Gloria Steinem supports the Nordic model

gloria steinmen

Gloria Steinem recently gave a talk in New Delhi about prostitution and trafficking. Again defying that old trope, forever pushed by advocates for the full decriminalization and/or legalization of prostitution, that pretends abolitionists are concerned with some kind of puritan morality and “sin,” Steinem stated: “Prostitution is not inevitable, it is only about unequal distribution of power.”

That’s right folks. Feminism is about fighting inequality; there is no “moral panic” or fear of sex. In fact, prostitution and trafficking has little to do with female sexuality (aside from that fact that it is perceived and represented as something that exists only for male pleasure) – rather it is about dehumanization. Abolition is about connecting a context of poverty with racism, colonialism, and male power and working from there.

Though it appears the points made in Steinem’s lecture were very clear, there was the inevitable response, accusing Steinem of being “moralistic” and of “conflating sex-work with ‘trafficking.'” This is one of the more popular go-to responses to any feminist who dares challenge the idea that prostitution happens because of inequality or suggests that the sex industry *might* not support women’s human rights.

Another response from Kumkum Roy challenged Steinem by saying that “…voices of dissent pointed out to the need to look at issues of poverty and labour in general, and locate sex work within that context, and/ or within a larger context of violence rather than homogenise all prostitutes/ sex workers.” – a strange response considering that feminists specifically view prostitution as something that exists because of poverty and within a larger context of violence against women.

There is, again, that desperate desire, on the parts of advocates for full decriminalization/ legalization, to separate prostitution from trafficking as though there is a clear division. As though, you know, American or Canadian women are all so free and liberated that coercion couldn’t possibly exist here, whereas other women who live in far, far, away places are the only ones whose choices are limited in this particular way. The only ones who are vulnerable to violence and abuse and coercion.

There may well be differences between prostitution and trafficking, particularly when we look at class divisions and the ways in which more privileged women are able to do sex work, vs. poor women, but there are also connections, as pointed out by Steinem – in that both situations are largely determined by inequality and “both are created by the same customers who want unequal sex.”

It is argued within the response from Shohini Ghosh that “sex-work” is merely something that happens between “consenting sexual adults,” again imagining that a clear line is drawn once money is exchanged. Needing money to survive and therefore electing to exchange sex for money does not equal, simply, “consent” and that argument certainly does not address the ways in which class, race, and gender lead women to “consent” to selling sex.

Steinem couldn’t have said it better:  “I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality.”

The same argument is often applied around young women and girls who are prostituted – once they turn 18 suddenly their pasts have disappeared, they are no longer vulnerable, no longer at risk for abuse, violence and coercion. Another magical line is drawn.

In any case, please go ahead and read the article yourselves, it is an extremely intelligent, clear response to the tired attacks and misrepresentations constantly applied to abolitionist arguments.

Steinem concludes by describing a third option that goes beyond the limited divide that pretends there is only legalization or criminalization; that option being the Nordic model:

But there is good news. The old polarization into legalization and criminalization is giving way to a more practical, woman-centered and successful Third Way: De-criminalize the prostituted persons, offer them meaningful choices, prosecute traffickers, pimps and all who sell the bodies of others, and also penalize the customers who create the market while educating them about its tragic human consequences.


Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • Olene

    Steinem has been an abolitionist for years, a fact careeristing liberal bloggers conveniently choose to ignore because milking her CELEBRITY! to boost their public profiles matters more to them than honesty and integrity.

    “Thanks for the feminist baton, now you can die off with the other whorephobic prudes.”

    Abolitionist feminists with no CELEBRITY! to serve the interests of libfems will continue to be strenuously shunned in all venues and characterized as haters of prostitutes, men, sex, freedom, money, and kittens.

  • Hi Meghan- where is the quote “I don’t think “consenting adults” is practical answer to structural inequality.”

  • Olene

    ps: Hillary Clinton is also an abolitionist. All the best feminists are.

    “I do not approve of legalized prostitution or any kind of prostitution. It is something that I personally believe is demeaning to women. I have worked against it and I have certainly taken a very strong stand against what happens in many parts of the world where young girls and women are forced into prostitution against their wills. I understand Nevada has a regulated system and it is within the authority of the state. So that is not a federal issue that we will have any role to play in when I am president. But I would obviously speak out against prostitution and try to persuade women that it is not — even in a regulated system — necessarily a good way to try to make a living. Let’s try to find other jobs that can be there for women who are looking for a good way to support themselves and their families.”

  • Funny, how “abolitionist” is a putdown when referring to people trying to stop the sale of women’s bodies, but it’s undiluted heroism when referring to people trying to free black bodies.

    Did the plantation owners even think of sneering at abolitionists as lazy good-for-nothings who were just against work? But now no self-justification is too off-the-wall to trot out. Progress?

    • Hari

      Well said, quixote. You are right–no justification for prostitution is too idiotic, or too minimally applicable to the majority of prostituted womyn, to be passed off as smart, liberal-minded and somehow liberating.

