New research, commissioned by the Northern Irish Ministry of Justice and released on 18th September 2019, shows that four years of the “Nordic Model” in Northern Ireland have had no impact on the prevalence of prostitution. The evidence shows the clear failures of the model in achieving its stated aims.
Key findings of the review:
No decrease in the number of sex workers in Northern Ireland following the law change
56.7% of sex workers surveyed felt that the law had made sex work more dangerous, while 29.1% felt that it had made no difference to their safety
Sex workers reported “higher levels of anxiety and unease, and increased stigmatisation”
The legislation provided no new “exit” services for people wishing to leave sex work and no new funding for existing support services
Despite the rhetoric of “abolishing prostitution” which supporters of the Nordic Model espouse, data from Northern Ireland shows there was no decrease in the number of sex workers in the country following the introduction of the law. In fact, the number of sex workers advertising online in Northern Ireland increased by 18.5% following the passing of the law.
Because of the focus in the Nordic Model on strict laws on “brothel keeping”, indoor sex workers are criminalised if they work together with another person for safety. In the first brothel raid following the law change in which a man was arrested for purchasing sex, three women at the property were also arrested on suspicion of “brothel keeping”. These laws are used overwhelmingly to target migrant women: recent research from the Republic of Ireland found that that 85% of those convicted in Ireland for ‘brothel keeping’ in recent years were migrant women.
The research found a significant increase in abusive behaviour targeted at sex workers, such as harassing phone calls, which some sex workers who were interviewed attributed to the climate of increased media attention and stigma following the public debate around the law.
Despite claims that the Nordic Model shifts the burden of criminality to the buyer and away from the sex worker, the data shows that “increased police and media attention impacts most harshly on those who sell sex without significantly deterring those who might buy, leaving the heaviest burden of the law to be felt by sex workers themselves.”
Research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice before the legal change in 2014 found that 98% of Northern Irish sex workers opposed the criminalisation of clients. Their concerns were completely ignored. The same research also found that there was no evidence that the Nordic Model would either improve conditions for sex workers or reduce trafficking.
We urge policy makers in Northern Ireland to engage with the overwhelming amount of evidence in support of the full decriminalisation of sex work, and to consult with sex worker led organisations to implement laws that will really improve our lives.
Westminster also needs to pay attention to this damning evidence from Northern Ireland before imposing similar “End Demand” legislation of the rest of the UK. The Women and Equalities Select Committee is currently holding an inquiry into potential legal reforms to prostitution law. Labour MPs Sarah Champion and Jess Phillips, who sit on the committee, are vocal campaigners for the Nordic Model and have praised Northern Ireland’s approach.
The evidence from Northern Ireland bears many similarities to previous studies undertaken in other countries which have introduced “Nordic Model” prostitution laws. In France, which introduced criminalisation of clients in 2016, 63% of sex workers interviewed about the impact of the law by human rights organisation Medecins du Monde stated that they have experienced deterioration of their living conditions, more isolation and greater stress.
“The so-called Nordic Model is not only a harmful approach which increases violence against sex workers, it’s a dangerous distraction from the real changes we urgently need to help improve sex workers’ lives. We need full decriminalisation and access to labour rights - we also need an end to benefits cuts, low-wage precarious work and the hostile environment which sees migrant sex workers arrested and locked up in detention centres.” Lydia Caradonna, SWARM spokesperson
“The Nordic Model, which aims to end demand, is often called the ‘feminist’ model for legislating the sex industry when in fact it is the complete opposite. There is nothing feminist about laws which empower the state to exert control over women’s bodies. There is no feminist victory in the number of sex working women who have been arrested and charged with brothel-keeping for working together for safety. We need to call these laws what they are: another moral crusade orchestrated by the same politicians that fight against reproductive rights.” Maria, London-based sex worker
“As evidenced, criminalisation of sex work - regardless of whether the focus of the law is on the purchase or sale of sex - harms primarily the sex workers themselves. This is why sex workers advocate for the decriminalisation of the sex industry; when workers are able to operate in full view of the law, they find themselves more able to assert boundaries, access justice and resources and are even able to organise in their workplaces to improve conditions. We call on Northern Ireland to recognise the harm caused by the Nordic Model and decriminalise the sex industry for the safety of those working within it.” Molly Gerlach-Arthurs, Decrim Now spokesperson
“The disastrous implementation of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland is a shining example of why sex worker voices need to be heard. Sex workers warned that the Nordic Model would increase violence. Sex workers warned that these laws would not decrease the size of the sex industry. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that legislators should ask sex workers what we need and listen when we say that we need decriminalisation. We are experts on our own lives and safety.” Jeni P, sex worker, member of x-talk
The full research is available at: https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/publications/assessment-impact-criminalisation-purchasing-sexual-services
Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK which criminalises the act of paying for sex. The ban was introduced as part of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act (2015). Outdoor soliciting was decriminalised, but brothel-keeping laws were retained under which two or more people selling sex from an indoor premises is illegal.
In the rest of the UK, paying for sex without coercion is legal, as is the act of selling sex itself. However, various laws criminalise activities associated with sex work: soliciting, working indoors with another person (‘brothel keeping’), and third party involvement.