Nordic Model Now have released a thorough and comprehensive response to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s Interim Report on Prostitution, I will highlight some of it below, but please go and read the whole thing.
If you are a UK citizen, writing to your MP about this could be an effective form of activism (rather than lobbying the committee directly), if there are going to be any law changes, they will be voted on in the House of Commons.
On 1 July 2016, the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) released an interim report on its inquiry into prostitution.
Nordic Model Now! welcomes the recommendation to decriminalise soliciting and to delete convictions and cautions for prostitution from criminal records, and the call for in-depth research. However, we have some serious concerns about other aspects of the report.
We are particularly concerned that it exhibits a significant bias. This is not surprising given that the committee is composed of eight men (Keith Vaz, James Berry, David Burrowes, Ranil Jayawardena, Tim Loughton, Stuart McDonald, Chuka Umunna, David Winnick) and only three women (Victoria Atkins, Nusrat Ghani, Naz Shah).
Prostitution is an extremely gendered institution, with the majority (80% or more) of those bought and sold in prostitution being female and 99% or more of the buyers (punters) being male. Prostitution therefore has a very different significance for women than for men. The committee has downplayed evidence of the harms that prostitution causes both to those who are in it, and to women and girls and gender equality more generally.
Moreover we find it troubling that many concerns about these serious and significant harms have been written off as “moral values” and “emotive” reactions, while the report fails to mention the thinly veiled entitlement that infuses many of the contributions from men and which inevitably clouds the judgement of the male members of the committee. Instead there is an unexamined and clearly incorrect assumption that they are acting dispassionately.
Conflicts of interest
It is notable that there is no mention of whether the members of the committee are or have been sex buyers. It is clear that this is a common male behaviour and the majority of the committee members are male, and so it is statistically likely that some of them are or have been sex buyers.
The inquiry had a brief to consider whether buying a person for sex should be criminalised. Being a sex buyer or having a history of sex buying is a therefore a clear conflict of interest. We believe there is a strong case that members should formally declare whether they are or have been sex buyers and if so, to step down from the inquiry.
On page 3, the report says:
“Terminology is also disputed, with some opposition to the description “sex workers”. Our use of the term in this report is a neutral one and refers to female, male or transgender adults who receive money in exchange for sexual services.”
The term “sex worker” was coined as part of a deliberate attempt to normalise and sanitise prostitution by implying that it is ordinary and wholesome work. It is a euphemism and many people reject this term and many survivors of prostitution ask that it not be used.
The report defines the term as the exchange of “sexual services” for money. This is yet more euphemism. The Oxford online dictionary defines service as “The action of helping or doing work for someone.” Being paid to be sodomised, to endure a man ejaculating in your face, and many of the other core components of prostitution are not helping or active work. Rather it is being used as an object for someone else’s gratification.
The committee’s choice of term and definition therefore reveals a position, a judgement, on the issues, and to describe that as “neutral” is disingenuous.
Migrant workers and trafficking
The report does not make it clear how the committee defines sex trafficking.
At least one written submission drew attention to the fact that the Modern Slavery Act uses a different definition of human trafficking from that internationally agreed and set out in the Palermo Protocol, and the urgent need to correct this anomaly.
The variations in how sex trafficking is defined and understood can explain some of the extreme variations in the numbers of trafficked persons in the studies quoted. For example, on page 13 the report quotes research by Professor Nicola Mai which “found that only around 6% of all female interviewees felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they felt they had no share of control or consent.”
The Palermo Protocol definition makes clear that consent is irrelevant when any of the following means have been used:
“threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
The notion of “abuse of power or a position of vulnerability” recognises that trafficking can take the form of taking advantage of people’s vulnerability within structures of inequality based on aspects like age, sex, race, caste, and poverty. This may not be apparent to the person being taken advantage of. Not recognising the true extent of one’s lack of options is a normal psychological mechanism to maintain the hope and sense of control without which life becomes intolerable or even impossible. The report from Nikki Holland on the following page of the report implicitly recognises this dynamic.
