The Abolition Model

My journey to raise awareness of modern slavery started with a sponsored walk I began with my son when he was 3 ½ years old. As my daughter’s 4th birthday was rapidly approaching, it was time for her to start her own big walk.

As it is a walk for her as well as a walk to raise awareness of modern slavery, I thought we would specifically raise awareness and funds for women coming out of modern slavery. This also ties in with The Clewer Initiative’s Lent theme for 2021, which was Women in the Shadows.

We are raising funds for two local projects that help women coming out of modern slavery, the Amies Freedom Choir and the Medaille Trust Moving on Project in Kent. Please consider finding our more about these two initiatives and donating on our Just Giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/walkforwomenintheshadows?utm_term=4XrXRJrZB and/or following our updates on our Instagram page: http://www.instagram.com/rochesteragainstmodernslavery/.

We set off along the High Weald Landscape Trail on 16 October 2021 and managed 8 miles out of 90 before succumbing to Covid-19. We finally resumed our walk yesterday and hope to finish by Anti-Slavery Day on 18 October of this year.

Modern slavery first came on to my radar in 2016 in the context of domestic servitude, which I have written about before. However, today I would like to write about the heinous crime of forced prostitution of women and girls.

I watched a BBC2 documentary called Doing Money in 2018. It is a documentary that I will never ever get out of my mind. I am not sure I can even recommend watching it because it is so distressing. What makes matters worse is that the Director of the documentary later claimed that she left some of the more disturbing material out as she thought that would make the documentary unwatchable. The documentary very nearly made me give up on the fight against modern slavery because I thought my poor mind could not face even hearing about it. Fortunately, my boss at the time convinced me to carry on, but maybe to be more careful about what I watched in the future!

Since watching Doing Money, I have been very interested in what can be done to combat forced prostitution in particular. It started to dawn on me that the only way of making a dent in eradicating forced prostitution is to reduce the demand for prostitution itself. If it is so difficult to successfully prosecute the traffickers and slave holders, then why not prosecute those that are driving the demand, the consumers?

Currently, in the UK it is illegal to purchase sex from someone who has been forced, coerced or deceived into prostitution, but the maximum sentence for this crime is so lenient that the police do not find it worthwhile to charge such consumers.

So, you can imagine how excited I was to find out about the Nordic model, which is an approach that criminalises the purchase of sex and pimping, but decriminalises prostituted individuals. In addition to the legislative component, the model includes programs to prevent the purchase of sex and to provide resources for women who want to exit prostitution. The first country to apply it, in 1999, was Sweden, followed by Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, Ireland and Israel.

I then discovered that Dame Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, introduced a Sexual Exploitation Bill as a Private Members’ Bill at the end of 2020. If passed, this would have introduced a Nordic model approach to prostitution law and policy in England and Wales. Unfortunately, it never reached the second reading stage. I was surprised to find out how controversial it was. I was even more astounded to discover some of the organisations that were vehemently against it, for example Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Nursing and Women Against Rape. They all believe in full decriminalisation of prostitution. They claim that, if the purchase of sex were criminalised, prostitutes would be exposed to more violence, would have worse relationships with the police and would be less likely to use condoms, as prostitution would be driven further underground. They claim that “sex work” (the more politically correct term) is empowering for women and a normal kind of work, in which the only problems are how it is policed and people’s negative attitude towards it. Quotes from trade unions for sex workers are often cited to back up these claims.

However, this did not sit well with me. I wondered what proportion of women who are in prostitution are there voluntarily and what proportion of women who believe they are there voluntarily were not highly vulnerable when they entered the trade and were not coerced into it in some way.

On a Justice and Coffee podcast called From slavery in chocolate to Amsterdam’s red light district – let’s talk justice, Bryn Frere-Smith spoke to Esta Steyn-Jansen, Director of the Be Slavery Free campaign group and Human Trafficking Specialist at the Salvation Army Holland. She said: “A really good friend of mine was exploited in the sex industry for 5 years and it took her 15 years to admit that she was being exploited because she was in love with the trafficker and she willingly worked for him. He never paid her a penny. She didn’t get a cent of those 5 years of work.”

Then, by chance, I came across this article called Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill: The Debate by Anna Fisher: https://nordicmodelnow.org/2021/01/11/dame-diana-johnsons-sexual-exploitation-bill-the-debate/. I found it absolutely fascinating and disturbing. I would really recommend everybody read it. Amongst other things, the article compares the campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex with the campaign to ban asbestos: “When the damage that asbestos causes could no longer be denied, the bosses came up with ever more creative tactics. They said that indeed there are some dangerous forms of asbestos but that wasn’t what was used in the industry. They set up lobbying organisations with names that implied neutrality, such as the Asbestos Research Council. They vilified and harassed scientists who published inconvenient results, and they funded scientists to claim there were no risks, or only very small and occasional ones that could easily be mitigated. This made it very difficult for people to see and understand the truth of what was going on and as a result the widespread use of asbestos continued. It’s important to understand these dynamics and tactics because we see them repeated again and again. Similar tactics were used by the tobacco lobby and are still used in various other lucrative fields today, including by those who lobby for the sex industry.”

