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.

Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."