Criminalization turns an act into a crime. Criminalization turns a citizen into a criminal. Criminalization turns a community into a target population.

The United States’ approach to sex work is full criminalization, meaning the selling sex, buying sex, and all people and spaces which allow or facilitate commercial sex, are all subject to criminal penalty. Some anti-sex work advocates are pushing states to adopt a model of partial criminalization Nordic Model, also known as End Demand, which criminalizes and polices the purchasers of sexual services and creates immense collateral harm for people in the sex trades. Despite sex workers reporting harm in every country where this model has been implemented, this trend has continued.

Where to begin: Global Network of Sex Workers’ Projects’ Policy Guide on The Impact of End Demand Legislation on Women Sex Workers.

What is the Nordic Model?

Referred to as the Nordic Model, this form of criminalizing the sex trades began in 1996 when it was introduced in Sweden. Since 1996, multiple countries have implemented this model, despite the protests and push back from sex workers who would be impacted by these laws. The assumption of End Demand legislation is that all experiences in the sex trade are inherently exploitative and violent, undermining the autonomy and basic dignity of sex workers, and the laws promote vulnerability, stigma and exacerbate existing rifts between people in the sex trades and law enforcement. Which countries criminalize the purchase of sexual services?

Importantly, even in countries where there are no criminal penalties for prostitution itself, interaction with law enforcement still exposes people in the sex trades to arrest for other charges. Sex workers in countries with this model regularly see charges such as possession of substances or paraphernalia, irregular documentation or in countries which criminalize organization of prostitution, sex workers who work collectively. Read more about two migrant sex workers who were arrested and held for nine months for “brothel-keeping” – because they were working together.

Why does it still hurt people in the sex trades?

The criminalization of clients of the sex trade continues to rely on policing of the sex trades in order to enforce laws, and replicates or exacerbates the same harms. Sex workers from the many countries where it has been implemented have consistently reported the following impacts:

  • Increases in interpersonal violence: After three months of increasing policing of local strolls in Montreal, local group “Stella recorded dramatic increases in violence experienced by sex workers working on the street,” leading “the local police prefect [to acknowledge] that the targeting of clients had been an ineffective response to sex work in the community.
  • None or negative changes in working conditions overall. In Canada, 72% of workers reported no change in their working conditions, while 26% of sex workers reported negative changes in working conditions.
  • Decreases in income: In France,  78% of sex workers reported a drop in income, as well as the increased competition leading to a drop in prices, compounding the loss.
  • Less trust in law enforcement for sex workers: Increases in policing and surveillance have led to “feelings they cannot trust or turn to the police for assistance.”
  • Less trust in law enforcement for clients: This feeling is pervasive to both sellers and buyers of sexual services, and “clients who would have previously helped to report violence, coercion or other abuse towards a sex worker are now much more reluctant to go to the police for fear of their own arrest.
  • Decrease in access to services: In Canada, sex workers reported a 41% decrease in access to health services and a 21% reduction in access to community-based resources and services since the passage of the PCEPA. This may be partially attributed to contract restrictions on service provider funding which prioritizes exit-based services.
  • Increases in stigma: After implementation, sex workers have reported “increase in stigma from service providers…, anti-prostitution activists, and the general population.”

See the Impact of Criminalization.

Why End Demand Exacerbates Trafficking

While many of these policies are sold under the auspices of fighting trafficking, there is no evidence that these policies decrease exploitation, and instead extensive evidence that it causes sex workers increased harm. Trafficking is the exploitation of a person by another through force, fraud or coercion. Legislation which makes sex workers more precarious and more dependent increase vulnerability to exploitation by third parties – especially who can help a sex worker find clients. Additionally, when resources are put to arrest clients of the sex trade and not towards exploitation or trafficking, victims in all industries suffer. Finally, despite its implementation in multiple countries in the last two decades, there is no country which can point to a decrease in trafficking and exploitation as a result.

Read Freedom Network’s End Demand Fact Sheet.

Read Freedom United’s Response to Scottish Government’s ‘Equally Safe: challenging men’s demand for prostitution’ consultation.

Read Moving Beyond Supply and Demand: Assessing the Uses and Limitations of Demand-Based Approaches in Anti-Trafficking from the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women.

Impact on Migration

Anti-prostitution legislation has a long history of being interwoven with immigration regulation, both domestically and abroad. End Demand implementation has also reflected this by continuing to subject migrant sex workers to police profiling and deportation. Migrant workers in Sweden have reported that not only are they subject to deportation, but also inform landlords in order to force eviction. One migrant sex worker in France described the impact on finding clients, saying, “Now I do not have time to analyse which is the good and the bad customer, as soon as someone offers me something I say yes to everything. So it increases the risk of finding myself in a violent situation.” In multiple countries, migrant sex workers describe racial profiling and targeting by law enforcement.

Read more: This thread from migrant sex worker-focused Red Canary Song on housing and the Nordic Model.