Suppose the government announces a new policy criminalising those who purchase drugs while simultaneously decriminalising those who sell them. Sounds pointless, right? This is the principle behind the Nordic model of prostitution: punish the buyers, and eventually the sex industry will fade out. It comes down to one question: should sex be for sale?
In 2014, an All-Party Parliamentary Group published a report recommending that the purchase of sexual services becomes a criminal offence in the UK (APPG, 2014). This proposal arose against a backdrop of ‘creeping neo-abolitionism’, with an increasing motivation to shift the burden of criminality from sellers onto buyers (Scoular and Carline, 2014). Sweden was the first to criminalise the purchase of sex in 1999; it has since become known as the ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution.
While the act of prostitution itself is legal, almost all of the activities surrounding it are not (i.e. soliciting, kerb crawling, owning a brothel). The proposal states that this current system is “complicated and confusing” (APPG, 2014: 5). While I agree that a more explicit framework would be beneficial, the Nordic model is far from a suitable alternative.
Exploitation, not work
There is an important theological dispute lurking beneath the use of the term ‘prostitution’ as opposed to ‘sex work’ in the policy proposal. Feminist perspectives on sex work are bisected. On the one hand, liberal feminists view prostitution as a legitimate form of labour. As such, those in the sex industry should be afforded the same protection and rights bestowed upon other workers (Scoular and Sanders, 2010). Liberal feminists prefer the term ‘sex work’ justified by the claim that selling sex is the same as any other job. On the other hand, for radical feminists, prostitution is patriarchal violence: the quintessential example of women’s suppression by men. Women in the sex industry are unstable, passive, exploited, and thus inept to exercise agency over their decision to sell sex (Levy and Jakobsson, 2014). The choice of terminology made by the APPG in their proposal reeks of radical feminist ideology.
The ‘what’s the problem represented to be?’ (WPR) approach is an innovative tool intended to facilitate policy analysis (Bacchi, 2009). As opposed to viewing policies in reaction to certain ‘problems’, they are viewed as themselves active in the conception of such ‘problems’. In short, policies contain implicit representations of the ‘problems’ they appear to address.
The APPG proposal advocates “a shift in the burden of criminality from those who are the most marginalised and vulnerable – to those that create the demand in the first place” (APPG, 2014: 2). The ‘problem representation’ here is that men create a demand for sex which ultimately leads to the marginalisation and exploitation of women. Therefore, attempts to criminalise men are simply broad brush-strokes to ‘do something’ about what is presumed to be ‘the demand’ for sex by predacious males (Scoular and Carline, 2014).
In the name of gender equality
There is a key assumption made in the proposal that criminalising the demand for prostitution will assist in achieving gender equality. It claims that “the failure of legislation to reflect the gender imbalance within prostitution[...] is detrimental to other strategies that promote gender equality” (APPG, 2014: 8). However, in the name of gender equality, male sex buyers are merely subjected to the same pathologising definitions previously endured by their female sex-selling counterparts (Scoular and Carline, 2014). How can a policy that not only penalises men for choices made in their intimate lives, but also denies women the right to determine their own line of work, proclaim to be in the interest of gender equality?
The notion of gender equality is hotly contested. Its contested nature is obscured partly by its recurrent appearance as a harmonious concept, perhaps due to ‘strategic framing’ in order to make it slide more easily into certain policy agendas (Verloo, 2007). Indeed, Bacchi (2009) notes that meanings attached to concepts mirror competing political visions. In this case, gender equality is framed as something that is unachievable in the face of a ‘gender imbalance’ within prostitution, where men have a ‘right’ to purchase sex from women (APPG, 2014: 8).
The second assumption underpinning the proposal is that reducing levels of sex work will simultaneously solve the trafficking epidemic. It is stated that currently there are inadequate deterrents for those driving the demand for sex, maintaining the UK as a “lucrative destination for trafficking” APPG (2014: 6). The trend towards increasingly punitive regimes aimed at responsibilising male buyers had led to a conflation of commercialised sex with trafficking, leaving little room for distinction between voluntary sex and forced sexual exploitation (Scoular and Sanders, 2010). This is problematic as policy discussion becomes shaped by the almost complete denial of trafficking existing as anything other than prostitution (Pheonix, 2009). As a result, the diversity of experiences of selling sex are flattened and future policy reforms are incapable of dealing with the complexity of the sex trade (Pheonix, 2009).
The future of the sex industry
I propose three likely outcomes if this policy were to be implemented, drawing on Bacchi’s (2009) subjectification, discursive, and lived effects:
1. Conceptualising prostitution as exploitation of women closes off any consideration of transgender and male sex workers, effectively excluding them from intervention and contribution to debate (Levy and Jakobsson, 2014).
2. Constructing men as the ‘problem’ diverts attention away from the structural factors that urge women into selling sex in the first instance i.e. poverty, unemployment, homelessness (Pheonix, 2009).
3. Criminalising the purchase of sex will not get rid of the sex industry, but rather will yield a displacement effect. Public sex work is likely to be displaced into more hidden and underground spaces due to increased policing and a resultant drop in clients willing to buy sex publicly (Levy and Jakobsson, 2014).
There is no credible evidence that levels of prostitution have decreased in Sweden since 1999 (Leander, 2005). Surely this should be enough to discredit the policy? The APPG is vouching for a law that is ultimately moral and symbolic, an expression of what is deemed acceptable sexual behaviour. What remains absent from the debate are the voices of sex workers themselves. In order to identify the best way forward for the sex industry, we need to move past the political narrative and listen to those whom the law will affect most.