Under a headline that accuses supporters of the Nordic Model of ‘co-signing the imprisonment of women,’ Molly Smith reports in The Independent that two migrant women were given nine-month prison sentences in the Republic of Ireland for selling sex from an apartment they shared. The headline is both misleading and unfair, because we have always made it clear that we are opposed to women being criminalised for their own prostitution.
We do not know all the details of the case, but there have been comments that the law has been misapplied. The judge’s reported remarks certainly suggest he has a punitive attitude towards women, as does his previous treatment of a female politician for a minor driving offence.
Passing Nordic Model-style legislation alone is never successful without a whole raft of accompanying holistic measures: training for the police, prosecutors and judiciary; a public information campaign and education in schools and universities; investment in a network of high-quality services for women involved in prostitution, including real material support to recover and build a new life outside; along with general measures to address women’s poverty and inequality. We have seen no evidence that all these things are in place in Ireland.
On the face of it, it seems likely that the brothel-keeping legislation needs to be amended to ensure that it cannot be used to target those who are engaged in prostitution themselves but who do not profit from anyone else’s prostitution.
It is still early days in terms of the Nordic Model in Ireland. To be effective and achieve its aims, there must be a profound paradigm shift – from prostitution being seen as inevitable and a personal choice, to it being understood as a form of violence against women and a key part of the system that maintains male hegemony. This paradigm shift takes time and does not always happen easily, particularly where men still control all the great bastions of power and many are prostitution users themselves.
As Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In the circumstances, it is a victory what activists have achieved in Ireland – a law that recognises prostitution as harmful and prostitution-buying as a crime. But as another well-known saying goes, a woman’s work is never done. And this is seldom more true than for activists who are fighting for women’s liberation from the oppressive patriarchal system. The battle for a successful Nordic Model approach to prostitution in Ireland is far from over.
Revolting Prostitutes, a book that Molly Smith co-authored with Juno Mac, idealises the fully decriminalised approach to prostitution that was introduced in New Zealand in 2003. Yet Smith and Mac acknowledge that problems remain in terms of policing and immigration law, but they go on to say that it’s unreasonable to expect the legacy of the centuries of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism to be swept away in less than 20 years.
It seems hypocritical therefore for Molly Smith to castigate women who campaign for the Nordic Model for failures in Ireland after only two years.
What about the brothel keeping legislation in England and Wales?
In England and Wales, it is an offence “to keep, or to manage, or act or assist in the management of, a brothel…” A brothel is considered a place where two or more people engage in prostitution.
Women involved in prostitution who also clean the premises or answer the phone can be targeted under this law. We believe that this is wrong and that legislation and enforcement should be focused only on those who profit from the prostitution of others, as required under international law.
There is a campaign, organised by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) for the decriminalisation of brothels on the basis that this would #MakeAllWomenSafe.
If only keeping women in prostitution safe were as easy as decriminalising small brothels.
Evidence from Germany, where it’s been legal for women to work together in small groups from residential properties, suggests that this idea is wishful thinking. 50% of the 124 known murders and attempted murders of women involved in prostitution in Germany between January 2000 and July 2017 took place in such settings. Working with other women did not keep those women safe.
We desperately want women to be safe. But it is clear to us that prostitution is inherently harmful and that nothing can make it safe. Any liberalisation of the law against brothels (small or large) always leads to an increase in men’s demand for prostitution – because it sends out the message that there’s nothing wrong with prostitution-buying. This inevitably leads to more women and girls being drawn into prostitution, and an increase in the overall harm.
Superficially the idea that women engaged in prostitution should be able to share premises might seem like a no-brainer. But as we’ve explained before, it is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Brothels can cause real problems for neighbours. Punters are likely to prowl around the neighbourhood at all hours of the day and night, sometimes knocking on the wrong doors. There’s a recognised association between the acceptance of prostitution and the sexual harassment of women and girls in public places. Neighbours often report intense distress at hearing sounds emanating from brothels of women screaming in pain and fear.
For all these reasons, we do not want to see brothels decriminalised in the UK. But we do want the brothel keeping legislation to be clearly targeted on the profiteers.
We are campaigning for the Nordic Model, which has the ultimate aim of bringing about an end to the heinous system of prostitution while providing a meaningful transition to those who are caught up in it.