I was a woman.”

Legalisation or full decriminalisation doesn’t change the fact that what most punters prize most highly are the youngest and least experienced girls.

Let’s take a few moments to look at the connections between child sexual abuse and prostitution.

We saw earlier, that studies of women in prostitution invariably find that a large proportion were sexually abused as children. Rebecca Mott has talked about the club where she was first prostituted at the age of 14. There were many underage girls there, but the pimps were looking for a particular type of girl: the type of girl who hates herself; the one who’s already been broken; the one who thinks pleasing others is all she’s good for.

Artwork by Suzzan Blac.

But here’s the thing: It works the other way too. The dynamics of prostitution mirrors the dynamics of child abuse.

Rebecca Mott says:

“Punters don’t think the violence they do is real – because they view the women as sub-human. So it’s nothing happening to nothing.”

Neurological science shows that repeated experiences change the organisation of the brain. The more we do something, the stronger the effect. This means that the more a man buys women in prostitution, the more his sense of entitlement is reinforced, and the more his empathy for women and children is eroded. So eventually these attitudes colour all his interactions with women and children. And this weakens the mental barriers to sexually abusing children.

So to summarise, what happens when a country legalises or fully decriminalises the sex trade? In practice, there are more similarities than differences between the two approaches. Both legitimise and normalise prostitution, which invariably leads to an increase in the number of punters, and of women and girls drawn into it, and of profits for pimps. This leads to more sex trafficking.

Power tends to move further from the women to the pimps and punters, so prices drop, and unprotected and dangerous behaviours increase.

The status of all women is diminished, and there’s typically an increase in rape and male violence against women and children in the general population.

Now we’ll look at the harm reduction approach. It’s based on the idea that prostitution’s inevitable and it just needs a few measures to reduce the harm involved.

The National Ugly Mugs organisation epitomises this approach. They keep a register of punter attacks and circulate them with the aim of helping women identify and avoid bad punters (the “ugly mugs”). They also help women report incidents to the police.

There’s obviously some merit in this. However, the approach is based on the “bad apple” theory – that there’s nothing wrong with the system itself, there are just a few bad apples. But as we have seen, prostitution is inherently violent, coercive, and dehumanising, and can never be safe.

It’s noteworthy that Steve Wright, a punter who killed five prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, would not have been recognised as an “ugly mug” – because the women didn’t live to report him.

Another “harm reduction” approach is to provide safety tips, like these ones.

Notice the tip to tie up long hair. A number of jobs make you do that – for example, kitchen work. But which job makes you to tie up your hair so men can’t use it to drag you along with?

On first sight, “harm reduction” is laudable. But the more you look at it, the more it starts to look like harm perpetuation. It uses up resources that could be used for exit and education programmes. By appearing to make things better, it tacitly accepts the continuation of an inherently harmful practice. People in the sector seldom, if ever, question a man’s right to buy sexual access to women – no matter what the cost to those women and the community.

Most “harm reduction” organisations in the UK are campaigning for full decriminalisation like they have in New Zealand.

And like the decriminalised zone in Holbeck in Leeds, where prostitution can operate without fear of police attention between certain hours.

It was given the go ahead to continue indefinitely last year, in spite of widespread unpopularity with local residents and business owners, and the fact that a punter murdered Daria Pionko in the zone during the trial period.

This is the approach favoured by National Ugly Mugs, who’ve put it forward to the police as a model for the rest of the country. We think it’s a mistake.

This photo shows a 1976 protest about the dangers of asbestos. Health fears had already been raised by 1918 when the photo we saw in What’s Wrong with Prostitution? was taken; and by the 1950s they were beyond doubt. Yet a full ban didn’t come into force in the UK until decades later.

MosaicScience.com explains why the ban took so long:

“Scientific deception and betrayal, greed, political collusion, the power of propaganda, and, above all, willingness to subject hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people to severe illness and even death in the pursuit of profit.”

Tactics used by the asbestos lobby included:

  • Redefining things – for example, they redefined white asbestos as entirely different and safer than other forms.
  • They established lobbying organisations under names that implied neutrality, such as the Asbestos Research Council.
  • They vilified and harassed scientists who published inconvenient results.
  • And like the tobacco industry, they hired scientists to claim there were no risks, or only very small and occasional ones.
  • And they took advantage of the fact that the victims were mostly poor and working class.

