Politicians and women’s groups back ‘Nordic model’, under which it is illegal to buy sex
The UK government is coming under increasing pressure to radically review prostitution laws, as its neighbours consider following in the footsteps of Sweden and making the buying of sex illegal.
MPs, peers and women’s groups based in England are supporting sweeping changes currently being considered by the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and are calling on the government to consider introducing the so-called “Nordic model” in England and Wales.
“2013 is a year in which parliamentarians will be forcibly pushing for the laws around prostitution to be revised especially in light of what is happening in devolved administrations,” said Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South, and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade. “It is clear that the current legal situation is failing women and it is failing communities, and the government needs to consider if the criminalisation of buying sex could help reduce demand.”
In a year that has seen much fierce debate of the emotive issue, Scotland has taken steps towards introducing a bill to follow Sweden, which in 1999 passed a law that criminalised buyers of sex while maintaining the decriminalisation of selling sex. In 2008, Norway passed a similar law, a move followed by Iceland in 2009, while the French minister for women is seeking abolition of prostitution in Europe. Under complex laws in England and Wales, soliciting sex and kerb crawling are currently illegal, as is selling sex in a brothel.
Consultation on a bill led by the Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has recently finished, responses will be published in the new year and a new law – if passed through the Scottish parliament – could come into action in 2014. “Scotland has recognised prostitution as violence against women for some time, but unfortunately there has been a lot of talk and little action,” said Grant. “It was time to do something about it. If you recognise prostitution is violence against a woman then this makes a lot of sense.”
The Scottish bill would not decriminalise selling sex, because it could have an inadvertent negative impact on current programmes in place to help sex workers, Grant said, but this would be looked at again in the future.
In Northern Ireland Lord Morrow has brought a private members bill centred on human trafficking that also proposes to outlaw the purchasing of sex. “I don’t believe the problem of trafficking can be seriously tackled if we do not take this measure,” said Morrow, who expects a first reading of the bill early in the new year. “The vast majority of female victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Reducing demand is the best way of addressing that.”
The debate around prostitution in Ireland has also intensified this year, after the minister for justice and equality, Alan Shatter, called for ideas around changing the law. More than 850 submissions have been made, and a report will follow. Key questions the minister is considering include whether the law should criminalise those who pay for sex and if a ban on the purchase of sexual services might drive prostitution further underground, making life more dangerous for sex workers. Members of the Dáil’s joint committee on justice, defence and equality have met parliamentarians in Sweden to discuss their experience of implementation of its legislation on prostitution.
“An increasing number of countries are recognising that true gender equality can never be reached as long as it is considered acceptable for one more powerful segment of society to purchase the bodies of those members whose options are much more limited,” said Jacqui Hunt, London director of Equality Now. “It is no accident that three of the top four countries with the highest level of gender equality have adopted the Nordic model as a way to combat sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. We are urging all governments, including the UK, to adopt legislation on prostitution, to promote the core principle of equality so the exploitation of women and girls can become a thing of the past.”
But the value of the Swedish model is fiercely debated, with the Consenting Adult Action Network calling it “hate legislation against prostitution”, and critics of the proposals in Scotland argue that the move could have “severe consequences” for sex workers. According to a Swedish government report in 2010, the number of street sex workers in Sweden’s cities halved following the change in the law, but the country still faced a growing problem of sex sold over the internet. It found “that prostitution in Sweden, unlike in comparable countries, has not in any case increased since the introduction of the ban”. Critics add that criminalising buyers drives workers underground, moving them into unsafe areas and making them less likely to engage with sexual health and drugs programmes. “More legislation and more criminalisation increases the stigmatisation of sex workers and silences their voice,” said Alex Bryce, from the UK Network of Sex Work Projects. “I don’t know anyone working directly with sex workers or any sex workers themselves, who think a new law would make sex work safer.”
According to anti-sexualisation organisation Object, demand for commercial sexual services fuels the sex trade. “We call on all governments to fulfil their multiple international and domestic obligations to tackle demand for prostitution, whilst at the same time providing support services for those who wish to exit the sex trade, to do so safely and permanently,” said its director, Anna Van Heeswijk. Heather Harvey of Eaves said more focus had to be put on helping women out of prostitution. “Along with London South Bank University, Eaves recently launched a report which detailed how the barriers to exiting prostitution can be broken down,” she said. “A key finding was that many women are able to leave prostitution after receiving the appropriate support to overcome these barriers and rebuild their lives.”