There is a vocal campaign for “decriminalisation of sex work”. By “decriminalisation” campaigners don’t just mean that selling sex is decriminalised, but so is buying sex, brothel keeping, pimping, and advertising prostitution. They want prostitution to be treated just like any other job and claim that this makes “sex workers” safer – and that the Nordic Model is more dangerous for “sex workers”.
For example, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) claims that the Nordic Model, “undermines sex workers’ safety” and is more dangerous than full decriminalisation. A number of other organisations make the same or similar claims, often quoting studies that purport to back up these claims – although many of the studies that we have looked at appear to have multiple flaws.[*]
The Nordic Model is based on the understanding that nothing can make prostitution safe and so it aims to reduce the size of the industry. It has several planks: It decriminalises selling sex and provides support, routes out and genuine alternatives to those caught up in the industry; it makes buying sex a criminal offence – with the aim of changing men’s behaviour; and it has strong laws against pimping, brothel keeping, sex trafficking, and advertising prostitution.
It is well known that male violence against women and girls (VAWG) is generally under-reported to the police, and that this is particularly true for the endemic violence that men perpetrate against women and girls involved in prostitution. Levels of reporting of these crimes are affected by changes in education and awareness, how well victims expect their complaints to be dealt with, and how prostitution is understood by the authorities. These and other issues make it difficult to compare rates of violence against women involved in prostitution between countries with any accuracy.
This is why the homicide data is of particular interest – a dead body that has met a violent end is an unarguable fact.
Therefore to test the claim that the Nordic Model is more dangerous for “sex workers” than full decriminalisation, we looked in detail at the homicide data for women involved in prostitution whose murders were related to their prostitution. This data is collected and collated by German social scientists who run the Sex Industry Kills project (the website is temporarily down for maintenance).
If the claim is true that the Nordic Model is more dangerous than decriminalisation, we would expect to see higher rates of homicide of women involved in prostitution in countries that have implemented the Nordic Model and lower rates in countries that have implemented full decriminalisation – or legalisation, which is similar.
In fact the data shows the exact opposite as we will demonstrate.
We chose Sweden, Norway and France as examples of the Nordic Model, and New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands as examples of full decriminalisation and legalisation.
Comparing the data across these countries for the years that the various legislative approaches were in force is complex. There is considerable variation in when the legislation in question was introduced. For example, the Nordic Model was introduced in Sweden in 1999, in Norway in 2010, and in France in 2016. Full decriminalisation was introduced in New Zealand in 2003. The legalised approach was introduced in 2000 in the Netherlands. Legal brothels have existed in Germany since the 14th century and its red-light districts as we know them today were established in the 1850s. However, it wasn’t until 2002 that pimping was legalised in Germany – so we have used that as the start date.
There is also considerable variation in the size and populations of these countries – ranging from New Zealand with a population of only about 5 million to Germany with a population of about 84 million.
We wanted to find a way to chart the data so that valid comparisons could be made across the countries. We therefore worked with a data scientist to express the annual number of murders of women involved in prostitution as an average per 100,000 female citizens during the years in which the current legislative framework was in place. This is shown in the following chart. (The raw data on which it based is shown in an appendix at the end of this article.)
This shows a lower homicide rate in the Nordic Model countries and none at all in Sweden. (There was a murder of a prostituted woman and another of a prostituted transwoman in Sweden during this time. We have not included these murders because they were not directly tied to their prostitution.)
The following chart shows the same data expressed as the average annual rate per 100,000 female citizens, which makes comparison between the countries clearer.
This leaves no doubt that the rate of homicide of women involved in prostitution is significantly higher in fully decriminalised New Zealand and legalised Germany and the Netherlands than in the Nordic Model countries of Sweden, Norway and France.
This shows that the claim that the Nordic Model is more dangerous for women involved in prostitution is false.
Rather, this is evidence that the more prostitution there is, the more women will be harmed in it – sometimes fatally. All the evidence suggests that legalising or decriminalising the entire industry leads to an increase in its size. Therefore policy and legislation should aim to reduce the size of the industry.
We do not claim that the Nordic Model is safer – because we do not believe that anything can make prostitution safe.
The Nordic Model aims to change men’s behaviour, prevent new women and girls being drawn into the industry, while providing women (and others) caught up in it with routes out and viable alternatives so that the prostitution industry reduces in size. The homicide data suggests that when well implemented, this approach does reduce the overall size of the industry and therefore the overall amount of harm to women involved.
Prostitution – the most dangerous occupation of all
We need to bear in mind that these numbers are likely to be an underestimate, because many women involved in prostitution are isolated and are not reported if they disappear and few countries keep accurate records of this data. The Sex Industry Kills team works hard to gather data from a variety of sources, including official statistics (where available) and media reports.
Many women who have been involved in prostitution – whether on the street or in brothels – for any length of time say that several women they knew disappeared suddenly and they always wondered what had happened to them and often suspected they had been murdered. Not least because they feared that they themselves would be murdered every single day that they were in prostitution.
Just as in other forms of male violence against women and girls, for each murder there are typically many other women and girls who are violently abused and attacked. The Sex Industry Kills team is aware of 64 attempted murders of prostituted women in Germany during the time frame we are looking at.
Research in the United States found that punters perpetrate a large proportion of the lethal and non-lethal violence perpetrated against women involved in prostitution and that prostitution is the most dangerous occupational environment of all in the United States.
We do not accept that any woman should be facing these odds – particularly as prostitution serves no essential role – unless you consider the subordination of women and the shoring up of male supremacy as essential.
This is why we campaign for the Nordic Model and against full decriminalisation.
Appendix: Raw data
The charts in this article are based on the data in the following table.
|Country||Framework||Year implemented||Female population||Years studied||Murders||Mean annual murders||Annual murders per 100k female population|
Source: Sex Industry Kills project and United Nations Population Division
The Female Population column shows the average total female population for the years the legislation was enforced, not the female population in 2023 alone. For example, for New Zealand, it shows the average female population for the years 2003 -2022. This is used in the bar chart that shows the average annual rate of homicide.
- Remembering the women who didn’t survive prostitution
- ‘Decriminalisation of the sex trade vs. the Nordic Model: What you need to know’
- FACT: Prostitution is inherently violent
[*] For example, see:
- MYTH: The Nordic Model hinders the global fight against HIV
- MYTH: Amnesty’s research in Norway has proved the Nordic Model is harmful to “sex workers”
- Response to the Queen’s University Belfast review of the operation of Northern Ireland’s sex buyer law
- Critique of the Médecins du Monde study into the Nordic Model law in France
- Do prostitution laws in Europe affect the incidence of rape? – Analysis of a recent study
This page was first published on 25 August 2023.