I am a sex trade survivor and I support the Nordic Model. Here’s why.

By Tara Ryan

I can’t sit on the fence any longer.

As a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, rape and trafficking, I need to plant my stake firmly in the ground.

We need the Nordic Model. Here’s why.

Firstly, I should make clear that by ‘Nordic Model’ I mean the full, holistic framework advocated for by other feminists and sex trade survivors, which includes decriminalising prostituted people, well-funded and comprehensive exit services and public education campaigns to create a cultural shift towards the sex trade. Although countries like Ireland, for example, are often cited as using this model, in truth it hasn’t been implemented fully at all. Simply banning the purchase of sex is NOT the Nordic Model.

This is the only proposed legal framework which recognises the sex trade as the exploitative system that it is, and prostitution as male violence against (predominantly) women and children. It is backed by the European Parliament, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and the Centre to End all Sexual Exploitation in the UK.

So why have I spent so long on the fence about this?

In one word; propaganda. The pro-sex trade lobby wage a ferocious campaign against the Nordic Model, claiming that it increases violence against women, enables pimps and that anyone who supports it is a SWERF and a ‘whorephobic’ puritan. What sex trade survivor wants to hear that? Instead, they claim that decriminalisation of the entire sex trade is the only way forward, that it reduces violence, reduces trafficking (where it is admitted that these exist, as many of these lobbyists seem to be in self-imposed denial) and prevents stigma.

But after taking the time to read everything I can get my hands on about this, those claims just fall apart. There is NO evidence that decriminalisation or legalisation (not as different as sex-trade lobbyists would have us believe) reduces violence or trafficking, and in many places such as Germany and the Netherlands these may have increased. As demand and sex tourism grows, more women are needed, and there will never be enough women choosing that ‘work.’

I wonder why that is?

New Zealand is often held up as the role model for prostitution law, yet even in the government review of the decriminalisation laws, women in the sex trade said they didn’t feel the law had made any difference in terms of violence, and police admitted finding it harder to identify victims of exploitation. Indigenous women are still disproportionately forced into on-street prostitution and this includes minors. Yet the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective hailed the law as a success. They were heavily involved in lobbying for it.

This is the same New Zealand Prostitutes Collective that refers to trafficked children as ‘underage workers’ and their rapists as ‘clients.’ Are we supposed to take this seriously as a model for improving safety and reducing violence?

Even more shocking to me was the fact that the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) which includes most ‘sex work’ organisations under its red umbrella, had Alejandra Gil as its vice-president. Gil advised human rights organisations such as Amnesty and influenced their decision to support decriminalisation.

Gil is now in prison for trafficking two hundred women into prostitution.

The NSWP have not denounced her but still describe her as a ‘human rights defender.’

No-one who cares about sexual exploitation and violence should support this, and yet their propaganda is everywhere. Any sex trade survivor who speaks out is routinely silenced, defamed and even subjected to online hate campaigns. For opposing pimps. What does that tell us?

So, I could never support decriminalisation. And realising this led me to investigate the claims that the Nordic Model increases violence. Again, they fall apart under scrutiny. In Northern Ireland, an unfavourable review of the law gathered data from Escort Ireland, run by known pimps!

I don’t think the Nordic Model is perfect. I think feminists have a fight on their hands to get it implemented fully, but this is necessary because the different aspects of this framework can only be effective in conjunction with each other. Convincing the current UK government to provide the exit support we need is going to be a tough battle, but I feel it is a battle we must wage.

In ‘Exiting Prostitution; A Study in Desistance,’ by Prof Roger Matthews et al, a study of women in prostitution across England and Wales showed that:

  • 32% became involved as minors.
  • 50% had been coerced/forced, 29% by an abusive partner.
  • 86% had experienced violence in prostitution.
  • 7% were internationally trafficked.
  • 67% reported problematic drug use, which increased as a way to cope with the realities of the sex trade.

Knowing all this, and looking at the available evidence against legalising or fully decriminalising, how can we possibly view this as ‘work’?

I am told so often by sex trade lobbyists that I should be quiet and stop ‘talking over sex workers’ because my experience of the sex trade is atypical.

But I know it is not, and so do other survivors, and so, if they were honest, do the lobbyists.

There is only so much we can achieve with a change in the law. While countries that have implemented the Nordic Model such as Sweden and Norway have seen a reduction in demand, it isn’t going to just go away. That is why exit support and prevention, both included within the full framework of the model, are so vital.

To some, the Nordic Model may seem utopian. But if imagining a world without sexual exploitation, where women and children are not bought and sold, isn’t a worthy goal, then what is?

Certainly not the decriminalisation of pimps and legal brothels.

I know where I stand.

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