The ‘Swedish model’ is based on the assumption that sex workers are victims, and their clients are predators, that prostitution is “an aspect of male violence against women and children”. Consequently, it criminalises the buying of sex, without criminalising those selling it. Promoted by a coalition of some women’s organisations, conservative politicians, including the Bush administration, and religious groups, it is spreading beyond its original home, with Finland changing its law in this direction last year and Norway on the verge of following suit.
Set against the Swedish approach is what is known as the New Zealand model, of total decriminalisation of the sale and purchase of sex by consenting adults, with the focus being on ensuring the safety and rights of workers in the industry. The law there, passed in 2003, allows up to four sex workers to operate from premises without any form of licencing, although local councils can ban brothels from certain areas. Any place that is used for sex work must display health promotion messages, and make condoms available, and there are strong measures within the law to indicate that no worker can be asked to do anything against their will.
Sadly, further impetus was given to the debate in the UK by the killing of five women who were sex workers in Ipswich. It was that, and the push towards the “Swedish model” of regulation coming from Europe, that led the English Coalition of Prostitutes to launch the Safety First campaign this July, which describes itself as “a coalition to decriminalise sex work and prioritise all women’s and children’s safety”.
One way of looking at these issues is philosophical. The two models have very different answers to the question of whether an informed, free adult might make a reasonable choice to take up sex work, and whether society should accept that they have the right to do so.
Green Party policy comes down on the libertarian side. It says that “that the law should not seek to regulate consensual sexual activities between adults where those do not affect others”, adding that “where there are such effects, a balance must be reached”. It notes, however, that this is “an industry which can be more exploitative than others, and those who work in it should be adequately protected … and there should be zero tolerance of coercion, violence, or sexual abuse (including child abuse)”.
But beyond the philosophical debate there is another, and more urgent, practical issue, as highlighted by the deaths in Ipswich: how to best protect the human rights – the basic right to life and wellbeing - of sex workers. While the “Swedish model” claims to be trying to protect prostitutes, critics say that by driving the industry further underground, into the darkness – often literally in the case of a move from main thoroughfares to hidden alleys and ill-lit back streets - it makes the sex workers more vulnerable to violence, more open to exploitation, less accessible to those trying to help them and ensure their safety.
The Swedish model is also utterly opposed to the use of premises for sex work, despite the fact that workers in environments such as brothels are ten times safer than those on the streets. And being in the company of a woman in possession of a number of condoms, for example, might be used as evidence against a man charged with purchasing sex – something that would hardly encourage safe working practices.
Further, as a former prostitute woman told the Green Party conference in Liverpool, some customers might even be encouraged in violent actions against prostitutes, since the sex worker would be able to testify against them without any legal penalty herself under the Swedish law.
The British government obviously feels uncomfortable about the current prostitution law, an uneven mishmash dating back largely to the 1950s that see prostitution itself as legal while criminalising many of the actions commonly associated with it, including soliciting and brothelkeeping. It has ordered a number of reviews, but has not taken a comprehensive approach to changing the law, although there has been an increasing use in recent years of Asbos against sex workers, often in an attempt to stop them operating in particular areas.
As with other uses of Asbos, the Safety First coalition points that this makes prostitution de facto a jailable offence - a state action that was explicitly abolished by the Thatcher government. In addition, the coalition has called for an end to the deportation of trafficked sex workers, so that they can testify against their traffickers. The coalition is also concerned about a clause in the new Criminal Justice Bill, being debated as Green World went to press. “Clause 72” allows a court to force a sex worker to seek treatment or counselling just for being a sex worker, with the eventual possible sanction of being held in custody for up to 72 hours for not complying with the order.
Safety First has won backing for its approach from the Royal College of Nurses, the National Association of Probation Officers, Baroness Vivien Stern, former chair of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, among other groups. And after hearing speakers on the issue at the Green Party autumn conference in Liverpool, and in line with Green Party policy, Jean Lambert, MEP, and Sian Berry, principal speaker, signed the Safety First petition.
The petition can be found at:http://www.allwomencount.net/EWC%20Sex%20Workers/safety_first%20petition.htm