Herizons magazine’s Spring 2014 issue contains a news feature by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Meghan MURPHY on the Nordic model issue, in which Swedish author Kajsa Ekis Ekman (Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, SPINIFEX Press, 2013) is interviewed.
It is shared here, with the author’s permission, for those who aren’t HERIZONS subscribers. ©Meghan Murphy, Herizons Magazine Spring 2014.
IS THE NORDIC PROSTITUTION MODEL FOR US?
BY MEGHAN MURPHY
Canada’s Parliament has another year to draft a new legal framework for prostitution, and many legal experts and feminists are pushing Ottawa to adopt a legal approach known as the Nordic model.
Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s laws relating to prostitution, ruling them unconstitutional. The Supreme Court challenge was organized by Toronto lawyer Alan Young, who served as counsel to three applicants in the case: Terri-Jean Bedford, the former owner of an S&M dungeon in Ontario, which was raided in 1994; Amy Lebovitch, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), a group that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution; and Valerie Scott, a former prostitute and the legal coordinator of SPOC.
Prostitution, or the selling of sex, was not technically illegal in Canada. However, related activities – including communication for the purposes of prostitution, running a brothel or living off the avails of prostitution (pimping) – were criminalized.
The litigants in the Bedford case would like prostitution to operate free from state interference or laws (decriminalization).
Others favour legalized prostitution, which would involve government regulation. Germany and the Netherlands legalized and regulated prostitution in the early 2000s in the hope that it would curb the illegal industry and trafficking, as well as make prostitution safer for women. Both jurisdictions, however, found an increase in exploitation.
Today, a growing number of countries are following a third approach called the Nordic model. First enacted in Sweden in 1999, the Nordic model criminalizes the purchase of sex but decriminalizes prostitutes themselves. It has been adopted by Sweden, Norway and Iceland. In December 2013, France passed a bill in Parliament to criminalize the purchase of sex but legalize the selling of it, and in February 2014 the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution supporting the same model, calling on EU countries to take the Nordic model as an example. Ireland is considering following suit.
In Canada, Justice Minister Peter MacKay has indicated that Ottawa will consider an approach that would punish pimps and johns while helping prostituted people transition out of the industry. Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau believes that « prostitution itself is a form of violence against women » and says the Liberals are looking at the Nordic model as an option. Manitoba’s NDP Justice Minister Andrew Swan has come out strongly favour of a Nordic approach, a position endorsed by Manitoba federal Conservative MP Joy Smith.
« The most effective route to tackling prostitution and sex trafficking is to address the demand for commercial sex by targeting the buyers of sex, » said Smith.
According to Kajsa Ekis Ekman, a Swedish journalist and the author of Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, Sweden broke new ground when it began researching prostitution in the 1970s. Its research was unique because researchers there talked to those who worked in the industry. Rather than approaching prostitution as an issue of moral deviance, as had been done in the past, researchers, women’s rights activists and social workers shifted the dialogue to focus on social inequality.
« It wasn’t about listening to a lobby group or to a few spokespeople, but looking at it systematically and actually talking to people in prostitution, » Ekman said.
The experience in Sweden, since adopting the model 15 years ago, has been positive, says Ekman. Prostitution has been cut in half, and violence has been reduced. She says no prostitutes have been murdered in Sweden since the legislation passed, whereas, in other countries, women in prostitution are 16 times more likely to be murdered than women who aren’t in prostitution.
In Canada, 171 female prostitutes were murdered between 1991 and 2004.
In Holland, Ekman says, murders of women who work in the legal shop windows of the famous red-light district are annual occurrences. In fact, many of the brothels and windows in the Netherlands have been closed as authorities discovered that brothels were being taken over by organized crime. Trafficking and child prostitution reportedly increased as well.
Backers of the Nordic model say it is rooted in a feminist ethos that says women’s bodies shouldn’t be bought and sold. The police in Sweden talk, as Ekman puts it, « as though they are radical feminists, » expressing disgust at the sexism of men who buy sexual services. It is more than just a law, she says, but a system that has effectively changed social perceptions of prostitution.
Polls show 80 percent of Swedes support the law and view prostitution as a product of gender inequality.
One of the most simple and powerful effects of Sweden’s law has been a reduction in the demand for paid sex. Before Sweden’s law changed, one in eight men paid for sex in the country; now it is one in 13. By comparison, in Germany, under legalization, one in four men buys sex. Since the goal is to reduce prostitution and trafficking, Ekman argues, curbing demand is essential.
Ekman adds that victims of sex trafficking, in which victims are tricked or forced into prostitution, also stand to benefit when buyers of sex services are criminalized. Most agree that in order for the Nordic model to work, efforts to curb prostitution must extend beyond police and courts.
« You have to support the women who want to leave, you have to educate and train the police-even help the men who buy sex to get therapy, » said Ekman.
In the biggest study ever done on people in prostitution, 800 people from nine countries were interviewed by researcher Melissa Farley. Farley, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Prostitution Research and Education, published a paper in 2003 after interviewing over 800 people involved in prostitution around the world.
Her research subjects included people in countries with legalized prostitution and in countries that criminalized various aspects of the industry. Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said they wanted to leave prostitution.
While debates continue about whether prostitution is a form of exploitation or should be a private transaction that is unregulated, Ekman believes prostitution is much more than a financial transaction. « Prostitution isn’t just about the people selling sex-it affects all people in society. »
Most of the men who buy sex are married, she says, « so it affects their wives and it affects their children, who learn that women are something you pay for. » More generally, it impacts gender relations, shapes the way boys and men view women, and is representative of the status of women worldwide.
« Seeing women as things that can be bought and sold is the essence of patriarchy, » according to Ekman. « As feminists, we want to abolish systems of domination, not keep them. »
In order to accomplish this, Ekman says, governments must also be encouraged to address the factors that lead women and girls into the industry, such as the effects of colonialism, sexual abuse, poverty, addiction, trauma and other factors that marginalize certain groups and contribute to their exploitation. While legislation is one part of addressing some of those systems of power, governments are also being urged to take a longer-term preventative approach.
©Meghan Murphy, Herizons Magazine Spring 2014.
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