We see similar tactics being used by the sex trade lobby. They redefine things to obscure the reality and have set up lobby groups under neutral sounding names. We’ll look at those tactics in a minute.

The harassment and vilification of those who campaign against the sex trade, particularly survivors of prostitution, is a matter of public record.

There are many examples of academics who are funded by the sex trade lobby or sympathetic funding bodies.

And of course the lobby takes advantage of the fact that the vast majority of those in prostitution are so marginalised they seldom have an opportunity to make their voices heard at all.

The sex trade lobby has redefined prostitution as “sex work” and prostitutes as “sex workers,” and pushed to get these terms into mainstream use. Many people innocently think these terms are more respectful. But they imply that prostitution is innocuous and is work like any other type of work, when nothing could be further from the truth. As we saw from Geena Leigh’s testimony earlier, it was this idea that made her think there was something wrong with her if she didn’t like it.

Separating “voluntary” from “forced” prostitution is a similar tactic, which implies that only “forced” prostitution is a problem – when, as we have seen, all prostitution is damaging and is seldom – if ever – a real, free, choice for the women in it.

Another example is the redefinition of the problem as “stigma.” This suggests that there’s nothing wrong with prostitution itself, and the problem is simply people’s attitudes to it.

And just like the asbestos lobby, there are organisations with neutral sounding names, like the International Union of Sex Workers, which give the impression they’re fighting for better conditions for those in prostitution, when in fact their focus is lobbying for prostitution to be accepted as work and for full decriminalisation.

Some of these groups are actually led by pimps and have infiltrated high profile human rights organisations. For example, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), under vice president, Alejandra Gil, who has now been jailed for sex trafficking, was appointed co-chair of a UN advisory group and succeeded in bringing in a UNAIDS policy promoting full decriminalisation.

Douglas Fox, a key figure in the International Union of Sex Workers, who’s also been arrested for pimping, initiated the drive, also successful, to get Amnesty International to develop a policy in favour of full decriminalisation.

Sex trade vested interests are even more numerous and intertwined than those of the asbestos industry.

There is, of course, the whole sexual exploitation industry, which is worth £ billions. But there are also many businesses and individuals underpinning it, like the banking and IT industries, taxi drivers, security guards, pimps, traffickers, receptionists, laundries. The NGOs who get grants to undertake HIV and harm prevention work; the “Belle de Jour” types who carve out a niche for themselves glamorising the reality; the academics and researchers who produce the studies that insist that prostitution is a form of female empowerment. The governments who enjoy the tax revenues and increased GDP, and the way that prostitution’s role as last ditch option for destitute women absolves them of providing proper social security.

And then there are men. We know that not all men are punters. But all men know that prostitution’s available to them any time they need their ego building up, or someone to offload their frustration on.

And at some level they know that prostitution shores up the inequality between men and women, from which they derive such benefit – just like the prevalence of rape and sexual harassment does.

But there is another way of looking at this: that prostitution ultimately makes men less happy.

Harvard recently completed the longest study on men’s life satisfaction that’s ever been done. Their overwhelming conclusion was that it was the quality and warmth of personal, family and community relationships throughout their lives that was the single most important factor in determining the men’s life satisfaction, and even their physical health and financial stability.

Prostitution erodes the quality and warmth of these relationships. It’s time to end it.

So now we get to the Nordic Model. As a case study, we’ll look at Sweden, which introduced it first – in 1999.

The Nordic Model (which is also known as the Sex Buyer Law) is an approach to prostitution that was pioneered in Sweden and has now also been adopted in South Korea, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, and most recently, the Republic of Ireland. As well as criminalising pimps and traffickers, it has three key elements:

  1. It decriminalises all those who are prostituted.
  2. It provides services to help them leave.
  3. And prostitution buying becomes a criminal offence – with the key aim of deterring the men.

It was introduced in Sweden after extensive research, including in-depth interviews with prostituted women. Even though the researchers were experienced social scientists, they were shocked by what the women told them: of having to dissociate while the punters used them, and how this became harder to maintain over time, so eventually they were left feeling worthless, dirty and disgusting.

