The European Parliament yesterday passed a motion for the European Union to adopt a position that supports the Nordic model when addressing prostitution. There were 343 votes in favour, 139 votes in opposition and 105 abstentions.
The Nordic model situates prostitution as symptomatic of women's continued inequality and discrimination and incompatible with women's human rights, dignity and equality. It posits that prostitution is not inevitable and that both entering and remaining in prostitution are often linked to poverty, marginalization, violence and abuse. It argues that prostitution has a broader negative impact on society and on male/female relationships.
What the Nordic Model means in practice is that women in prostitution should not be criminalised. There should be increased investment and support to help prevent women entering prostitution. There should be access to specialist support for women who wish to exit prostitution and this should include access to alternative education, training and employment avenues. It also means that there should be a determined attempt to reduce demand for prostitution and that law enforcement measures should be aimed at pimps, managers and buyers and not at the women in prostitution.
Eaves for Women welcomes this decision. We are a secular charity, established in 1977, which works on all forms of violence against women. We are most well known for our Poppy Project which works with women victims of trafficking for domestic or sexual exploitation. We also have a specialist project that supports women wishing to exit prostitution and we undertake research on prostitution. It is against this backdrop of our service users' experiences that we feel this decision is the right one.
Women have different experiences of prostitution. The media, the general public, the buyers and the politicians (sometimes of course one and the same!) are very keen to promote a particular image. Their preference is the image of women, who have fully and freely chosen to enter prostitution (or sex work or escorting or whatever term you prefer) as a viable financial choice and/or because they like the sex. Indeed the buyers are precisely paying, not only for the sex but to have their illusion propped up; "I don't like the ones that make no secret of it being a job. I like customer care. They try to finish quickly..." (Men Who Buy Sex 2009).
To the extent that this image may be the scenario for some women in prostitution - then good luck to them. But do we really want to frame our laws, policies, interventions and resources around this, frankly exceptional, and allegedly unproblematic version of prostitution?
Or should we shape it, having in mind the reality of so many prostitution narratives? A Home Office Study (Paying the Price, 2004) found that as many as 85% of women in prostitution report physical abuse in the family, 45% report sexual abuse and the murder rate for women in prostitution is 12 times that for women in the general population. Various studies find significant levels of entry into prostitution under the age of 18 and reasons for entry commonly include homelessness, poverty and addiction.
There is a strongly argued position that the best thing to do is to acknowledge prostitution as an inevitability or better still as a valued public service and work like any other and that what we need to do is try and make the women in it a bit safer and a bit less stigmatized. The Nordic model moves the stigma from the women who are selling to the men who are buying and the managers and pimps who are profiting.
There is always need for more research but the reality is that decriminalization of the whole sex industry, (buyers, pimps, managers included) has not made women safer. Experience has found that legalisation leads to an increase in prostitution, trafficking and related crime - hence both Germany and Netherlands backtracking on this approach (Newsnight). Notably, while it used to be one in eight men admitting to buying women in prostitution in Sweden this has decreased to one in thirteen. It is notable that in fact buyers themselves state that they choose to travel to Netherlands and New Zealand precisely because these are legalised regimes (Men Who Buy Sex, 2008). You do not find a reduction in murders of women where prostitution is legal, indeed it is striking that only 1 woman in prostitution in Sweden has been murdered since they implemented this model in 1998. As the parents of Marnie Frey (murdered by Robert "Willie" Pickton) said:
"To think the best we can do for these women is giving them a safe place to sell their bodies is a joke. There is no such thing as a "clean safe place" to be abused in".