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Decriminalizing victims: Let’s adopt the Nordic Model of prostitution law

Last November, the Daily featured an anti prostitution-legalization Op-ed. Sara Orton’s article “Sex workers in Amsterdam: Legal, but still demeaning, disturbing and degrading” is a passionate critique of legalizing prostitution. I agree with her premise but wish the author went into more depth about the legal framework she advocates: the “Nordic Model.”

Under this legal model, adopted by numerous Northern European countries and now Canada, the selling of sex is legal, whereas the buying is illegal. Customers of prostitutes are prosecuted while prostitutes are not. Advocating for the Nordic model is a daunting task: It is opposed by both those who want to legalize prostitution completely and by those who want complete prohibition (where both buying and selling sex is illegal, as in practically all of the U.S.).

A favored pro-legalization argument is that criminalizing clients is unfair to prostitutes who “willingly enter prostitution” as it decreases demand for their services. However, the notion of the “willing prostitute” should be discarded. Studies suggest prostitutes overwhelmingly wish they could exit the profession. Prostitution is almost always forced, not always by coercion or trafficking, but by circumstances such as poverty, abandonment or drug dependence.

Countries that criminalized sex buyers, such as Sweden, have seen a significant drop in sex trafficking. Sweden has seen far less sex trafficking inflow per capita than Denmark and Germany – nearby countries where buying sex is legal. Street prostitution halved and the Swedish government determined that this is not because prostitutes simply moved indoors or increasingly offered services via the internet. A major decrease is also observable in Norway, which, like Sweden, criminalized sex buyers.

Legalization supporters claim regulated brothels keep prostitutes safe. The Netherlands legalized brothels in 2000, but since then has experienced an increase in violent crime surrounding prostitution leading to the shutdown of many brothels. Moreover, two Dutch criminologists concluded in 2014 that legalizing brothels has undermined anti-trafficking efforts in the Netherlands. After 2000, the majority of trafficking-related criminal investigations dealt with legal, licensed establishments, not with pimps operating outside the regulated realm. Legalization supporters say this is because it’s easier to police brothels than street prostitution. The bottom line of the research, however, is that “regulated” brothels are considerably affected by sex trafficking.

The Nordic model, though rightfully seeing prostitutes as victims, allows for the hypothetical possibility that women may enter the trade freely, by preventing them from being criminalized. The immediate challenge one thus hears from the legalization camp is that “why should the client of a willing prostitute be criminalized?” and that one could ban only buying sex from prostitutes “subjected to force” as instituted in the U.K.

My answer is to consider this: If the buyer asks the prostitute whether she is selling sex willingly and receives an answer that she indeed is and then proceeds with the transaction, he is still likely contributing to the exploitation of a human being. A prostitute who has been coerced or is impoverished will not honestly explain her circumstances because she needs the buyer’s money to either appease her coercer or put food on the table. Do sex buyers care anyway? Purportedly banning the purchase of services from solely “forced” prostitutes produces no useful results in the fight against sex trafficking and exploitation. The only thing that works is banning all buying.

Prostitutes are overwhelmingly victims. This is why the American model, where both the buying and selling of sex are criminal, is unjust.  Police departments across the U.S. now even officially acknowledge that most prostitutes are victims. Accordingly, many departments claim to be shifting their focus to arresting purchasers as opposed to prostitutes. But there is limited evidence of this actually happening: in Southern California, for example, significantly more prostitutes are arrested annually than sex buyers. Adopting the Nordic model of law would require law enforcement officials to be consistent with their own realization of prostitutes’ victimhood. The criminalization of prostitutes only perpetuates the prejudice against them. Also, the criminal records that sex workers accrue prevent their reintegration into the labor market.

Adopting the Nordic model is a step towards solving an issue that legalization cannot.

William Wicki ’15

Contact William Wicki at wwicki ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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