Which model is safest for women in prostitution: legalisation, full decrim, or partial decrim (Nordic Model)?

By Jade Serpents

In this article I focus on the ‘everyday’ reality of the sex trade – the women who see what they do as a choice. We have a long way to go before abolition, and I see an urgent need for harm reduction wherever possible. I believe the Nordic Model is capable of achieving this, even as we transition to a society free of the tyranny of the sex trade. Whilst we are implementing support services and exit strategies, changing laws and fighting poverty, there will still be women on the front line. It is important to examine how the Nordic Model protects them during this period. Here are my thoughts, drawing from my own experiences.

A common misconception between proponents of the sex trade and abolitionists is what the desired outcome actually is. Many proponents advocate for full decriminalisation, but when arguing against this, abolitionists sometimes confuse it with legalisation. I’ve set out below some of the key differences between these two approaches.

Full decrim means less regulation, legalisation means more

Many women in prostitution argue that the biggest difficulty is their fear of legal and social repercussions. This is often called ‘stigma’ and means women feel unable to approach the police about violent or otherwise dangerous clients or to mitigate risks by telling a friend about their daily routine.

While these are serious issues that do contribute to women being less safe, full decrim would do little to change them. Many women who are attacked, raped, or even murdered by a client do not know his real name or address. If he used protection, there’s a reduced risk of DNA identification – and women often meet clients in public places. All of this means that the chance of the police catching these men is minimal, and the chance of prosecution even more so – so it’s likely that violent clients will strike many times before any possibility of being caught.

Telling a friend you are seeing a client is sadly too often useful only to the police after a crime has already taken place. Full decriminalisation theoretically means there would be absolutely no legislation enforcing safeguarding procedures, so women would still be at the same high level of risk from violent or dangerous clients and with no legally recognised recourse specific to prostitution.

Full decrim means pimps and clients are also unregulated

Picture this: a woman is working as a prostitute. She is unwell, the client is too big for her, it’s been a long day.

The client, unable to climax, exclaims, “This service is rubbish, you promised an orgasm in 10 minutes! I want my money back!”

The woman refuses – she needs the money to pay her rent.

As a result, the client takes her to court for contravening the Consumer Rights Act 2015. He wins and is awarded compensation.

Under full decrim, this scenario is a real possibility.

Lack of regulation works both ways, meaning there would be no special protections or exemptions for women in prostitution – who are usually not in a position to fight expensive legal battles.

Worker’s rights would arguably apply to women working in brothels, but the ‘managers’ or ‘business owners’ (pimps) would have the right to expect her to fulfil work-related duties to a reasonable degree; this could include working in other brothels owned by the business, marketing and advertising. Maybe even networking – aka satisfying the pimp and all his friends. (I speak from personal experience on this last one.)

Making women’s sexual consent dependent on the need to satisfy both employer and customer with no special legal protections in place is a dangerously slippery slope.

Legalisation means nullifying a woman’s right to bodily autonomy

In the surrogacy trade in some US states, contracts can include termination clauses that force women to undergo abortions in certain circumstances – meaning that women are obliged by contract to surrender their human right to bodily autonomy. This is a hellish abuse of the ‘right to choose’ that so many feminists fought for; ironically it ends up entrapping the most vulnerable women who have the least choice.

When you buy a burger, you’re not just purchasing food, but the use of equipment and staff to prepare it – all paid for to fulfil your demand. When you buy sex, you’re not just purchasing some abstract concept, but the use of a real human female body in order to procure your orgasm. Women are not just their sexual organs. They are inseparable from them. Therefore anything – like, say, an employment contract or the Consumer Rights Act 2015 – that legislates or contracts a woman’s sexual consent directly undermines her human right to bodily autonomy.

Partial decriminalisation removes power from clients and pimps and gives it back to women

Partial decriminalisation, as the Nordic Model is sometimes called, either minimises or matches the potential issues described above by removing power from clients and pimps and giving it back to women in prostitution. Employment contracts and consumer rights do not apply.

Any legislation drafted in accordance with this model would criminalise third-party profiteering from the sale of sex without criminalising the women themselves. This would stop women from being locked into prostitution by a criminal record, or even the stigma of being seen as a criminal, as so many women currently are. It is imperative that the safety and humanity of women in prostitution are prioritised, so that they may one day be in a position to exit.

Many believe that abolitionists are on a moral crusade; an assertion that borders on the ridiculous. I entered prostitution at 17, worked the street and the brothel, and I survived – but many of my sisters did not.

I am lucky to be writing this, and I am sharing my story in the hope of helping and protecting others, not as a means to judge or harm them. Prostitution is extremely dangerous, regardless of legal status, but I do believe that the Nordic Model is the way forward in creating a safer future. However, the first step to that is removing the real stigma – social judgement – and letting women who have managed to exit speak out without fear.

Further reading

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