At the beginning of June, northern Ireland became the only part of the United Kingdom to outlaw the purchase of sex, adopting what is known as the “Nordic model” because Sweden was the first country to criminalize the buyers of sex. The Nordic model has since been claimed by Norway, Iceland and Canada and it is hailed in some quarters as a “progressive” or “feminist” approach to prostitution. The reality is that the Nordic model is the opposite of progressive, and many feminists are opposed to it because it ends up making life more hazardous for sex workers and the general public.
Research shows that while the 1999 Swedish Purchasing Act was intended to protect sex workers, it has actually harmed them. As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, streetwalkers in Sweden have reported increased violence, in part because regular clients avoid them for fear of arrest and have turned instead to the Internet and indoor venues for sex. The clients who remain on the street are more likely to be drunk and violent, and they often demand unprotected sex. As two Swedish researchers, Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren, found in a recent study, when clients are in a hurry and frightened of being arrested, it is more difficult for the sex worker to assess whether they might be dangerous or to negotiate safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms).
Sweden’s prohibitionist approach also discourages the distribution of condoms to sex workers, according to a recent survey by HIV Sweden, a nonprofit health group, and the Rose Alliance, a sex workers group in Sweden. This has led to reports of an increase in unprotected sex between prostitutes and their clients. In large part because the Swedish law impedes sex workers’ ability to practice safe sex, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, an independent group convened by the United Nations, recently denounced the Nordic model, according to an article in the Alberta Law Review.
In addition, the Swedish law has not put much of a dent in the Swedish sex industry; all it’s done is displace streetwalkers, forcing them into more isolated, dangerous spaces. Nor has it done much to reduce sex trafficking in the region. Indeed, since the Swedish law was passed, the total number of foreign prostitutes in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden has increased, according to reports by the Swedish government.
By contrast, in countries in which adult prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized, rates of HIV are among the lowest in the world. Sex workers in New Zealand and New South Wales (Australia), for example, exhibit very high condom use rates and a very low incidence of HIV transmission, according to a 2012 report issued by the United Nations Development Programme.
In New Zealand, which has adopted a hybrid model of decriminalizing sex work and regulating aspects of it, sex workers are also better able to protect themselves from violent clients or pimps, research shows.
So has northern Ireland done any favors to the women and men who sell sex by choice and to general public? According to the evidence, the answer is a resounding no.
This blog was cross-posted on Buzzfeed.