Around a decade and a half ago, a handful of countries realised that policy relating to the sex trade was not working. While most people agree that those selling sex should be fully decriminalised, two trains of thought have emerged on how to tackle pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex.
The first approach proposed legalising or decriminalising all aspects of the sex trade – including brothel-keeping and pimping. In practice, this has meant that no support is provided to those wishing to exit. This also creates a disincentive for police to address the abuse of women and girls in ‘regulated’ areas.
The other, the Nordic or Equality Model, is supported by sex trade survivors and activists around the world. It is based on the simple concept that all human beings are equal and proposes criminalising brothel-keeping, pimping and buying sex – the fuel which sustains the global sex trafficking industry. It recognises the huge scale violence within the sex trade and, vitally, mandates financial and other support for those wishing to exit.
Those countries which have attempted to decriminalise or legalise pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex have been disastrous experiments. The Netherlands and Germany have both seen huge increases in the scale of the trade and in trafficking, since both countries did this around 15 years ago. In recent years, much of this is from Eastern European countries such as Latvia, where Donor Direct Action’s Latvian partner, MARTA, which provides critical services to victims of sex trafficking.
The sex trade is highly violent whenever it exists and is a clear reflection of the patriarchal dynamic of those with power and privilege using it against those who don’t. In this way, it is no different from any other form of violence against women and girls. A study carried out in 2007 by the Federal Ministry in Germany found that 92% of women in prostitution who were interviewed for the survey had suffered sexual harassment, 87% had experienced physical violence and 59%, sexual violence. Of the sample, around half of the interviewees showed symptoms of depression and a quarter had contemplated suicide.
Those in favour of decriminalising pimping and brothel-keeping talk a lot about agency and supposed “choice”, but a woman’s lack of choice – a coercive force in itself – is much more dominant. In her extraordinary book, Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, Rachel Moran, Irish sex trade survivor and founder of SPACE International, writes that prostitution “produces an environment which prohibits even the possibility of true consent”. We talk far too little about those who do have full choice and privilege – those who benefit from the exploitation of others.
Sweden, Norway and Iceland – countries which rank highest in the world for gender equality – took a different approach and implemented the Equality Model instead. No model is perfect, but these nations have had much more positive results. Simon Häggström from the Stockholm Police Force’s prostitution unit has repeatedly said that their approach means that pimps and traffickers consider Sweden a “bad market”, that women in prostitution consider Sweden a safer place compared to other countries and that the number of buyers of sex has decreased in recent years, since they are afraid of being arrested.
Canada, France and Northern Ireland have taken this growing evidence on board and introduced similar legislation, while the Republic of Ireland is likely to vote in favour too in coming months. This approach is likely to continue to gain momentum across Europe. Policies which seek to reduce the demand which fuels sex trafficking have also been recommended by the Council of Europe and the European Union. Myria Vassiliadou, in her role as EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, emphasised that all EU member states need to legislatively tackle the demand for paid sex which "fosters all forms of exploitation related to trafficking". Decriminalising pimping and brothel-keeping would do nothing to achieve this.
Around the world, a global movement is gathering pace too, led by survivors and their allies, which advocates for the Equality Model. Embrace Dignity has just launched ‘Arise’, a new initiative with sex trade survivors, which aims to support women who have exited prostitution. It now wants South Africa to take this approach further and be the first country on the African continent to adopt it as government policy.
There is no human rights argument for decriminalising pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex – the exploitative elements in the sex trade, which perpetuate and reinforce violence and discrimination against (mostly) women and girls. In a world where true equality exists, the exploitation of one group of people over another is not something which anyone advocating for equality should be able to accept.
Donor Direct Action is an international group, which partners with front-line women's organisations around the world.