In the light of this, Professor Mai’s test of whether the women he interviewed had been trafficked is severely flawed. That the committee reports his findings uncritically suggests that they too are uninformed about both the internationally agreed legal definition of trafficking, and its awful realities. We believe that this lack of understanding is a thread that can be seen running through the entire report and contributes to the committee’s misguided conclusion that sex trafficking and prostitution are separate issues.
The Palermo Protocol definition makes it clear that third-party involvement in the exploitation of another’s prostitution is the essential feature of sex trafficking. As Catharine MacKinnon says, “trafficking is straight-up pimping”.
Most women and girls in prostitution worldwide have a pimp. So we should not be surprised that Sigma Huda, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking 2004–2008, said: “Prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.”
We insist the committee (and the government) familiarise themselves with the Palermo Protocol definition and use that as the standard.
The Sex Buyer Law
The section of the report on the Sex Buyer Law is perhaps the most disappointing of all. The section starts by saying that a “large proportion of the evidence we received was from individuals and organisations arguing in favour of the introduction of a Sex Buyer Law in England and Wales.” The report then goes on to largely ignore that evidence and to extensively quote and refer to those who are clearly opposed to this approach.
For example, this section of the report quotes or refers to 17 people or organisations who are clearly ideologically opposed to the Nordic Model, three who support it and three who appear to be neutral, as shown in the following table.
Pro Nordic Model Neutral Ideologically opposed
- Nordic Model Information Network
- APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade
- Mika Malmö
- Swedish Government
- Norwegian Ministry of Justice
- ACC Nikki Holland
- Amnesty International
- Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford
- Professor Peter Shirlow of the University of Liverpool
- Support and Advice for Escorts (SAAFE)
- The Sussex Centre for Gender Studies
- Laura Lee
- Professor Philp Hubbard of the University of Kent
- The Sex Work Research Hub
- The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective
- Dr Jay Levy
- International Union of Sex Workers
- Action for Trans Health
- Bridie Sweetman
- Feminists for Solidarity Sweden
- The Sussex Centre for Gender Studies
- Miss E, a sex worker
- Sex Worker Open University
Moreover much of the “evidence” in this section from those who are opposed to the Nordic Model is biased, not strictly relevant, or is conjecture and argument.
For example, under the subheading, “Health,” the Sex Work Research Hub is quoted as stating that “data from multiple countries linked criminalisation of sex work with up to a five-fold increase in risk of HIV infection or other sexually transmitted infections.” However, the research referenced does not appear to have been conducted in a country that has implemented the Nordic Model approach. We therefore question the relevance of including this quotation here.
Another example is the report saying that Bridie Sweetman “argued that the Swedish model limited the ability of sex workers and their clients to access preventive health measures and health checks; was associated with a drop in willingness to carry and use condoms; and workers were more likely to engage in unprotected sex out of desperation for work and the inability to report a client for insisting on unprotected sex.”
However, her written evidence on these points is mostly pure conjecture, such as that a client would have to admit to committing a crime in order to seek a sexual health check-up and that a “sex worker” would be “further stigmatised and degraded if they seek assistance from sexual health providers.” Similarly she says: “There is also a drop in willingness to carry and use condoms for two reasons: condoms are often used as evidence of transactional sex.” However, this is backed up by a reference to page 88 of a World Health Organisation publication from 2013, Implementing Comprehensive HIV/STI Programmes with Sex Workers which does not mention the Nordic Model.
Arguments for and against the Nordic Model
The bias of the committee is further revealed in the way the arguments for and against the Nordic Model were presented.
The arguments for were put under the heading “Potential benefits of a Sex Buyer Law” and amounted to two brief paragraphs; whereas the arguments against it were put under the heading “Arguments against a Sex Buyer Law” with two entire pages separated under a number of subheadings, containing many quotations, most from those who are ideologically opposed to the Nordic Model or have vested interests in the sex trade.
For example, page 26 quotes the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW). In an interview with Julie Bindel and Cath Elliott, Douglas Fox, one of the leading figures in the IUSW, admitted that it is an activist and lobbying group rather than a trade union and that it includes pimps, who are redefined as managers and “sex workers”.
