10 myths about prostitution, trafficking and the Nordic model

By Meagan Tyler

When the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) announced the release of our new report on the Nordic Model, supporters of the sex industry began targeting our Facebook page.

When I followed up with an opinion piece for The Conversation on the success of the Nordic Model, a handful of men, and one prominent Australian feminist , spent hours trading inaccuracies about the Nordic approach to prostitution policy and disparaging anyone stupid enough to think that a booming industry which trades in women’s bodies is anything but inevitable.

These falsities and fabrications will be familiar to anyone who has written or said anything that publicly criticizes the sex industry. The same claims, usually without reference to relevant evidence, are repeated so frequently in certain spheres that they have practically become mantras. If you say it often enough, it becomes true, right?

In the interests of being able to offer more than 140 character responses to these predictable criticisms, here’s a list of responses to the most common myths I’ve had thrown at me.

 

1. I’m a sex worker, I choose sex work and I love it

This is one of the most popular retorts de jour and is treated by many who use it as a sort of checkmate argument, as though any one person stating that they enjoy sex work makes all of the other evidence about violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and trafficking in prostitution, magically disappear.

Maud Olivier, the Socialist MP who recently introduced the Bill to prohibit the purchase of sexual services in France, slammed the “hypocrisy” of such criticisms: “So is it enough for one prostitute to say she is free for the enslavement of others to be respectable and acceptable?” she asked her fellow parliamentarians.

But the “I love sex work” refrain is put forward as a powerful argument because it is seen to counter a supposedly all-encompassing claim by radical feminists and others that systems of prostitution are harmful to women.

This relies on misunderstandings of radical politics, the concept of structural oppression and tired old debates about false consciousness. Just because you like something doesn’t mean that it can’t be harmful (just as liking something doesn’t automatically make it feminist). Radical feminists criticize beauty practices as harmful too, and saying you choose to wear high-heels doesn’t make that critique wrong. Nor does it mean these feminists hate you for wearing high heels (I’ve heard that one wheeled out in many an undergraduate tutorial) or being in prostitution.

Similarly, when anyone practicing radical politics points out that free choice is a fairytale, and that all our actions are constrained within certain material conditions, this does not equate to saying we’re all infantilized, little drones unable to make decisions for ourselves. It just means we’re not all floating around in a cultural vacuum making decisions completely unaffected by structural issues like systemic economic inequality, racism and sexism.

2. Only sex workers are qualified to comment on prostitution

This myth is often used in tandem with the first. And here’s the best/worst example I’ve had sent my way.

While such exchanges may be part of a wider problem of attempting to spuriously employ personal experience to trump research and disprove wider social trends (sexism doesn’t exist because I’ve never seen it!), there is more to these interactions in the context of prostitution. Repeating that only current sex workers are qualified to talk about the sex industry is an attempt to silence survivor’s voices and pretend that the consequences of prostitution apply only to those in prostitution.

It is true that much feminist opposition to prostitution has focused on the harms to women in prostitution, and rightly so, these harms are serious and endemic. But, as advocates of the Nordic Model point out, the existence of systems of prostitution is also a barrier to gender equality.

As long as women (and yes there are men in prostitution, but please, let’s be honest and admit that using “people” here would only obfuscate the fact that the vast majority of those in prostitution are women) can be bought and sold like commodities for sex is an issue for all women. The Swedes recognized this when they introduced the original ban on buying sex in 1999, and the French women’s rights minister is busy explaining it again at the moment.

3. All sex workers oppose the Nordic Model

Firstly, it is important to point out that for every sex worker rights organization that opposes the Nordic Model, there’s a survivor organization that advocates for it.

The idea that every woman with any experience in the sex industry detests the Nordic Model is tactical claim by a number of sex worker rights’ organizations around the world and it relies heavily on myth number two. This claim is, more often than not, followed by a link to Petra Ostergren’s blog which proves (we’re told) that all women in prostitution hate the Nordic Model and would prefer legalization.

It is clear that there are a number of very vocal opponents of the Nordic Model within the sex industry who have a significant platform. But it can hardly be said that these organizations represent all women in prostitution around the world, or that the odd blog post (light on references or other evidence) proves that the Nordic Model is a failure.

4. The Nordic Model denies sex workers’ agency

One of the things that critics seem to find so difficult to comprehend about the Nordic Model is that it is actually about restricting buyers, not about restricting those in prostitution. That is why it decriminalizes prostituted persons. The Model doesn’t discount the possibility of prostitution by “choice” but rather establishes that the buying of women in systems of prostitution is something that the state should actively discourage.

