The Nordic Model is not de facto criminalization

criminalize johns

In case you missed the big news, France has become the latest country to adopt the so-called Nordic Model (or, as some prefer, “Swedish Model”) of prostitution policy. This has led to another round of the same repetitive and predictable responses from those who oppose the Nordic Model and support the sex trade. Increasingly, the most popular claim is that the Nordic Model is the same as full criminalization or, at the very least, amounts to the de facto criminalization of prostitution and prostituted persons.

To be clear, the law changes in France are a form of asymmetric decriminalization: legislators criminalize the purchase of sex while simultaneously decriminalizing prostituted persons by removing all punitive measures against them. In terms of law reform, that is the essence of the Nordic Model.

But whenever big news breaks on this topic, myths and misconceptions about the Nordic Model proliferate. Journalists start making bizarre claims, like: “clear prejudice towards heterosexual men underpins the thinking of legislators,” and sex industry supporters put forward contradictory (and often simply false) statements about what the Nordic Model is, what it aims to do, and the evidence about how it has functioned in those places where it has been implemented.

I wrote about some of the most common myths back in 2013, but these discussions change over time, the debate shifts, and this list of myths was in need of an update. What follows is a new version, excerpted from the commentaries section of the just-released collection, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade, dealing specifically with the incorrect claim that the Nordic Model criminalizes prostituted persons.

Myth: The Nordic Model is (de facto) criminalisation.

During the last few years, the Nordic model has come under serious consideration in an increasing number of jurisdictions across the globe. This poses a threat to the sex industry.

One of the latest ways to try and discredit the model in this context has been to claim that it threatens the safety of women (linked to myth eight) and has the same outcomes as full criminalization (wherein there is criminal sanction for both male buyers and for prostituted women). Sex industry advocates frequently use this misrepresentation, but it has also been taken up by researchers, especially those working in criminology.

It should be readily apparent that any criminologist claiming that a legislative framework where those in prostitution are decriminalized, and offered targeted social services and exit programs as victims of crime, is the same as one where those in prostitution can be fined or incarcerated as perpetrators of a crime, is being intellectually dishonest.

But some have adapted the argument to assert that the Nordic Model works as de facto criminalization. This modified claim suggests that because buyers are criminalized, prostituted women are unlikely to report violent assaults and other crimes to police.

As a number of prostitution survivors have argued, however, this is counter-intuitive. In legalized and decriminalized systems it is often extremely difficult for prostituted women to secure convictions against buyers for sexual assault, or even to have police and prosecutors take such cases seriously. Whereas, under the Nordic Model, a buyer can be charged automatically, simply as a result of having paid for sex.

Furthermore, the de facto argument is exposed as almost entirely disingenuous by the fact that many using it favour the model of full decriminalization found in New Zealand. If it is women’s safety we are concerned about — and indeed we should be — then full decriminalization has not been found to offer any great police protection.

The New Zealand government’s five-year review of the Prostitution Reform Act showed that a majority of respondents felt that decriminalization made little or no difference with respect to the violence of johns/sex buyers in prostitution (p.14, p. 57), and that “few” prostituted persons “reported any of the incidents of violence or crimes against them to the Police” (p.122).

Last, but certainly not least, if we are to apply this same de facto logic to other legislative and policy options, the proponents of full decriminalization and legalization are in trouble. We know that full decriminalization and legalization lead to an increase in demand and in trafficking inflows (see myth five). So, if we are to judge and label these approaches only by a particular outcome, then proponents of full decriminalization and legalization will have to accept that they therefore support the de facto decriminalization of trafficking.


This is an edited excerpt from Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade. Edited by Dr Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. Available from Spinifex Press.

Meagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism.

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  • martindufresne

    Meagan certainly makes sense. Unfortunately, the editors who are so invested in defending a sex industry that bring them advertising bucks and thousands of clicks at the drop of cheesecake pics will ignore this logic and always find a bogus researcher or self-alleged representative of “sex workers” (who, coimcidentally, include pimps and brothel owners) to spout the reverse nonsense and tell male readers exactly what they want to hear, i.e. that their dick is the supreme standard.
    I put more faith in the governments pressured by the feminist movement, especially ehen they get nervous about the billions of dollars being siphoned off by the sex industry through exploited illegal immigrants brought in to service happy johns.

