Sisters Uncut

Taking direct action for domestic violence services.

Why Not The Nordic Model?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Some may be be wondering why we are not supporting the Nordic model or ‘sex buyer law’, which is sometimes presented as the ‘feminist’ legal model regarding prostitution. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, and most recently France have implemented ‘Nordic model’-style laws.


Sisters Uncut cannot support the Nordic model, in part because it retains the criminalisation of people who sell sex – in particular, sex workers who are working together indoors for safety. This criminalisation has been extensively documented by sex worker-led organisations, and has also been noted by Amnesty International. The arrest and prosecution of sex workers is a form of state violence against (mostly) women and LGBTQ people, and advocates of the Nordic model are overwhelmingly silent on the fact that the law they are attempting to import retains criminalisation for those who sell sex – silence which does not persuade us that these campaigners meaningfully oppose this criminalisation of sex workers.


Furthermore, Sisters Uncut believe that poverty – in particular the fact that women are disproportionately affected by poverty – has to be central to our understanding of domestic violence and women’s safety. We believe that poverty is a feminist issue, and, like many in the feminist movement, we believe that making women poorer makes them less able to leave abusive relationships.


Advocates of the Nordic model emphasise its basis in economics: supply and demand. If you “end demand”, the argument goes, you will eradicate sex work. In the words of Demand Abolition: “No buyers, no business”.


The implications for people who sell sex should be obvious: in seeking to reduce the number of men willing to pay for sex, the Nordic model makes sex workers poorer. And look at any graph showing the relationship between supply and demand: you will see that as demand decreases, the price at which a product or service can be sold drops correspondingly. In other words, a decrease in the number of clients not only reduces sex workers’ incomes in the immediate, obvious way: it also pushes sex workers to sell sex at a lower price than they would otherwise. For women who are already precarious or in poverty, this two-pronged reduction in income may mean the difference between housing and homelessness, between covering basic necessities and skipping meals so the kids can eat.


People are not a line on a graph. As demand drops, not only are sex workers forced to sell sex at lower prices, they are also pushed to compromise on whatever security measures they are able to take. If you normally make £70 before midnight, but your clients have vanished and the first person to approach you – at nearly 1am – seems drunk and aggressive, does having no cash to take home yet give you more or less power to refuse this aggressive man? If someone’s manner on the phone makes you uneasy, but he’s the first call you’ve had this week, does your empty wallet mean you’re more able to block his number – or less? If your partner is abusive, increasing your poverty is unlikely to make you more able to leave him. Indeed, cutting off someone’s income might force them back into an abusive relationship, as a way to avoid destitution. America’s National Network to End Domestic Violence writessurveys of survivors reflect that a concern over their ability to provide financially for themselves and their children was one of the top reasons for staying in or returning to an [abusive] relationship”.


‘Exit services’ are presented to counter the obvious problem that the Nordic model intrinsically makes people who sell sex poorer. Sisters Uncut – like the sex worker rights movement – wholly supports well-resourced, holistic and non-judgemental services for people who are selling sex, including support with leaving sex work, if that is what the person accessing support wants.


As an organisation focused on domestic violence, we are acutely conscious that it takes many people a long time to approach any services. Furthermore, there are significant material barriers: if a woman is undocumented, and fears that the service in question can’t regularise her immigration status, and will instead deport her (even if those fears are unwarranted); if she’s a mother and fears that contact with social services – even contact associated with leaving sex work – might risk her kids getting taken into care; if she’s using drugs in a bit of a chaotic way, and as a result sometimes finds it hard to remember or keep appointments – all of these factors (let alone if any of them are combined) will potentially keep a woman away from services for months. And during that time, the criminalisation of clients would have pushed her further in poverty, and as a result made her less safe.


Even if a woman gets in touch with services, it is unrealistic to think that they can sort everything out for her overnight. Support is a long-term process, not the flick of a switch. That might mean she stays selling sex for several months while she’s accessing the support she needs – in which case, she’s still selling sex in a context that has been made more dangerous for her. For Sisters Uncut, that isn’t acceptable. It cannot be acceptable to push for a policy that makes women less safe – and when we have stated in the past that pushing precarious women further into poverty makes them less safe, this has been an uncontroversial statement within the feminist movement.


Campaigners who push for the Nordic model correctly see money as a form of power, and so they correctly identify interactions between clients and workers as interactions where the client has more power, because he comes into the interaction with money. But although these campaigners are correct to see money as power, they miss that reducing a sex worker’s income – making her poorer – reduces her power. It reduces her power in her interactions with her clients, with her manager – and it reduces her power outside of work, for instance in her interactions with her landlord and with her partner. When you make marginalised women poorer, you make them less safe – and this harm disproportionately falls on those with the least resources, who have least to buffer them and who are least able to leave sex work.