Where did the idea that prostitution is a normal job that can be empowering for women come from and why did it gain ground so quickly?

Heli St Luce

This is an edited transcript of Heli St Luce’s speech at the ‘Power Play: Is the sex industry REALLY empowering for women?’ event in Coventry, England, on Saturday 3 June 2023.

I’m going to briefly explain the background to this event. But first I want to tell you why this is a personal issue for me.

My mother comes from an island where men have decided that having sex with a ‘virgin’ will cure disease. When she arrived in the UK as a very young teenager, she was, like many of us, put through the trauma of adultification that only Afri-Carribean girls suffer. Of which, I might add, there is very little mention or focus.

Customs discovered that my mother was not only riddled with STIs and pregnant, but was also severely under age. They allowed her to stay. She says only to save my sister’s sight from syphilis.

Jump forward seven years including the rape that precipitated my birth. Within a relatively short time of leaving the Catholic convent she’d been placed in, my still young mother had been predated upon by a minor celebrity.

She was fortunate to be struck down with severe, almost disabling, psoriasis from distress and nerves which made her ‘unsuitable’ for prostitution. So she was streamed into stripping, which is a sanitised gateway to greater sexploitation.

Indoctrinated by Catholicism and the patriarchy, I grew up believing that the sexual objectification, humiliation and oppression of women is normal; That the female function is to be of service, use and, wherever possible, a pleasure to and for men.

It took me decades to realise MY beliefs were the core of female/my/our oppression.

Living in the Netherlands as I do, I am appalled by the casual acceptance of the notion that some women choose to be fodder for men and that non prostituted women have a right to the amorphous safety their existence is supposed to provide.

I am saddened by seeing the self-oppressive beliefs that I am still fighting to erase from my system being normalised and lauded by sexualised, objectified young women.

I feel compelled to be a part of this organisation. To strive until the Nordic Model is brought into force internationally. The Nordic Model has as its basis the recognition that sexual exploitation is an abuse of the human rights of ALL women. What affects one woman impacts all women.

A composite of imagery representing the ‘Swinging 60s’
A composite of imagery representing the ‘Swinging 60s’

So that’s me. Now, to understand the dichotomy between what I am saying and a great deal of the thinking in today’s world, we need to go back to the Swinging 60s with its misnomered “sexual revolution”.

While it brought legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, women gaining access to contraception meant the loss of most of our shared knowledge and the destruction of our connection with our bodies and menstrual cycle.

The requested acceptance of single motherhood has been very gradual. We are still one of the poorest demographics of a poor demographic.

The new labour laws allowing working class women more access to the market place and contraception benefited men at women’s expense.

The cover of Mayfair and Playboy magazines from the 60s and early 70s
The cover of Mayfair and Playboy magazines from the 60s and early 70s

The growing pressure from men for no-strings-attached sex was tied to an explosion in pornography, strip clubs and prostitution, which have always been big money spinners.

To this day we are told a woman can earn more money and better fringe benefits serving themselves up as sexual objects for men’s use, than in the average job available to them.

This is why I like to call it the sexploitation corporation or industry.

Women Against Pornography march, New York City, 20 October 1979
Women Against Pornography march, New York City, 20 October 1979

As sexploitation was expanding, the second wave of the feminist movement was booming and women like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon made powerful analyses of pornography and prostitution as not only degrading for the women involved but also as key elements in the systematic subordination of all women. For a while, this was the default feminist position.

The popularity of feminist thinking created an image problem. So the pornographers and pimps poured money into organisations like COYOTE in the United States and De Rode Draad in the Netherlands that purported to represent prostituted women.

The logos of Coyote (Call Off Your Tired Ethics) and de Rode draad
The logos of Coyote (Call Off Your Tired Ethics) and de Rode draad

In truth in 1980 only 3% of COYOTE’s 30,000 members, were actually prostituted women.

The sexploitation industry needed to change its image from seedy and exploitative to something cool, positive and healthy. One of the key ways they went about this was to change the language; They got rid of the term prostitution, which is too realistic and ugly. They found a euphemism: the “sex work” and “sex worker” terms, which position prostitution as a normal form of work, a job like any other. No longer were the women prostituted, they are now “sex workers”, bravely earning a living, championing true feminism and defining their own destiny.

However a euphemism cannot alter reality – it only makes it harder for people to grasp.

The dictionary definition of ‘euphemism’:




a word or phrase used to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word
The dictionary definition of ‘euphemism’

Today our speakers will illustrate that prostitution, lap dancing, webcamming, “sugar dating” or any of the myriad other ways of exploiting young women for the benefit of men that have been contrived cannot and must never be considered a normal job ‘like any other’. They are all marketed to young women as empowering, “positive”, an easy way to make a living.

And the sexploitation industry didn’t stop at changing the language and lobbying to get their euphemisms adopted, they have also poured money into normalising their practices and in pushing for working in the sexploitation industry to be seen as a job like any other.

When they asked for the industry to be legalised, Germany and the Netherlands did that and Spain decriminalised some aspects of it. The industry exploded. It has proven to be exploitative and in practice, impossible to police.

Amsterdam red-light district
Amsterdam red-light district

The Netherlands has been recognised to be one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking and a recent report placed it as the third worst in the world, just behind Romania and Nigeria.

It’s difficult to find solid statistics about the amount of human trafficking in the Netherlands but estimates are that 80% of victims are women, 15% are girls (the youngest rescued in 2020 was only two years old) and 5% are boys – all destined for sexploitation. They are trafficked to the Netherlands from the poorest areas of pretty much every continent. The highest estimate being about 30,000 individuals per year

Artemis mega-brothel in Berlin, Germany
Artemis mega-brothel in Berlin, Germany

In Germany, multistorey brothels sprung up in every city, with an estimated one million men buying sex every single day and 400,000 women trapped in prostitution – most trafficked from the poorest countries in Eastern Europe.

