The Nordic Model: The best approach to tackling prostitution

By Megan King, survivor and abolitionist

This is a transcript of Megan King’s presentation at our ‘Prostitution: Work? … Or exploitation?’ webinar on Sunday 22 November 2020.

I’m going to talk about the Nordic Model as the best approach to tackling prostitution. I’m Megan King. I speak as a survivor of the sex trade myself, initially being coerced into the trade and then I continued to sell sex off street independently, glamourizing my situation as a high-class escort, for a period of eight months across the south of England.

I’m also going to draw upon research that I’ve undertaken into the topic of the Nordic Model, allowing a more holistic understanding of what the Nordic Model approach is and why it is the best and only way to tackle prostitution. So, a lot of this will be drawing on my research for my masters.

The Nordic Model was originally implemented in Sweden 1999 and is also referred to as the Sex Buyer Law. The approach focuses on these three key aims:

  • To decriminalize all those who are prostituted.
  • To provide services to help them leave.
  • And prostitution buying becomes a criminal offence.

The key aim is that if we tackle the demand, the supply reduces.

Let’s look at these three key aims more closely.

1. Why should we decriminalize those who are prostituted?

A support worker at an exit support charity said:

“Women who sell sex do it because of vulnerabilities and criminalizing vulnerabilities seems absolute madness to me.”

Women who sell sex do so for many reasons. I describe it as a coercion continuum. On one end of the scale, you have women who have been explicitly trafficked and the force in their situation is very visible. And on the other side you have women for whom prostitution appears from the outside to be more of a choice.

However, I believe that for the majority of women in prostitution, if not all, there is some level of coercion, based on inequalities, vulnerabilities, and society’s acceptance of the male gaze, and when it is referred to as a choice, it is a choice out of choiceless options.

Furthermore, the most common reasons why women sell sex are:

  • Previous sexual abuse
  • Drug dependency
  • Economic hardship
  • Care leavers
  • Coercion
  • Etc…

The most common reason cited is previous sexual abuse. Unresolved traumatic historic sexual abuse will lead to a breakdown of a woman’s self-esteem. It will lead to distorted views of sex and men, and an ability to learn how to distance one’s body. The latter is a key requirement for surviving prostitution as women are forced to use these harmful strategies to detach and disengage from the trauma that they’re suffering.

For me, as someone who was sexually abused in adolescence, sex really had no meaning for me – and therefore I had learnt how to temporarily detach my mind from my body. Therefore, playing the role of the happy hooker to a punter seemed as though it would be easy. Although actually you realise that you are just retraumatising yourself over and over and over.

Many women have turned to prostitution to feed their families while waiting for their first Universal Credit payment under the six weeks wait.

By criminalising women in prostitution, you are punishing an individual who has already suffered and who continues to do so. You are criminalising something that most women do not even want to be doing in the first place, but they feel there is no choice.

Poverty and deprivation are also cited as one of the root causes of prostitution and are clearly based on her disadvantage. The punishment for women involved in prostitution is often a monetary fine which is ironic and counter-productive.

2. Why should we provide services to help women leave?

The second key aim of the Nordic Model approach is to help women leave the sex trade.

As much as entry into prostitution is complex, so too is exiting the sex trade. Therefore, if buying sex became a criminal offence, as the demand for prostitution is addressed, it is expected that the women selling sex will require additional support and assistance in finding alternative work, exiting the trade and moving on from a life in prostitution.

There are currently very few exit support services for women in the UK. The Nordic Model approach recognises the need for such organisations and this is a key aim.

3. Buying sex becomes a criminal offence

The third key aim is that buying sex becomes a criminal offence.

Firstly, I love this quote from a staff member at an exit support charity who I interviewed for my academic research:

“Happy, healthy people don’t buy sex.”

I can advocate the truth in this. Men who buy sex usually do so to exercise power or control when they are feeling powerless. However, they are still the perpetrators. If men didn’t buy sex, women wouldn’t have to sell it.

We can look to the countries that have already implemented a sex buyer law to testify that when demand is reduced, so too is supply.

In Sweden from 1999 to 2008, there was a 76% reduction in the number of prostituted women.[*]

When buyers are criminalised, this has a deterrent effect because they are going to risk losing their anonymity, and therefore their partners, employers, and the wider community may become aware that they are buying sex which can have collateral consequences.

