The Nordic Model approach to prostitution (sometimes also known as the Sex Buyer Law, or the Swedish, Abolitionist, or Equality Model) decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.
How did this approach come about?
The Nordic Model was pioneered in Sweden after extensive research. One of the researchers was Cecilie Høigård. Here she describes what happened (translated by Daisy Elizabeth Sjursø and edited slightly for length):
“We spent several years doing fieldwork and we developed close relationships with the prostituted women. We 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.
They told us what it was like to use their bodies and vaginas as rental apartments for unknown men to invade, and how this made it necessary to separate their body from their self: ‘Me and my body are two separate parts. It is not me, my feelings or my soul he fucks. I am not for sale.’
The women had numerous strategies to maintain this separation. To be agents in their own lives they showed great ingenuity and vigour within the little space for manoeuvre they had. However, over time it became more difficult for them to maintain the separation between their body and self. After the punter was done, it became increasingly difficult to bring the self back. Eventually the women came to feel worthless, dirty and disgusting.
These stories were very similar to accounts we’d heard from victims of other sexual violence, such as incest, rape and domestic violence.
The research group disagreed about many things, but we shared the same feelings of despair about the women’s pain and the punters’ lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions.
Then the idea of one-sided criminalisation of the punter struck me like lightning. The idea increased my heart rate, and gave me a sense of everything falling into place.
There was huge opposition to the proposal at first but after some years opponents in the working group changed their point of view.
The debate that followed served as a large-scale educational campaign. In Sweden, the attitudes towards the law changed rapidly in a positive direction, and the proportion of Swedish men buying women’s bodies has decreased.”
What is the aim of the Nordic Model?
Criminal legislation has the primary purpose of making it clear what we as a society consider unacceptable and discouraging people from doing those things.
I suspect that there is not a single one of us who has not wanted to punch someone on the nose, at least once in our life. But that thought is followed rapidly by the image of being arrested and maybe imprisoned, and so we move on to considering other more positive solutions.
The Nordic Model is no different. It makes it clear that buying people for sex is wrong and it has sanctions that discourage people from doing it.
Society’s values do change over time and some things that used to be considered acceptable are now considered unacceptable, and vice versa.
For example, we used to think that smoking was harmless and so smoking in workplaces was not considered an issue. Then we learnt that smoking, even passive smoking, is harmful and the case was made that it is wrong for people to be exposed to passive smoking at work. Eventually we changed the law to ban smoking in workplaces.
In the run up to the introduction of the legislation, there was huge resistance. I resisted it myself. How dare the bloody nannying state tell me where I can smoke, I said. And then my young adult daughter said she thought that if the law had been in place over the previous years some of her friends wouldn’t have taken up smoking. This and my knowledge of my own decades-long struggle with nicotine addiction made me change my mind. If the new law saved even one young person from a life of nicotine addiction, then my inconvenience was worth it.
July 1, 2007 came and everyone who wanted to smoke in the pub moved outside. By the end of the week, everyone, even smokers, said how much nicer it was that the pub was no longer full of smoke and we wondered why we didn’t change the law sooner.
Prostitution causes damage to those in it and it can never be made safe and its existence makes women’s human right to equality with men a distant pipe dream. Vast sums of money are made from the heinous trade in (mostly) women’s and children’s bodies and this leads inexorably to sex trafficking.
It is time to make it clear that buying human beings for sex is unacceptable and to create criminal sanctions that discourage people from doing it.
We do not want to criminalise people. We want to change behaviour. And for those who are in it, we want to provide support to help them make a new life outside it.
What we are campaigning for in the UK
Each country that has introduced the Nordic Model approach has implemented it a little differently. It has been most successful in Sweden where it was introduced as part of a raft of legislative measures to tackle male violence against women and girls and to address sex inequality.
We believe we must learn from the experience in other countries and introduce the Nordic Model as part of a raft of measures.
1. The full decriminalisation of those who are prostituted
The evidence suggests that the majority of women and children enter prostitution as a result of childhood abuse, poverty and misfortune, grooming, coercion, and/or betrayal, rather than as a free choice between a number of viable options. And the evidence is clear that prostitution is inherently violent and damages those in it and that getting out of it is much harder than getting into it. And a criminal record makes getting out even harder.
We therefore call for the repeal of all the laws that target those who are prostituted and the clearing of their criminal records of any previous convictions for offences related to their own prostitution.
2. High-quality services for those in prostitution
We call for ring-fenced funding for high-quality services for those in prostitution. These must be non-judgemental and cover harm reduction as well as exiting support, including housing, legal advice, addiction services, long-term emotional and psychological support, education and training, and childcare.
Because punters are almost entirely men, services for women should be female-only and services for men and transgendered people should be separate.
3. Buying sex to be made a criminal offence
We call for the purchase and attempted purchase of human beings for sex to be made a criminal offence, regardless of where in the world it takes place. We do not believe British men should be free to cause damage in other countries. As explained earlier, the aim is to change behaviour rather than to criminalise people. We recommend a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
4. The procuring, pimping and sex trafficking legislation to be strengthened
We believe that the UK’s pimping and sex trafficking legislation is not fit for purpose and we call for it to be replaced with stronger legislation that recognises procuring, pimping and sex trafficking as the human rights abuses that they are and for penalties that reflect this. The policing of these crimes must be fully resourced and prioritised.
5. All the factors that drive people into prostitution to be addressed
We do not accept prostitution as the answer for the poor and disadvantaged, for recent migrants, for single mothers, for women and children. Or indeed for anyone.
We therefore call for a fairer and more equal society with a guaranteed minimum income for all, the elimination of the pay gap between women and men, better resources and support for parents and “looked after” children, an end to student fees and zero-hour contracts, and the tackling of all the other factors that trap people in poverty.
6. A holistic approach
- Public information campaign
To be effective, the Nordic Model must be accompanied by a widespread public information campaign (like the one that accompanied the change in the smoking laws).
- Education programmes in schools
That explain honestly the damage that prostitution causes.
- Training for police and others
Experience in other countries has shown that for the Nordic Model to be effective, it needs to be accompanied by in-depth training for the police, judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and frontline workers in education, social services, local government, the NHS, etc.
- The law to be prioritised and coordinated nationally
For the Nordic Model approach to be effective, it needs to be prioritised and implemented consistently across the country, otherwise pimps and punters will simply move to areas where it is not enforced. Similarly services for those who are prostituted must be coordinated nationally and not be left to the localism agenda.
We do not accept that women and children should ever be for sale.
Catharine MacKinnon on Prostitution
- 10 myths about prostitution, trafficking and the Nordic model
- Survivors say the Nordic model is our only hope
- Choosing the Nordic Model: Championing Women’s Equality and Human Rights
- Demand Change: Understanding the Nordic Approach to Prostitution
- What is the Sex Buyer Law?
- Fact: The Nordic Model approach is cost effective