Then the sexploitation machine ramped up its tune. What they want is full decriminalisation.

They want prostitution to be treated like a normal job. They say this will provide proper health, safety and workplace regulations.

However, as Esther will show, prostitution can never comply with health and safety regulations or equality laws.

The sexploitation lobbyists are betting on the fact that most people are not going to look too closely or actually don’t care what happens to the marginalised and traumatised women (like my mum) that decriminalisation will inevitably target.

The widespread acceptance of the inhumane ethics and practices of the sexploitation machinery has been facilitated by global trends: The rise of neoliberalism and unrestrained capitalism. This is leading to the extension of capitalism into every area of life, including those that were traditionally considered outside its remit.

In academic circles, the material analysis of social problems and inequality is out of fashion and has been replaced by post-modernism, which asserts that there is no objective reality, that everything is just one of a limitless number of possible narratives – which conveniently lets structures – like the sexploitation industry – that enable and maintain inequality off the hook.

That’s some background to the current reality – where sexual exploitation is sold to girls and young women as “empowerment” and to wider society as just a normal job – nothing to get worried about. This event is part of a campaign to change these ideas. We’re here to expose the truths about prostitution. What it really is. How it affects individuals and society when it is normalised.

The key features of the Nordic Model:

1. Decriminalise selling sex.
2. Services and genuine routes out of the industry.
3. Buying sex becomes a criminal offence.
4. Strong laws against trafficking, pimping & brothel keeping.
5. Holistic measures incl. education, & training for police.

Bear with me as I run through the Nordic Model. The first thing to note is that it is based on the understanding that prostitution is a structural oppression. Prostitution is both a cause and a consequence of the persistent inequality between the sexes.

The Nordic Model was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 after extensive research in which trained social scientists carried out in-depth interviews with both women selling sex and men buying it. One of the researchers said:

“We developed close relationships with the women and heard about their experiences of past abuse, extreme poverty and violence. We were prepared for these stories, because of our previous studies on outcasts and marginalized people. But what the women told us of their concrete experiences of prostitution was unexpected and shocking.”

The researchers came to feel a sense of despair about the women’s pain and the punters’ lack of willingness to understand the consequences of their choices and actions.

In response to this the researchers developed the idea of one-sided criminalisation – what is commonly referred to as the Nordic Model or the Equality Model.

In brief, this approach has several objectives:

ONE – it decriminalises selling sex. No one should be criminalised for the exploitation and abuse they endure.

TWO – it invests in services that provide support and genuine routes out of the industry. Most research shows that about 90% of those in prostitution want to get out but can’t see how to. These services need to include access to safe affordable housing, training, child care, legal and financial advice, emotional and psychological support and drug rehabilitation.

THREE – The Nordic Model makes buying sex a criminal offence with the key aim of changing men’s attitudes and behaviour and establishing norms under which no woman, man, girl or boy can be sold. This is in order to create a society where no man could even imagine he has the right to sexually exploit another human being. Generally, the men are fined rather than imprisoned, which provides funding for the services

FOUR – The Nordic Model strengthens laws against trafficking, pimping, brothel keeping and other third parties who profit from sexual exploitation.

FIVE – alongside all of this, there needs to be a whole of raft of holistic measures, including public information campaigns, education in schools, training for the police, long term investment in services and alternatives for women and other marginalised groups, along with real, concrete and concerted measures to address poverty and inequality.

All of the above is what we at Nordic Model Now! are campaigning for.

The key features of full decriminalisation of the sex trade (aka #decrim):

1. All aspects of the sex trade, including pimping & brothel keeping are decriminalised.
2. No public funding for services to help women exit.
3. Laws against trafficking are retained but in practice they are hard to enforce – so most sex trafficking goes under the radar.

As I mentioned, the sexploitation industry is lobbying for full decriminalisation. That means that all aspects of the sexual exploitation industry are only illegal under exceptional circumstances. In essence it will be regarded as being the same as any other business. Which means there is no public funding or services available to help women exit.

Laws against trafficking are retained but in practice they are impossible to enforce.

For example New Zealand has full decriminalisation; the police need a warrant to enter a brothel if they suspect trafficking victims are inside. They don’t need a warrant to enter to check the drinks license.

Laws like these, plus the consequent massive increase in the number of people involved in the industry, means that most sex trafficking is impossible to detect. Meaning that sex trafficking is effectively also decriminalised.

And yes, the introduction of decriminalisation ALWAYS leads to an increase in the numbers of people involved – not least because it sends out a message of official approval. Which says prostitution is a normal job, buying sex is no different from getting a haircut. This means that more men visit brothels more frequently.

I’m now going to show you a slide that compares the two approaches.

Comparison of the Nordic Model and full decrim
Comparison of the Nordic Model and full decrim

The lefthand column shows what full decriminalisation means. Selling sex, pimping, brothels and buying sex are all legal. And because it’s considered a normal job, no public money is invested in services to help women exit the industry.

The righthand column shows what the Nordic Model means. Selling sex is legal but pimping, brothels and buying sex are not legal and there is ring-fenced public funding for high-quality holistic services to provide support and genuine routes out to all those involved.

Not surprisingly the sexploitation industry hates the Nordic Model and insists that it is more dangerous for the women involved. This is not true. Nothing can make prostitution safe. It is inherently dangerous.

So in short, the aim of the Nordic Model is to:

  • reduce the amount of damage that occurs through sexual exploitation
  • reduce the number of women drawn into prostitution and
  • provide those in prostitution with alternatives and routes out,
  • and finally to stigmatise buying sex to make prostitution a less viable industry.

Further reading

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