  • Tinfoil the Hat

    I frankly think it SHOULD be a crime to pay a woman to use her
    body as a toilet. All this bending over backward makes no sense to me.

  • i’m sure the war on prostitution will be just as successful as the war on drugs

    • Meghan Murphy

      Good point. Human women and girls are JUST like meth.

      • and governments have done such a great job of curbing the manufacture and use of meth, haven’t they? just like heroin and cocaine use is no longer a problem because of prohibition.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Maybe the government should focus on curbing the production of women?

          • why not? you apparently think gov’t can curb vice.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I do?

        • Alienigena

          So do you consider women and girls as persons in the law (including international law) with all the attendant rights and freedoms (from exploitation)? I don’t think you are clear on that point. You sound like just another hysterical male pseudo-progressive. Human rights (for men) but sorry, not for the ‘ladies’. From what does your outrage stem? The criminalization of your behaviours? Still don’t see how the control of women and girls ceases with legalization. There are still brothel owners and johns (who may sexually assault people they are buying sex from) who control many aspects of these women`s lives. Really tired of the Internet of Freaks where everything is a conspiracy and some great evil (in your case, the government) is out to get the conspiracy theorist.

  • Rachel

    Exactly! I’m so angry right now as part of an online social meet up group with various groups that can meet up, and one is philosophy. The next topic is the “ethics of sex work”. And in the explaination it goes on to say they are talking about “consensual activities” and not interested in talking about the globalisation of prostutution. Then the videos are linked are such things as “sex worker talks about the crimimalising sex work” (of course she is an ‘upper class’, lady in her 30’s or so and currently in the sex industry). Then the next of the videos is “prostitutes help disabled men have sex” … Safe to say the organiser of this group and topic is male. doesn’t sound like there will be much discussion going on here, and more likely a group of males stroking their own egos and dictating their needs and rights to women’s and girls bodies in “consensual” settings. Probably be talking down to and over any women who are there due to their husbands use of women, or young girls who think they can set up a fun and sexy career and life for themselves. Gross. I feel like I should go just to talk some sense into them but of course I know they won’t listen. They don’t want to listen. I wish I had someone in real life to talk to about these things and who could understand and be passionate about these things too.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Exactly. Never mind the fact that most people in the West use ‘drugs’ on a regular basis. They just happen to be legal drugs. The reasons people become addicted to drugs are complex, but substance abusers (especially women) most often have a history of trauma — with women, almost always sexual abuse. So, Mr. War on Drugs, how does that play into your narrative?

  • yeah, i consider women only 3/4 human just like black people. you are sooooo smart.

  • i wasn’t comparing prostitution to drug use. i was trying to point out that simply imprisoning people will solve nothing. arresting johns and pimps won’t lead to the end of misogyny or sexism.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh. At what point did any human being in the history of ever argue that “imprisoning people” or “arresting johns and pimps” will “lead to the end of misogyny or sexism”?

  • Meghan Murphy

    You are arguing with a thing that is not there, jeff. An invented argument that no one has made. They call it a “straw man.”

    • i’m not sure what your argument is anymore.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Well yes, that much is clear. If you read further under the ‘prostitution’ category, I promise thing will become clearer for you.

  • Meagan Tyler

    One of the most important elements was the removal of laws relating to solicitation:

    And given the visibility of street prostitution in France, as has been brought up many times by those both supporting and opposed to the new law, it is an important change.

    • Grope_of_Big_Horn

      I read the solicitation changes which affect street prostitution which despite being visible is still a minor part of prostitution. It was the ‘removing all punitive measures against them” claim I was querying, and what the benefits are to the majority of sex workers ( substitute your phrase to show they are victims ) who operate indoors.