In 1999, Sweden was the first country in the world formally adopted a position of criminalizing clients to close down the sex trade. Over twenty years later, six more countries have followed suit — so why are we still relying on guesses at how this policy plays out?
In 1999, Sweden adopted a law which criminalized those who sought or purchased the services of people who sold sex as part of a swath of policies which were debated over the lens of gender equity. Despite pleas from sex workers and advocates who said this was not a conversation on gender parity, but a debate reinforcing class divisions, the law passed, creating the criminal penalties and increasing policing budgets by $7m crowns for enforcement.
Almost immediately, the law was hailed as a success, and Swedish officials roamed the world, asking other countries to adopt similar models. The policy, (which has become known as the Nordic Model, End Demand Model, Equity Model, or asymmetrical criminalization), has since been adopted in some form in six additional countries — Northern Ireland, France, Canada, Iceland, Norway, and Israel. In the United States, anti-sex work advocates have been pushing this model from the city to the federal level. But many of these debates continue to rely on speculative data and modeling estimates — guesses at what the law is supposed to do — instead of the actual information on what the policy has done.
Of the seven countries which have adopted the policy, five have reports from NGOs and/or government bodies which actually looked at the impact on people who trade sex.(1) With everything from incidents of violence to trafficking to accessing services and resources, the results are staggering similar — despite widespread celebration, no one can report an improvement in the lives of people who trade sex.
Attacking Demand, Escalating Violence: The Impact of Twenty Years of End Demand Implementation on People who Trade Sex summarizes the impact from five different countries. This paper collects the information available from every report which spoke to people with lived experience and/or service providers on how the bill has impacted their lives was included, regardless of their ultimate view of the bill as either a success or failure. It is clear that after twenty two years, if we care about the lives of people who trade sex, this policy can only be pointed to as a failure. Below are some of the consistent findings.
It doesn’t change whether people trade sex — It Changes the Conditions under which people trade sex
In each country, people who traded sex reported various changes in the conditions under which the operated, noting the passage of the law as the catalyst. In areas where street-based policing and harassment increased, people either migrated to other physical locations, or moved online to avoid police. This not only meant more isolation from peers and supports, but challenges for service providers trying to offer resources.
The increase in criminalization also disrupted the ways in which workers were able to find and talk to clients — including negotiations. Workers reported more challenges in having to rush negotiations, meaning less time to declare boundaries and assess whether a client was dangerous. In Sweden, sex workers said they had to “rush transactions, leading to greater risk-taking in client selection and making it more difficult for sex workers to alert others if they are in danger and to extricate themselves from dangerous situations.” Clients also trusted the workers less — meaning sex workers would have to accommodate clients’ fear, and cater more to their requests. This resulted in a poorer negotiation power with clients — including those who pretended to be clients in order to enact harm.
All of this resulted in, and contributed to, reduced income for sex workers. But reduced income does not mean reduced bills — and it certainly doesn’t mean a reduced demand of income for those being exploited and trafficked. Sex workers had to see more clients, lower prices, and offer services they had not previously offered in order to attempt to make the same amount they had before.
Reports of Violence Go Up
In multiple countries, sex workers and service providers reported increases in violence, pointing to the worsening conditions for sex workers overall as contributing to vulnerability. Northern Ireland, which has a centralized system of reporting violence in the country, immediately saw increases in assaults, sexual violence and threatening behavior. Other countries noted both an increase in the incidents of violence, and an increase in severity of the violence — especially before someone would consider reporting the incident.
One country, Norway, did note a reduction in violence against sex workers — but only white sex workers. As the country pursued a policy which specifically targeted racialized women, equating race with migration status, which manifested in increases in violence towards Black/Nigerian (2) sex workers. As one worker described, “Most customers do harass us because they can do anything to us. White women are more relaxed because they know police will help them.”
No Change in the Size of the Sex Trade
One of the main claims against decriminalization and for the increase in policing, is that overall, the size of the sex trade will decrease. While many saw a migration to different areas, not facing criminal penalty was not driving people into the sex trade, and criminalization wasn’t moving people out. Sex workers trade sex in order to access resources, clients access services for a range of intimacy and personal needs. Criminalization caused movement to other areas and platforms — not other jobs.
The only country which reported a decrease in the overall size of the sex trade, Norway, also engaged in a policy that no other country employed — Operation Homelessness. The four year program, which law enforcement openly admits it engaged in, targeted racialized workers, and engaged tactics of forced eviction, including sending letters to landlords threatening criminal penalty. This targeting led to the immediate eviction of sex workers of color en masse. The workers ultimately left to other areas of the EU due to the targeted police harassment. Oslo police, who were responsible for the development of this tactic, noted that prior to the passage of the law, they had not considered it “a very high priority.”
No Changes in Trafficking of Workers
Despite being one of the most cited reasons for passage of the law is the assumption that it curbs trafficking, or exploitation, of people who trade sex. No country has been able to demonstrate this link, either in increasing or decreasing incidents of trafficking. While Sweden has often cited that they have sought to address trafficking through these policies, Swedish police have twice cited that there has been no drop. Police in Northern Ireland have also reported no changes in the incidents of trafficking.
We have evidence. Lets use it.
After twenty two years, relying on guesses and economic modelling isn’t just unnecessary, it’s negligent. We have the information on the impact across multiple countries, and as these conversations ripple through the country, it is incumbent upon advocates and policymakers to understand that these policies will only retrench the violence that people who trade sex experience.
- While seven countries have passed these regimes, only five are included in this paper. While Iceland passed the law on paper, it was never funded and therefore, never implemented and so the impact cannot be assessed. Israel criminalized the purchase of sex in 2019 and went into effect in 2020, therefore data on its impact is not yet available. For a discussion on the bill’s challenges from Israeli news, including two advocates who have opposing views on the bill but share critiques on implementation, watch here.
- Many of the reports on the impact on the ban’s passage in Norway exclusively used the term “Nigerian” to describe racialized sex workers of the African diaspora. It was not clear from reports why Nigerian was exclusively used, or how they identified the women as exclusively Nigerian.