Last week, the lower house of French parliament passed a bill that, if made into law, would decriminalize the selling of sex. The idea behind the bill is to crack down on human trafficking, which all too often is connected to sex work, and address the demand for prostitution while supporting women trapped in the industry. Based on what’s commonly referred to as the Nordic model after a law was adopted by Sweden in 1999, the French bill would fine those who hire prostitutes in an effort to wipe out the sex trade entirely. Similar schemes have been implemented in Iceland and Norway, and one is under consideration in Ireland.
Though the model has been extremely successful in Sweden, reducing both trafficking and street prostitution dramatically, other countries and human rights groups are still wavering on whether it should be exported all over the world. UNAIDS, the United Nations' commission on HIV and AIDS, recently seemed to voice its support for either legalizing or fully decriminalizing the sex trade (a.k.a., regulating the already-existing industry), and Canadian courts are considering striking down the laws that criminalize pimps and johns.
Recent efforts to frame prostitution as “sex work” are strongly connected to this push to completely decriminalize the industry. And while some might argue that the term “prostitution” is outdated and disrespects the women in trade (as Sarah Ratchford did in her recent VICE article), according to some prostitution survivors and feminist organizations, the terms "sex work" and "sex worker" are disrespectful and offensive for a myriad of reasons.
Sometimes framed as a politically correct approach, the language of “sex work” and the discourse surrounding it has been adopted by some as a way to normalize and sanitize the sex industry—while also, many claim, erasing the exploitative aspects that are inherent to prostitution. Bridget Perrier is an Aboriginal woman who was prostituted on the streets and in brothels across Canada from the age of 12. She managed to exit the trade and is now co-founder and First Nations educator at Sextrade 101, an organization led by sex trade survivors that aims to abolish prostitution. “To me the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ are both very offensive because of my own experience as a sexually exploited child,” she told me over email.
Rachel Moran, an author and prostitution survivor, agrees. She told me she hates those more politically correct terms because they were “lies.”
“They are deliberately constructed in order to conceal a truth that I was living every day,” she told me. “I hated what I was doing. I hated every moment of it. But I absolutely despised lying about it.”
Andrea Matolcsi, a trafficking expert at Equality Now, an international human rights organization advocating on behalf of girls and women, was disappointed when two reports, backed by the UN, came out advocating for the full decriminalization of prostitution. Shortly thereafter, UN Women sent out a note that condemned trafficking and forced prostitution but used the language of "sex work."
“They talk a lot about people’s ‘right’ to be in prostitution, but not their right to be out of it,” Matolcsi said.
Conversations around “sex work” often focus on the issue of “choice”—whether or not, for example, women should have the right to “choose” prostitution as a “career,” or whether or not “consenting adults” should have to right to engage in sex in exchange for money. What we don’t talk about enough is the context behind said “choices.” Issues like poverty, abuse, gender inequality, racism, and a history of colonialism all play a role in leading women into prostitution and keeping them there.
Indeed, so many organizations were so publicly critical of the recommendations made by UNAIDS and the note sent out by UN Women that UN Women Sweden released a statement that read, “Prostitution never is a voluntary act. There are factors behind why a woman—and occasionally a man—is forced to sell her/his body.”
Perrier agrees that the framing of prostitution as a “choice” for some women distorts reality. “Those words—choice and choose—are words that those who are encased in the sex industry say to themselves so that they can cope,” she told me.
One of the key mistakes made by UN Women, UNAIDS, and other groups working to decriminalize the purchase of sex is to draw a bright line between “sex work” and trafficking. The idea behind this framing is that one situation is “chosen” while the other is not. But it isn’t as simple as that. Experts, advocates, and sex-trade survivors know that ignoring the connections between prostitution, exploitation, and trafficking means ignoring the realities of the sex industry.
Swedish journalist Kasja Ekis Ekman recently published a book looking at the sex trade and Sweden’s experience with the Nordic model. She believes that trafficking is intricately tied to prostitution. “Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists, if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry willingly. So trafficking is the answer to the question of supply and demand," she writes
“If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying, ‘Please, let me in to work!’ why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world?” Ekman asks.
In other words, prostitution exists because of demand, not because of women's "choices."
Perrier says there is absolutely no difference between trafficking and other forms of prostitution. “Human trafficking is simply the transportation of women for the purpose of prostitution. The act of buying a women or girl is the same whether it is done in a legal establishment or on a street corner.”
Matolcsi also challenges efforts to frame prostitution as simply a career choice some women make and the subsequent separation of “sex work” from trafficking. “They forget the connections and overlaps between illegal and legal prostitution," she said, "between child prostitution and adult prostitution, and the huge amount of trafficking and exploitation that happens in legal sectors.” The notion that there is, somehow, a “safe, clean, legal prostitution industry” is false, she claims.
The barriers some try to draw between various forms of prostitution in order to make it acceptable are imaginary. Prostituted children become adults, trafficked women work in “legal” massage parlours and in the windows of the red light district of cities like Amsterdam, and illegal prostitution is rife in places that have legalized or fully decriminalized the industry.
That's why the anti-prostitutions activists I spoke to are strongly in favor the Nordic model. “This is a model that protects the most vulnerable,” Perrier said. “It targets the demand instead of the prostituted.”
Ekman says Sweden’s experience with the law has been positive and is supported by 80 percent of the population: “Not only has demand decreased but the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality.”
Meanwhile, according to Equality Now the experiments with legalization in places like the Netherlands and Germany have failed drastically and, as a result, politicians and women’s groups are now pushing for new laws.
Moran believes “countries like Germany, Australia, and Nevada will be held to account, historically, for human rights violations against people—mainly women—as far as legalized prostitution is concerned.”
Canada is currently in a position to take a nuanced and progressive approach with regard to prostitution law, as France has done. The Supreme Court will be making a decision on Bedford v. Canada, a case challenging Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional, in the near future. While a decision to strike down laws criminalizing brothel-keeping and pimping will surely encourage trafficking and increase prostitution, as we’ve seen happen elsewhere, a law similar to the one adopted by France would send a message that says, in Canada, women aren’t for sale.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC.