In February of this year, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2015 was passed by the houses of the Oireachtas. The Bill was passed in the Dáil by 94 votes to 6, with 3 abstentions, and will be reviewed after three years. While this now means that victims of sex crime and child sexual abuse are afforded more protection under the law, particularly in a courtroom environment, and a definition of ‘consent’ in Irish law, there has been a huge amount of controversy surrounding one of the Bill’s central provisions: namely, the introduction of the Nordic Model to Ireland.
The Nordic Model was first enacted in Sweden in 1999. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Swedish Model’, the main difference between this and other models of sex work legislation is that it criminalises the buyer of sexual services rather than the provider. Originally brought about by lobbyists who perceived all sex work to be a form of patriarchal control over women, proponents of the Nordic Model believe that it lessens the number of sex workers operating within a country, discourages human trafficking, and sends a moral message – that paying for any kind of sexual service is wrong and inherently exploitative. The issue with the Nordic Model is that, while those who support it are generally well-meaning, it simply doesn’t work to rectify any of the abuses it claims to combat.
Kate McGrew, of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI), released a statement following the passing of the Bill, describing it as “an empty moral gesture which will cause harm to the most marginalised in society.”
“The government’s moral crusade was driven by ideology not evidence,” she continued. “National and international expert groups provided clear evidence criminalisation of the purchase of sex is not only ineffective but would be harmful to the health and safety of sex workers across Ireland.”
These expert groups include WHO, UNAIDS, sex workers themselves, and Amnesty International, who published a report in 2016 calling for the full decriminalisation of consensual sex work. This report was published following a two-year study that, unlike many studies of the same kind, actively included sex worker voices. What the evidence has overwhelmingly shown is that criminalising the purchase of consensual services does far more harm than good. While follow-up studies in Sweden have indicated a drop in the number of sex workers operating on the streets, this group comprises only about 10% of sex workers overall, and it is far more likely that these workers have been forced to move further underground in order to protect their clientele. The Nordic Model simply adds to the significant stigma already faced by sex workers, and may be making working conditions increasingly dangerous. According to escort-ireland.com, rising levels of violence seem to characterise all jurisdictions where the purchase of sexual services is illegal.
The Nordic Model is also dangerous insofar as it doesn’t differentiate between consensual sex work and human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. There is a marked difference between choosing to perform a service and being coerced to do it through threats of violence: we do not consider working part-time in a local shop comparable to forced child labour, for example. That is why labour laws exist. Failing to recognise the difference between these two realities is incredibly harmful, as all it does is reinforce stigmatising prejudices – if society views sex workers as helpless victims who aren’t quite helpless enough to be entirely innocent, we neglect both those who engage with the profession as rational and consenting adults, and those who are being exploited and genuinely need assistance.
Sex workers and advocacy groups are calling for the decriminalisation of consensual sex work. This will afford them the equal status under the law needed to enact laws and change that will actually be of benefit to them. Until sex work is recognised as legitimate work, and ceases to be conflated with human trafficking, workers will continue to face violence and prejudice that they can do next to nothing to legally rectify. These conditions are impossible under the Nordic Model.
“We are appalled this Government is going against international expert opinion to bring in a law which jeopardises our safety, removes our bodily autonomy, and puts us at further risk of poverty,” says McGrew. “SWAI therefore looks forward to the review in three years’ time — a review which should examine the law’s impact on our health, well-being, and ability to protect ourselves from violence.”