When women are not reduced to serving the sexual appetites of men, male domination is also weakened. So, through the implementation of the Nordic Model, countries like Sweden are paving the way for enhanced gender equality for women.

It’s not just sex

Another reason why buying sex needs to become a criminal offence is that punters do not just buy you for sex. It is not just sex.

The sex trade is inherently abusive. Punters pay to do whatever they like to you. To beat you, slap you, ejaculate on you, urinate on you…

Here is a quote that was sent to me by a punter:

“I’m sure you’d love to be tied, helpless and used by groups of men, but I’m not going to arrange that for you, as I seem to be doing all the running at the moment.”

This email suggests that I would like to be gang raped. This is not an uncommon email.

I also visited a punter who graphically described his love for child pornography, forced me to pretend to be a child, and examined my anus and was disappointed that my bowels were empty.

They don’t just buy sex, they buy your entire body to do whatever they want with it, however sordid.

I was threatened by clients for insisting on a condom. I was filmed without consent. I was made to suck the bare penis of an unwashed farmer who had clearly been working all day and had not washed.

There is no glamour in this.

Here is another example to prove that it’s not just sex that a punter is buying. The same punter asked me to bring the following items to a booking:

4 x 8-metre-long ropes, each 6-8 mm in diameter.
Scissors
Blindfold
Candles and a lighter or matches
10 clothes pegs and 2 x 1 metre long pieces of string
Vacuum pumps.

You can clearly see that abuse was his plan.

The opposing argument: Problems with the full decriminalisation approach

I am now going to look at the argument that prostitution should be fully decriminalised.

One of the leading arguments for the passing of this law in The Netherlands was that full decriminalisation would create safety for women and indoor facilities would become registered and licenced.

But the reality is that the Dutch Government did not adequately control the licensed prostitution sector and women working in indoor establishments are required to pay rent to undertake their business. Therefore, a third party is still profiting off the women’s prostitution.

I’m going to reflect upon a survivor’s biography. Sarah Forsyth’s book, Slave Girl, written in 2009 narrates her experience as a British girl trafficked to the red-light district in Amsterdam.

Within the book she describes the reality of the sex trade there, including witnessing the murder of a fellow prostituted woman, as the brothel owners created a ‘snuff porn’ video, which for those of you who are unaware of this, means it is pornography depicting real homicide. She witnessed someone being murdered in the name of pornography in front of her eyes.

The lived experience of Sarah Forsyth validates the view that the decriminalisation of prostitution in The Netherlands has not increased safety for women. That the prostitution sector is not licenced properly means that human trafficking continues to prevail.

Similarly, in Germany, there are now an estimated 400,000 women currently working in the sex trade because of its decriminalisation, and it is referred to as the Brothel of Europe.

In some brothels, punters can select whether they want a real woman or a sex doll – proving that women have become reduced to mere replaceable objects.

If prostitution is fully decriminalised, pimps and traffickers can walk free, as a worker at an exit support charity said when I interviewed her for my research:

“Full decrim doesn’t work well to be honest. Unless you are a trafficker and then you are in big business.”

In my personal situation, I was initially coerced into the sex trade by a man taking 50% of all my “earnings.” He also forced himself on me between clients, exploited my vulnerability, sexually assaulted me on a regular basis, and made over £400,000 from exploiting women’s prostitution.

I was able to report him to the police and he received criminal justice sanctions and prison time. But if prostitution was fully decriminalised, what he did to me would be perfectly legal.

Impact of prostitution on the women

The impact of prostitution on the women is that they may experience post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD), dissociative identity disorder (DID) and various other mental health conditions.

They also experience a continued warped view of sex. For me, I still don’t know how I will ever have happy healthy consensual sex that doesn’t consist of me feeling like I have to perform.

Two years after leaving the sex trade, I was sent a video on a porn site that someone thought was me. I had to watch the video of this girl giving oral sex about 20 times before concluding it wasn’t me. The industry had damaged me so much that I couldn’t even recognise myself.

This industry gives you lifelong consequences.

You can read my story in full on the Nordic Model Now! website where it is one of many other survivor stories. And today you are also going to hear from other brave survivors.

You can also follow Nordic Model Now! on our social media accounts to be kept up to date with our fight for the Nordic Model in the UK.

Thank you.

[*] Janice Raymond, Not a choice, Not a job: Exposing the myths about prostitution and the global sex trade. Page 73.

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