By Harriet Evans
“Sex workers across the world are demanding decriminalisation” — a claim made by article after article in the media recently.
I want to point out: not all “sex workers.” Some of us support the Nordic Model — a model pioneered by Sweden in 1999, when it became the first country to introduce a law making it illegal to pay for sex, but not to be a prostitute.
This is also known as the “Sex Buyer Law.” Northern Ireland was the first part of the UK to adopt the Sex Buyer Law in June 2015; a law under which clients can be prosecuted, but prostitution itself is decriminalised.
What are the benefits of this model? And why are some prostitution survivors, like myself, in favour of it?
In 2016, I chose to become a “sex worker.” I wasn’t trafficked into it by a gang or controlled by a pimp. I worked alone and it was my choice. Or was it?
I am a fully qualified primary school teacher. For four years, I taught nine-year-olds in inner-city schools and I loved my job.
In 2015, I moved to supply teaching in order to have a more realistic work-life balance. I loved my job even more! The work and pay were good. Its freelance nature meant I didn’t get any sick pay and there was no job security, but this wasn’t something I worried about, being a healthy 26-year-old with plenty of work coming my way.
In 2016, following the break-up of a relationship, I moved into a flat share. And then things fell apart.
A man in my new home attempted to rape me. The serious sexual assault left me homeless. It took the council weeks to find me safe temporary accommodation.
I used all of my savings to keep a roof over my head in various youth hostels, desperate to avoid street homelessness. Finally, after eight weeks or so, I got accommodation in a women’s hostel. By this point I’d run out of money.
Universal credit can only be applied for once you have an address.
So, after eight weeks of homelessness, I had to wait another six-plus weeks for any payment to come through.
When it finally did come through, I was subject to Shared Accommodations Rate due to my being under 35 years old. (In short, I was receiving £200-300 pounds a month in total. And my rent in the hostel was an extortionate £175 per week!)
By this point my mental health had deteriorated. I have a long history of mental ill health due to the trauma of childhood sexual and psychological abuse.
I was unable to work as I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and A&E after making multiple attempts on my life.
I was suffering from PTSD as a result of the assault, which was also triggering PTSD symptoms relating to my childhood.
I had next to no income thanks to universal credit’s arbitrary rules and system failures and because I was too unwell to hold down any sort of job.
My rent arrears were mounting up. I made my case to the council that universal credit wasn’t giving me the right money, but the council told me that if I didn’t start giving some contribution towards the rent, I’d be evicted and be street homeless.
I sold everything I possessed which would make any money. After that, I chose to sell my body.
But is this a choice? Is it a choice to sell your body for sex when you have no other option?
I was never forced into the sex trade by another person — not a pimp or a gang. I was forced into the trade by my ill health, a broken benefits system and resultant poverty leading to threats of imminent eviction.
If England chooses to fully decriminalise prostitution, this would mean the selling of my body in exchange for a roof over my head would be a state-sanctioned transaction. This is not consent.
The definition of informed consent is “permission granted in full knowledge of the possible consequences.” I did not consent to being violently anally raped by the clients who knew full well that I didn’t “do anal.” I did not consent to the clients who slipped off their condoms. I did not consent to the clients who spat in my face and slapped me. I did not consent to the retraumatising nightmares that haunt me still, two years later. All I wanted was a safe roof over my head.
How would the Nordic Model have helped me? On several occasions, after self-harming in between clients, I presented to A&E to have my deep self-inflicted wounds treated.
While I was there, nurses, doctors, police and psychiatric liaison staff asked me what triggered the “mental health episode.”
I told them about the assault that left me homeless; I told them about the eviction letters; I told them about the “sex work.” And I was stitched up and sent on my way. Why? Because they saw the “sex work” as a valid form of income (or at least were too afraid of “causing offence” to question it). But is it a valid form of income? To sell your consent in exchange for a safe place to sleep?
“Sex work” as a valid form of income redefines “consent.” Full decriminalisation colludes with the notion that a woman’s consent is negotiable; it can be bought; it can be ignored.
In Sweden in 1999, the legislative proposal for the “Sex Buyer Law” stated that “it was shameful and unacceptable that, in a gender equal society, men could obtain casual sexual relations with women in return for payment.”
The Nordic Model is part of a wider socially progressive movement to reduce violence to women, children and vulnerable individuals.
It sees prostitution as harmful to most women engaged in it, and requires men to stop seeing sex as something that can be bought and consent as something that can be negotiated. As with progress in understanding and contemporary legislation addressing domestic violence, the Nordic Model takes a public health viewpoint and puts in place legislation and social programmes to generate a shift in culture and to protect the most vulnerable.
Our duty as a society should always be to prioritise the protection of the most vulnerable, even if this means some women who enjoy it are denied the opportunity to sell sex.
Of course, the Nordic Model cannot be effective in a vacuum. It relies on an improved benefits system and increased availability of domestic violence refuges so that poverty is no longer a factor in the need to rent out our bodies.
It relies on investment in “exit plans” for prostitutes, improved access to mental health treatment and effective drug rehabilitation services. It relies on education and a commitment to a culture change where we believe that sexual consent cannot be bought, sold or ignored.
And this is why I support the Nordic Model. Alongside these practical societal changes, the Nordic Model is part of the larger progressive #MeToo movement that supports survivors and aims to end sexual violence by sending a clear message that our consent is non-negotiable.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star.