Pop quiz! You are a sex worker living in a country that has adopted the Nordic model. Which of these forms of evidence-gathering would you prefer? You may pick one.
a. Condom-possession. Prepare to have your safer-sex precautions produced in court as evidence that a commercial sex act was on the cards.
b. The police non-consensually video your sex life. Y’know, clandestinely.
c. The police conduct an intimate physical examination. (Does this feel a bit like sexual assault? Shush there, you with your false consciousness. Your consensual sex life is rape; whereas this is for your own good.)
This is of course a trick question, because generally in jurisdictions that have adopted the Nordic model, all of these forms of evidence-gathering are used. (There’s a fun add-on to option (a) which is that, in Sweden, even distributing condoms can be seen as “encouraging prostitution”. Dodillet and Ostergren observe that this “makes it difficult for the authorities to utilise harm reduction strategies” [p4], which, well, yeah.)
If I raise these issues with someone who supports the Nordic model, I mostly get ignored, or accused of ‘scaremongering’. (Let word go forth: the new feminist response to a woman who is telling you about her fears of sexual assault, is to accuse her of ‘scaremongering’. #ibelieveher, unless she’s a sex worker or our politics differ, apparently.) So where’ve I got these preposterous ideas from?
Well, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland responded to Trish Godman’s 2010 Bill by expressing “concerns” over whether or not “intimate forensic medical examinations” (p1) would be justifiable. (I think it’s safe to say that the official ACPOS response to a parliamentary consultation is going to be the nicer, more moderate face of law enforcement – so much more friendly than the police officer who recently responded to a sex worker trying to report a rape by saying, “what you did was prostitution”, and logging “no crime”. Those are the people who’ll be translating ACPOS’ “concerns” about “justifiableness” into day-to-day conviction-hunting. I’d have concerns.)
Let’s see what happens where these laws are already in place.
Women who sell sex in Sweden are routinely filmed without their consent while engaging in sex acts (p4) – as if that’s somehow not
massively fucked up a huge violation; more on this in a bit – while sex workers in Norway report that the new law makes them feel criminalised (subsection 3.3.2). In Chicago, the ‘end demand’ approach that claims to target clients sees the arrest of a disproportionately large number of transgender women of colour – who are then mis-gendered and accused of buying sex. (A particularly vile irony, given how frequently trans* women of colour are harassed in the street by law enforcement. “A report on Latin trans women in Los Angeles … found that two thirds of participants received verbal harassment from police officers. Twenty-one percent reported physical assault and twenty-three percent sexual assault“, and often this harassment is premised on the assumption that they must be selling sex. Racist trans*misogyny: where you really can’t fucking win.)
In this study, women and girls in the sex trade tell researchers that the police are the number one source of violence and abuse, which isn’t that surprising given that this comes from the same state (Illinois) where ‘end demand’ campaigners succeeded in increasing the penalties for the buyers … oh, and sellers – of sex. Victim-centred! Back in Europe, police forces in Sweden and Norway have reported that the laws against clients have made gathering evidence against abusers more difficult – possibly because the Swedish and Norwegian states are so keen to ‘rescue’ (migrant) sex workers, that when these victims of patriarchy are discovered, they’re deported so quickly that their clients haven’t even come to trial (p4). Meagan Morris, a researcher specialising in law enforcement and the sex industry, notes that even supposedly “victim-centred” approaches tend to disproportionately hurt women.
Yes, the police and feminist (ha) campaigners are two different entities, and women’s groups can’t control what the police will do. But since that’s the case, it might behove those who support the Nordic model to pause and think before arguing for legislation that bestows further police power over demographics that experience multiple forms of marginalisation – much of the sharp end of which is already at the hands of the police. Actually, though, I don’t think that arguing for these laws comes from a place of privileged ignorance – I think its worse than that, and here’s two examples of why coming up next.
Let Meagan Morris’ findings about the disproportionate hurt to women even in supposedly “victim-centred” contexts steep in your mind a little, as we refresh the content of the Skarhead report (Sweden’s assessment of the success of the law). Particularly the bit where sex workers reporting that the law has increased stigma against them is registered as a good thing (“for people who are still being exploited in prostitution, the above negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive” [p23]) … because stigma might discourage people from entering the sex industry. (‘Stig-ma, noun. That thing which hurts us, by legitimising and perpetuating the view that we are less than human, degraded, or dirty. Strongly linked to violence’.) ‘Victim-centred’ approaches seem to really love stigma, actually, as this report from a ‘John School’ illustrates: “presenters cautioned participants that ‘drug addicted prostitutes… have stabbed their clients with AIDS infected needles‘”. Thanks, ‘end demand’ campaigners! That’s not problematic at all!
To return briefly to the issue of Scandinavian police forces clandestinely filming sex acts, I think what really fucking grinds my gears about this one is that proponents of the Nordic model often think that all pornography is violence. But apparently filming sex workers – without their consent – is fine. It seems like a microcosm of their whole analysis: in their rush to label everything as abuse, they end up causing real abuse to be perpetrated in the pursuit of prosecuting consenting sex. And also sex workers don’t matter.
I think I’ve shown fairly clearly that there are lots of good reasons why sex workers don’t trust the police, even in jurisdictions that are ostensibly “victim-centred” or allegedly focused on “targeting the client”, and therefore why the onus needs to be on those who want to eradicate to the sex industry through the intervention of the state to show they’ve thought about these issues. Y’know. At all. (I’m not the only sex worker in the UK to not trust the police, either – the numbers from National Ugly Mugs show that while 99% of reportees are happy to have their report shared anonymously with other sex workers, only 27% allow their information to be passed on to the police. Prohibitionist campaigners in Scotland wouldn’t know this, of course, because none of them could be bothered to come to the UK NSWP meeting in Aberdeen for the Ugly Mugs training session. As I said on twitter, giving a fuck so much more is the slogan of the revolution.) And that being concerned that the police will abuse their power isn’t exactly ‘scaremongering’, since it happens everywhere, all. the. time.
In a sense, this is a slightly ancillary issue: most of the terrible things that the Nordic model does to sex workers are achieved by increasing our desperation and thus our vulnerability to those who pose as clients. I’m just very struck by how little meaningful response I get when I bring this stuff up. I almost kind of want someone to tell me to my face that they think this kind of police power, and these methods of evidence-gathering, are okay. Because at least that would entail acknowledging that this stuff happens, and I actually think that pretending it doesn’t – that it isn’t even a possibility – is more horrible to hear than that you sort-of deserve it (in a ‘collateral-damage-in-the-wider-battle against patriarchy’, kind-of way).
Like, be proud of your politics, and their effects, then. Go on. Defend them. I’m listening. I’ve been listening for a while, but apparently no one’s got anything to say on this.