It’s pretty simple really. The Nordic Model acknowledges that less demand for prostitution and less demand for trafficking = less prostitution and less trafficking ∴ reducing the number of women exposed to these particular types of abuse and creating a better chance of achieving gender equality.

If you think that the state should encourage the growth of the prostitution industry and treat it as a form of gainful employment for women, then you’re bound to disagree, but that doesn’t mean the Model denies anybody’s agency.

5. The Nordic Model conflates prostitution and trafficking.

Many proponents of the Nordic Model adopt the understanding of trafficking advanced by the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children [http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/ProtocolTraffickingInPersons.aspx] (see Article 3a). This is a more nuanced understanding of trafficking than the “people moved across international borders at gun point” version that is popular in much of the mainstream press. Perhaps this is where the confusion sets in.

But even in employing this more realistic, UN-supported understanding of the mechanics of coercion and trafficking, the Nordic Model does not assume that every woman in prostitution is necessarily trafficked.

What the Nordic Model does do is recognize that there is a connection between the market for prostitution and sex trafficking, specifically that the demand for sexual services fuels sex trafficking. So, if you want less sex trafficking, then you need to shrink the market for prostitution.

This logic was further supported by a recent study of 150 countries, conducted by economists in the UK and Germany, showing that “the scale effect of legalized prostitution leads to an expansion of the prostitution market, increasing human trafficking.”

6. The Nordic Model doesn’t work / pushes prostitution “underground”.

The contention that the Nordic Model has not reduced demand for prostitution is one often repeated without evidence, but occasionally it is claimed that the Swedish government’s own review of their legislation showed the failure of the Model. As legal scholar Max Waltman has demonstrated, it did no such thing. Research commissioned by the Swedish government for its official review showed that street prostitution had halved.

“Ha!” The critics say, “That study employed a flawed methodology and prostitution has just gone underground.” Perhaps, but that overlooks other sources, including research indicating the number of people in Swedenbuying sex has fallen and that police report having intercepted communications from traffickers declaring that Sweden is a “bad market.”

It’s also worth considering what “underground” is supposed to mean in this context, as in legalized and decriminalized systems, like some in Australia, “underground” is taken to mean street prostitution. So if prostitution has moved off the streets, where has it gone? Online and indoors, is the assertion of critics, which is quite odd given that advocates of legalization frequently tout the benefits of indoor prostitution.

7. The Nordic Model deprives women of a living.

This myth is the most intriguing because it is actually an admission that the Nordic Model works, directly contradicting myth six. The Model can only deprive women of a living if it does, in fact, reduce the demand for prostitution. What’s more, comprehensive exit programs are a critical part of the Model, involving access to a wide variety of services including retraining and employment support.

Hashtags like #nothingaboutuswithoutus (used by a number of groups, not just sex industry organizations) regularly appear alongside this claim as though the only satisfactory option available is for everyone to accept a flourishing prostitution market because some people want it that way.

Not just any people though, of course – workers – if you buy the “sex work is work” line. Leaving aside the problems with the concept that prostitution is a job like any other, if we accept this premise, then the argument doesn’t follow, as workers in any given industry don’t get to determine whether or not that industry continues.

Take the brown coal or forestry industries in Australia, for example. These are sectors that have been deemed by governments to be harmful in a number of ways and that, as a result – while they are still potentially profitable – they no longer have a social license to continue operating uninhibited. Workers in these industries are often outraged at seeing their jobs threatened, which is why unions advocate for “just transitions,” providing retraining and facilitated access to social and employment services for those workers affected (sound familiar?). For the most part, these unions have given up arguing that the harmful industry in question should continue simply to avoid employment disruption for workers.

If sex work is work, and prostitution is just another industry, then it is open for wider public discussion and policy changes like other industry, including the possibility that governments will no longer want it to function.

8. The Nordic Model has made prostitution unsafe.

First things first, prostitution is unsafe. To suggest that the Nordic Model is what makes it dangerous is disingenuous. Such declarations also ignore research showing that traditional forms of legalization and decriminalization do virtually nothing to protect women in prostitution from very high odds of physical and sexual violence as well as psychological trauma.

Systems of legalization foster greater demand and create an expanding illegal industry surrounding them, so it is a fallacy to pretend that in localities where prostitution is legalized, all women are actually in legal forms of prostitution. In addition, rates of trauma are similar across legalized, decriminalized and criminalized systems of prostitution.