The article then goes on to discuss academic research that seems to prove that the Nordic model worsens the situation for prostitutes and analyses the reality on the ground in Sweden, which was the first county to introduce the Nordic model approach and is a country that has had the time and political will to iron out many of the implementation problems that are still seen elsewhere. The article also looks at academic research on the situation in countries that have implemented full decriminalisation.

Finally, the article talks about some of the people behind the campaigns of Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation for the full decriminalisation of prostitution. The author claims that there were pimps behind both campaigns and that the pimp behind Amnesty International’s campaign was also an activist in the International Union of Sex Workers, a United Kingdom-based trade union for sex workers. At first, I thought this was a bit far-fetched, but then I started reading more articles on the subject and discovered that even articles in mainstream newspapers were quoting brothel owners and pimps and claiming that they represented the views of prostitutes themselves. A recent BBC article I read, which coincidentally was pro-Nordic model, quoted a German brothel owner as saying: “the 2002 law has helped give prostitutes self-confidence”. I wondered why the BBC was interviewing a brothel owner instead of a prostitute to find out the impact of German law on prostitutes.

Anna Fisher is the Chair of the campaign group Nordic Model Now!, which I now follow and, as a result, I read this extremely interesting article called The Nordic Model of Prostitution: A change in perspective in protection of human dignity by Dr Ingeborg Kraus about the situation in Germany: https://nordicmodelnow.org/2021/09/18/the-nordic-model-of-prostitution-a-change-in-perspective-in-protection-of-human-dignity/. As in Holland, prostitution in Germany is legal and regulated. Dr Kraus discusses not only the practical impacts of the Nordic model, but also the impact of the model on the morality of society at large: “States have to be aware of the messages sent to society particularly in regards to the protection of vulnerable people since criminal laws solidify social norms.” Should it be legal and someone’s human right to purchase sex from someone who is probably extremely vulnerable and may even be trapped in a particularly violent and degrading form of modern slavery? Dr Kraus suggests that the Nordic model is capable of changing moral norms: “When Sweden introduced the Sex Purchase Ban in 1999 about 30% of the population was opposed to the practice of sex buying. As a consequence of the law, a clear transformation of public consciousness has taken place, because today about 70% of Swedes reject sex buying.”

I should warn you that Dr Kraus’ article is a harrowing read and very graphic in parts. I do not wish to repeat those details here, but I do want to touch on the dehumanising effects of prostitution that she describes: “She is dehumanized, she is only that: A body with no soul. This allows the sex buyer any form of unscrupulousness, his compassion is blocked, and indifference takes its place.” Towards the end of her article, she quotes Parisian law professor Muriel Fabre-Magnan on that indifference at a societal level: “Those who repeat over and over again that prostitution is a job like any other should be mandated to go to the streets and service 20 buyers a night […]. The lack of imagination that many have is really about ‘not wanting to see what’s going on’, which finally results in total indifference to the suffering of others.”

So why have I called this blog “The Abolition Model” rather than “The Nordic Model”? Most recently, I listened to a Justice and Coffee podcast called Faith, Porn and Justice with Benjamin Nolot, Director of the multi-award winning human trafficking documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls and more recent documentaries Liberated: The New Sexual Revolution and Raised on Porn and CEO of the Exodus Cry campaign group. Benjamin Nolot prefers to refer to the Nordic model as the abolition model. This really rang true with me: “As an abolitionist, I reject the term ‘sex work’ altogether because of what it implies. In my view, sex and desire are inextricably linked and when you have sex without desire that results in exploitation regardless of [whether] somebody’s getting paid for it. […]One person wants the sex, one person doesn’t, therefore payment takes place, but that doesn’t solve the fact that, even though that payment is taking place, the person is going to experience that sex as a form of sexual violation and so they have to disassociate and go through all kinds of mental gymnastics in order to survive the experience of prostitution. […]I view prostitution as a system of violence, exploitation and gender inequality and, as a result of that, I want to eradicate it. I think that the abolition or Nordic model of legislation has proven to be the most effective means to do that. […]Even the Chief of Police in Sweden speaks very highly of this law and is one of the greatest advocates of it because he has seen the effectiveness of it.”

There have been many times, during the course of writing this blog, that I have doubted myself. Does the abolition model cause more harm than good? Many people that I admire have serious doubts about it or are against it. However, my practical mind continuously tells me that the only way of reducing the number of women and girls in forced prostitution is to reduce the demand for prostitution in general. Until prostitution is considered morally wrong and the purchase of sex results in a significant penalty, that demand is not going to go away. Why should we consider prostitution in general morally wrong if some prostitutes are telling us that they have entered the industry voluntarily? I did not think that I would ever quote from mumsnet, but @SorryAuntLydia summarises my feelings on this point perfectly: “However much it might make economic sense for an individual to choose to sell a kidney or a baby, we consider it unacceptable to protect the greater good, including protecting those at risk of coercion and abuse. For the same reasons it is unacceptable to treat prostitution as a normal job just because some women say they want to do it. I don’t care if you love being a hooker; your individual choices impact all women – and men – in our society, including those who do need our ‘kind of protection’.”

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