    • Olene

      Or worse, saying that black slavery abolitionists were wrong to shut down the public auction blocks when they should have regulated them like Craig’s List and apologists suggest.

    • Profiteers used the same arguments against the abolition of slavery that profiteers and pimp-apologists now use against the abolition of prostitution: that the system needs reform; slavery itself is not a bad thing, but some of the problems of slavery (working conditions, violence of some owners toward enslaved people, conditions of acquiring people to enslave) could be ameliorated–could be improved. Also, slavery could be comfortable for the slave–some of really care for their masters–and the masters NEED the slaves–
      Those liberals in the North have no idea what it’s like, being a slave owner, running a huge plantation–blahblahblah. same same. we have been here before.

  • WhiteTiger

    Personally, I’m against legalizing prostitution because I do think it’s morally wrong. Sex isn’t something you should sell.

    That set aside, I’m still unclear as to what you think is the best course of action? my gut feeling tells me women only choose prostitution as a last resort for making money, so if you want to abolish prostitution altogether, won’t you need some sort of program to create more jobs AND said women for those jobs?

    • Meghan Murphy

      Did you read the article? The Nordic model is the proposed course of action.

    • “Sex isn’t something you should sell.”

      Actually, sex isn’t something you should BUY.

      FYI, the nordic model does involve helping prostituted women find employment.

  • WhiteTiger

    ““Sex isn’t something you should sell.”

    Actually, sex isn’t something you should BUY.”

    Well, doesn’t one entail the other?

    • No. Buyers and sellers are two distinct groups with completely different power differentials. That’s why the Nordic model decriminalizes the sellers while criminalizing the punters/johns/sexual predators.

    • Meghan Murphy

      The difference is that women are selling sex because they have no other choice – i.e. they need to survive. Men have a choice to buy sex and that choice is attached to male power and privilege. The buying is the exploitative side, the selling happens because of inequality.

  • Ramona

    Saddened to find this article in the Grid T.O., a how-to for those looking to start a brothel, apparently.

    It’s clear from the comments how seriously confused people are on this issue. It’s just so mind-boggling how easily the cultural left is being co-opted by the sex industry. Realizing that the papers I grew up reading are actually advocating for the renting of women’s bodies.

  • euroreader
  • DV Diary

    Thanks for another important piece Meghan.

  • Mostly, the police found and arrested adult prostitutes and pimps. When the police go after underage prostitutes they mostly find and arrest adult prostitutes and johns. Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes?

    Why aren’t the police finding millions of children forced against their will to have sex for money? Because their aren’t millions of them. And what proof do they have that they were forced against their will?

    Why are the police just finding, and arresting consensual adults? Because the child victims either don’t exist or are very few in number. They use the excuse of children to arrest consenting adults. If they are just after children, they why don’t they leave the consenting adults alone? The police arrest the consenting adults that they find Why?

    If there is no children involved – why arrest the consenting adult prostitutes, johns, and pimps? They are no children involved? Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes? Because the police are mostly after adult prostitutes, not children.

    Were all the underage prostitutes forced and raped? crying, kicking and screaming while being forced, against their will to have sex for money?

    If a prostitute is 17 and under the age of 18, she can not give legal consent. So, she could have wanted to be a prostitute, and given consent for sex, but since she is underage, she can not give legal consent, so legally she was “forced” even if she gives total consent to sex and it was consensual – she was “forced” according to the court and justice system. There is a BIG difference between being legally “forced” and truly being physically forced against someone’s will.

    This gives the impression that all prostitutes under the age of 18 are “forced” when they may in fact, not have been. If fact, if two people who are both 17 years old have sex, they both are legally considered to be victims and sex predators at the same time. It is strange how the justice system works.

    Here is a good article from the Washington Post about this:

    Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence
    U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short
    By Jerry Markon
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, September 23, 2007

    There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, that receive fund from the government.

    When the police arrest customers of prostitutes and the prostitutes themselves:
    They try to get the adult women prostitutes to say that they were forced and victims of sex trafficking even though they weren’t.
    These adult women just flat out say, ‘Nope, that’s not what’s happening.’ No one is forcing me”
    Then the U.S. Attorney general, senators, the police and government officials say:
    “We have to help them realize they are victims,”
    They must be brainwashed by their pimps, and johns.
    They say that adult women do not have the ability to make decisions for themselves about sex, therefore
    The government must make all their decisions about sex and who they have sex with for them.
    So… the police are trying to invent victims? Where no victim exist?
    The adult women say that no one is forcing them to work in prostitution and the police don’t believe them?
    So the police want these adult women to lie? and the police are forcing the women to lie about being forced?
    I thought lying was wrong? And isn’t it against the law to lie? -Not for the police, attorney general and other government officials.

    Prostitutes are not forced they do the work of their own free will.
    Sex trafficking is illegal and the penalties are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a prostitute, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

  • Pingback: On Gloria Steinem’s birthday, let’s be reminded of one another’s humanity » Feminist Current()