Sadly, even the Nordic Model is not capable of fully protecting women still in prostitution from many of these conditions – as long as there is prostitution there will be harm – but the idea that it makes conditions worse is spurious.

The “more violence” claims mostly relate to a widely cited ProSentret study which found that women in prostitution had reported an increase in certain forms of violent acts from johns, including hair pulling and biting, after the introduction of the Nordic Model in Norway. What is often left out from these accounts, however, is that the study also found women reported a sharp decline in other forms of violence, including punching and rape.

As for women in prostitution not being able to access adequate social services, this may well be a problem on the ground. If so, it absolutely needs to be addressed. But this is an issue of implementation rather than a flaw in the Model itself.

The original version of the Nordic Model, introduced in Sweden, was part of the Kvinnofrid reforms to funnel more government money and support to a variety of services tackling violence against women, including specifically in prostitution. We’ve seen this again in France, with laws decriminalizing those in prostitution brought in alongside measures to curb other forms of violence against women.

9. The Nordic Model is really a moral crusade in disguise.

Despite the evidence-based policy of the Nordic Model being introduced by progressive and socialist governments, the notion persists that this is some kind of underhanded religious or conservative attempt to curtail sexual expression, rather than an effective way of tackling trafficking and violence against women.

But perhaps this all depends on how you define “moral crusade.” If you view the movement for women’s equality as a “moral crusade”, then I suppose it is. It you are determined to dismiss all of the evidence in support of the Nordic Model and instead want to debate this on a “moral” level, then by all means do. Those who think violence against women is a bad thing are bound to win that argument.

10. Academics who research prostitution make money off the backs of women in prostitution.

This is a relatively new addition to the list of silencing techniques used against those feminists who challenge the sex industry. The first time I came across such an accusation was via the comment section here and then in the follow up emails helpfully advising me that I was just like men who rape women in prostitution because I was using the experiences of sex workers without paying.

So let me be very clear: academics conduct research. For many, like me, this often involves collating existing research and, using that evidence, creating an argument that can be defended. That is our job. And it is our job, regardless of the topic or area that we’re researching.

Engaging in public debates about the Nordic Model, and citing relevant research, is in no way an attempt to speak for women in prostitution. It is an attempt to bring the findings of that research to a broader audience. If this is perceived as threatening by the sex industry, then surely that suggests the Nordic Model is effective?

http://feministcurrent.com/8347/10-myths-about-prostitution-trafficking-and-the-nordic-model/

 

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Template Organisational Letter

A friend wrote this template letter you can send to organisations seeking support against Amnesty’s proposal to have a policy supporting the decriminalisation of prostitution.

<subject line: challenging Amnesty’s pro-prostitution position>

Dear <name of contact at abolitionist organisation you’re writing to>,

I’m writing to bring to your attention that Amnesty International, the global non-profit organisation that purports to work on ending human rights violations, has formulated a position paper calling for the full decriminalisation of prostitution, including those who buy prostituted persons and profiteer from prostitution.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2544983/JULIE-BINDEL-An-abject-inversion-principles.html#ixzz2rLxOvUwq

As I write this, multiple online petitions and protest events as well as offline efforts challenging Amnesty’s position and activities are already ongoing – and we can add to the impact here in <name of your country>.

Amnesty International’s position paper can be seen athttp://www.scribd.com/doc/202126121/Amnesty-Prostitution-Policy-document. Even a cursory reading of this document reveals misrepresentation and obfuscation of facts and reality, such as creating the false impression that men and women buy and sell sex in equal numbers, that most prostituted women choose to be in prostitution, that prostitution is largely non-exploitative, amongst other myths propagated by the pro-prostitution lobby. There is a clear prioritisation of the “rights” of pimps and punters to buy and sell women over the human rights of prostituted women.

Consistent with this position, Amnesty International is currently opposing the efforts of survivors in Belfast, Northern Ireland to have the Nordic Model implemented there. The organisation is lobbying the Northern Ireland assembly to defeat proposed measures to criminalise those who buy prostituted persons and provide viable exit alternatives to women in prostitution. http://stoppornculture.org/2014/01/29/lets-bust-amnesty-internationals-plan-to-legalize-human-rights-violations/

Survivor collective SPACE International has issued a powerful statement denouncing Amnesty International’s position that clearly cites how Amnesty is going against a number of human rights instruments in adopting or considering this position.http://spaceinternational.ie/public-statements/

In their responses (https://www.facebook.com/AmnestyUK/posts/10202430600741617?reply_comment_id=6801292&total_comments=7), Amnesty International have hinted at “consultations with their international sections”. This, I believe, is a chance for us to exert pressure on the organisation in <name of your country>.

