An all-party parliamentary group on prostitution has recommended Britain follows the lead of countries such as Sweden and Norway, which make the purchase of sex illegal.
Neither buying nor selling sex is illegal in the UK but soliciting, pimping, brothel-keeping and kerb-crawling are all criminal activities.
The Nordic model, which also decriminalises sex work, rests on the argument that all prostitution is violence against women. The parliamentary group, following that line, says the current law “serves to normalise the purchase and stigmatise the sale of sexual services — and undermines efforts to minimise entry into and promote exit from prostitution.”
Organisations representing sex workers have long argued against this “Nordic model”, but these arguments have gone unheeded by the year-long enquiry.
They say the criminalisation of clients will push sex work underground; sex work will continue irrespective of legal change. Such laws further stigmatise sex workers and put lives at risk. Police resources will not be focused on investigating issues of abuse, violence and trafficking but on policing consenting sex.
The report is in line with recent decisions made by the European parliament. The Danish and French governments also plan similar laws.
Sex workers’ organisations have been campaigning for the introduction of laws similar to those in New Zealand; there sex work is decriminalised and sex workers are allowed to work together in small owner-operated brothels.
According to May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmström of Malmo University there are a number of other ways in which the “Nordic model” fails.
“Contrary to many common feminist appraisals, these laws do not in fact send a clear message as to what and who is the problem with prostitution; on the contrary, they are often implemented in ways that produce negative outcomes for people in prostitution...
“[These laws] are sometimes applied in conjunction with other laws, by-laws and practices aimed at pinning the blame for prostitution on people who sell sex, particularly if they are migrants....
“The claim that the number of people involved in prostitution has declined... is largely based on the work of organisations that report on specific groups they work with, not the state of prostitution more generally: social workers, for example... There is no reason to believe that other forms of prostitution, hidden from view, are not still going on.”
[Men involved in prostitution, women in indoor venues, and those selling sex outside the larger cities for example].
“[Swedish authorities] ignore the fact that since 1999 or so, mobile phones and the internet have largely taken over the role face-to-face contact in street prostitution used to have – meaning a decline in contacts with women selling sex in the traditional way on the streets of Sweden cannot tell the whole story about the size and form of the country’s prostitution markets.
“...the Swedish Sex Purchase Act is often said to be an effective tool against human trafficking. The evidence for this claim is weak... The official data that does exist is vague; some authors have also pointed out that the act may have raised prices for sex, making trafficking for sexual purposes potentially more lucrative than ever.
“... Even though surveys among the general public indicate great support for the law, the same material also shows a rather strong support for a criminalisation of sex sellers. This contradicts the idea that the law promotes an ideal of gender equality: instead, the criminalisation of sex buyers seems to influence people to consider the possibility of criminalising sex sellers as well...
“In Norway... even though it is completely legal to sell sex, women involved in prostitution are victims of increased police, neighbour and border controls which stigmatise them and make them more vulnerable. The increased control the Norwegian police exert on prostitution markets so as to identify clients includes document checks on women involved in prostitution so as to find irregulars among them.
“Raids performed in the name of rescue often end with vulnerable women who lack residence permits being deported from Norway.”