The researchers felt despair at the women’s suffering, and the punters’ lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions.

They realised it made no sense to criminalise the women who invariably came from a background of hardship. And then someone had the idea of making prostitution buying a criminal offense to deter the men. There was huge opposition to the idea at first, but gradually it came to be recognised that, combined with high-quality services to help the women rebuild their lives, it had the potential of radically changing social norms.

A key aim of any law is to help shape social norms. Laws make it clear what society considers unacceptable, and discourages people from doing those things. The Nordic Model’s no different. It makes it clear that prostitution buying is wrong and has sanctions that discourage people from doing it.

Society’s values do change over time. We used to think, for example, that smoking was harmless, but then we learnt that even passive smoking is harmful, and eventually we changed the law to ban smoking in workplaces.

In the run up to the change, there was resistance. But the day came and everyone who wanted to smoke in the pub moved outside. By the end of the week, even the smokers said how much nicer it was that the pub was no longer full of smoke, and we wondered why we didn’t change the law sooner.

So how did they do it in Sweden? Let’s look at how they implemented it:

  • Training for the police and officials
  • A public information campaign, and education in schools
  • Investing in, and prioritising, the policing of punters, pimps, brothel keeping, and sex trafficking
  • Funding for high quality services for those in prostitution
  • Addressing poverty and inequality

Simon Häggström, a Swedish detective inspector who works on implementing the law in Sweden talks about all of this in his new book.

And what have been the results? Well, this is what independent evaluations have found:

  • Significant decreases in the amount of prostitution taking place – during a period it was rapidly increasing in most other European countries.
  • No evidence it’s gone “underground” as the sex trade lobby claims. After all, prostitution relies on punters being able to find the women. And if they can find them, so can researchers.
  • Sweden is now seen as a hostile destination by international sex traffickers.
  • And in spite of initial resistance, the law now has widespread public support.

And unlike what we saw in Germany and New Zealand, the balance of power has shifted towards the women. Punters know the women can report them, and so they’re less likely to be violent or leave without paying, and are more likely to use a condom and stay within the agreed boundaries.

The quote here is from a talk Simon Häggström gave in the House of Commons in July 2016. As mentioned, he’s a police officer who arrests punters. During an arrest, a police officer talks to the woman to check she’s OK, making it clear they’re not going to arrest her or take her money. Simon said that this quote is typical of what the women say: that the Swedish law is bad for their business but it’s good for their safety.

And if business is bad, the services do provide other options.

All those in prostitution in Sweden have access to specialist units that help them with housing, retraining, financial assistance, and psychosocial support. These services are welcoming, non-judgemental, free, are provided for as long as necessary, and there’s no compulsion – legal or otherwise – to use the services, or to leave prostitution.

A midwife who works in the Stockholm unit talks about how when the women initially come, they’re unfamiliar with putting their own needs first because they’re so used to being used. Take a moment to let the pain of that sink in.

Anyway, you may be thinking, that’s all very well and good, but what about the expense of it all?

To address that, let’s look at the economic realities of what happened in Ipswich, where within the space of a few weeks in late 2006, a punter murdered five prostituted women. In the aftermath, local people were determined it would never happen again, and realised this meant they had to end street prostitution in the area.

The police used kerb crawling legislation to clamp down on punters. Instead of arresting the women, they directed them to local agencies who provided support and exiting assistance. This strategy corresponds to the three key planks of the Nordic Model.

An independent evaluation concluded it was successful in achieving its aims and that every £1 spent, saved £2 of public money, because there were lower criminal justice and social support costs.

You may be feeling overwhelmed by the ghastly reality of prostitution and may be wondering what to do about it. We believe that together we can make change happen. But to do that, we need to raise awareness of the issues and that the Nordic Model provides an equality and human rights based solution.

Here are some ideas of what you can do.

  • Raise awareness: talk to your friends and colleagues. Arrange a presentation of the Nordic Model Now! slideshow to your local community, church, activist or union group or branch. If you aren’t comfortable presenting it yourself, get in touch with Nordic Model Now! who can provide speakers.
  • You may want to write to your MP, local councillors, mayor and police chief (or even better go and visit them).
  • You may want to propose a motion calling on your political party or union or other organisation to support the Nordic Model.

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