Would <name of organisation> consider a rapid response on this issue in <name of your country? <Add your reason for writing to them. For example: When I learned of Amnesty’s policy document and actions in Belfast, I thought of writing to their office in India immediately. On reflection, I realised that the voice of a well-respected grassroots abolitionist organisation such as yours would carry far more weight than my voice alone.> Would your organisation be interested to write to Amnesty International <name of your country> and demand answers and accountability to women and children?

The Executive Director of Amnesty International <name of your country> is <name of head of Amnesty International’s country office>, who can be reached at <email address of head of Amnesty International’s country office>.

It is hard to predict how far-reaching the impact of such an action would be, but it will certainly let Amnesty know that organisations and individuals the world over are watching, and will not stand for them selling prostituted women and children out in this manner.

Sincerely,
<your name> 
<your position/ volunteer work, if directly relevant to campaign>

<If your position/ volunteer work is not directly relevant to the campaign, add a post-script with a line or two about you. For example: P.S.: I’m an independent professional in the area of communications with some experience in the non-profit sector, strongly committed to the abolitionist cause.>

Letter to Lithuania

Your Excellency, Ms Grauziniere,

 Abolish Prostitution Now! is a global campaign which aims to eliminate the harms of prostitution by eliminating the practice itself. The work of this campaign is deeply informed by survivors who have lived to recover from the harms and violations that being bought by men for prostitution has inflicted on them. We seek to change state and global policy to reflect that prostitution is a violation of human rights and like all human rights violations, consent does not lessen the violation.

There have been reports that Lithuania is considering a change in its current laws on prostitution. While we fully support the decriminalization of women in prostitution, we are deeply concerned about any moves that legalize pimping, or brothels or that do not criminalize sex-buyers as a reflection of the violence done to women in prostitution.

From the press, we have learned that you hope to raise money for prevention and for the healthcare for women in prostitution in this way. This is absurd – for a number of reasons:

1. While prostitution has indeed advanced to the status of “big business” in countries like Germany and is generating turnover and tax revenues both at the local and at the national level, it’s costs tremendously exceed any possible inland revenue. This is definitely true of the effects on the women in this “business”, and on the relationship between women and men, where the damage cannot be calculated in figures or in money. It is also true of the costs in violence, sickness, STDs, HIV and the trauma-related illnesses the women in prostitution are exposed to.

2. A large number of international studies show that most prostituted women enter the industry at the average age of 14 years old, not by choice, but as victims of trafficking and between 80 to 90% do so as a result of childhood abuse or trauma. Abuse that they never found adequate help or treatment for. Resubjecting these women to trauma and to the violence that is inherent in prostitution is disregarding their humanity. Even the very small number of women who go into prostitution “voluntarily” are confronted with violence and sexual violence so that they cannot leave this industry without damage done to their souls and bodies. This alone should be reason enough to oppose such measures, but the effects of prostitution will exceed any state profits that are feasible. And would you like for Lithuania to be seen like Germany – a state turned pimp?

3. A legalization of prostitution will lead to a massive increase in prostitution, both in the legal and illegal industry. Germany and the Netherlands have seen this, as has the state of Victoria in Australia, where illegal brothels have tripled since the introduction of a legalised system (Sullivan 2007). This also means a massive increase in crime, in trafficking, in abuse and violence, and in STDs. And in prostitution, STDs are violence done to women: The pressure on women in prostitution in Germany is so strong that very many feel compelled to undergo sexual acts without any protection. Prostitution by its very nature cannot be made “safe”. It cannot be made “profitable” enough for a state to offset its costs in money – even if that were considered an ethical approach. It cannot be turned or changed or modified or regulated into anything but an abusive practice, hurtful to the women (and men) in prostitution and to every woman in a society that deems prostitution acceptable.

We ask you to listen to survivors and to hold men who prostitute women accountable. We also ask you to look at the situation in Germany and by comparison in Sweden. Do not expose Lithuanian women to prostitution by turning it into a state-accepted method of generating acceptable revenue.

 

Yours sincerely,

Amber Aprilchild (USA)

Kathleen Barry, Ph.D. Sociologist and Professor Emerita of Penn State University

Autumn Burris, Survivors for Solutions (USA)

Kat Pinder (UK/Australia)

Inge Reed (Germany)

Agnete Strøm, Women’s Front of Norway (Norway)