Another example is self-described “sex worker”, Laura Lee, who was quoted several times in the report, including in this section on page 25. She uses advertisements on social media both to accrue business and for political campaigning. She has raised funds for a legal battle against the Sex Buyer Law in Northern Ireland directly from men who pay for sex regularly. Thus there is a potential conflict of interest, as her public position and expressed views must take into account the wishes of those who fund her campaigning work.
So the committee chose to quote a lobby group run by and for the benefit of pimps and a campaigner funded by punters and possibly pimps rather than the European Women’s Lobby, UNISON, Welsh Women’s Aid, SPACE International, the Soroptimists, or the Women’s Support Project. None of these organisations were quoted a single time in the entire report, even though the former represents hundreds of women’s organisations throughout Europe, UNISON is a large trade union that represents millions of low paid women, SPACE is an international organisation of survivors of prostitution and the others are well-respected and established women’s charities.
Many other organisations, including those that work with prostituted women or conduct research on how policy affects women and girls, submitted written evidence that was ignored, including Community Safety Glasgow, Ruhama, JBS-R Associates, End Violence Against Women Coalition, Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, Women @ the Well, Women Analysing Policy on Women, Wales Assembly of Women, Trust Women’s Project and the Judith Trust. All of these organisations recommended a Nordic Model approach.
It appears that the committee did not make a concerted effort to understand the thinking behind the Nordic Model and the conclusion of this section states, incorrectly, that it “is based on the premise that prostitution is morally wrong and should therefore be illegal”. We urge the committee to reconsider the Nordic Model afresh, taking on board the full written presented to the committee and the oral evidence from Kat Banyard, Mia Faoite and Alan Caton.
The interim report cannot be considered evidence-based because the selection of the evidence relied upon was biased and the evidence that didn’t match that bias was downplayed by undue emphasis on routine caveats or the dismissal of the motives of the person presenting it as “emotive” or deriving from “moral values”.
No one demolishes the attempt to dismiss the argument for the Nordic Model on the basis that it is a moral crusade better than Meagan Tyler:
“Perhaps this all depends on how you define “moral crusade.” If you view the movement for women’s equality as a “moral crusade”, then I suppose it is. If you are determined to dismiss all of the evidence in support of the Nordic Model and instead want to debate this on a “moral” level, then by all means do. Those who think violence against women is a bad thing are bound to win that argument.”
Prostitution causes great harm to those who are in it, it damages society, it leads to higher rates of harassment and sexual violence, it treats women as commodities that can be used to generate profits, it lowers the status of all women. Of course it is a moral and ethical issue.
We believe that the committee has failed in its responsibility to consider the issues surrounding prostitution dispassionately and we believe they need to start afresh. But first we urge the committee to take a step back and consider what type of society they want the prostitution legislation to contribute to. For example:
- What are the core principles that govern our society?
- Do we believe in equality between men and women, girls and boys?
- Do we believe in the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
- Or do we believe that might is right?
- That greed is good?
- That women and girls must acquiesce in the face of the ancient patriarchal male sex right?
- That women and girls are not in fact fully human and so their rights to dignity, safety and freedom don’t count?
We urge the committee to consider these, the ethical issues that underpin the system of prostitution and the ever expanding sex trade. We believe that only after considering such questions should they proceed with their inquiry.
We urge the committee to read again, with an open mind this time, the many written submissions from individual women and organisations who called for a Nordic Model approach. The committee has a very serious responsibility to get this right because the health and well-being of future generations of women and girls depend on it and many people will take their lead from the committee.
When the government considers its response to the interim report, we urge it to take into account all of the flaws and weaknesses that we have set out above.
We end with a short quotation from the written submission from Jill Thomas:
“The open sale of women as bodies for sexual pleasure undermines equality and messages of consent. The main cause of sexual violence and abuse is a man’s attitude and belief in the worth of women. The relegation of women to a commodity to be enjoyed without any care for her feelings or impact on her health is dehumanising to all women and girls and ultimately dangerous. It has no place in a modern egalitarian society.”