By Meagan Tyler, Victoria University
Imagine a scenario where prostitution is not restricted or sanctioned but buying sex is banned. Could such an approach work in Australia? It already has elsewhere, and the evidence suggests it’s worth considering.
This week, French MPs will vote on a raft of measures to curb the sex industry.
Last week, the French lower house passed a motion to prohibit the purchase of sexual services and, in the next few days, further measures to decriminalise people in prostitution and set up government funded exit programs to assist those wishing to leave prostitution will be introduced.
Statements such as these are more often associated with conservative and religious movements in popular consciousness, but these laws confound such stereotyping. The proposed legislation is based on policy developed by the Socialist government as part of a wider brief to promote gender equality and reduce violence against women.
These actions make France the latest European nation to move towards the Nordic Model of prostitution policy: a system of partial decriminalisation where those in prostitution are not restricted or sanctioned, but buying sex is banned.
The Nordic Model was devised in Sweden in the 1990s and is now in place in Norway and Iceland. A variation is in operation in Finland as well as England and Wales, while Scotland, Ireland and Israel have all developed proposed legislation based on the Nordic Model in the past 18 months.
The limits of legalisation
One reason the Nordic Model is gaining traction internationally is that traditional criminalisation – where both the buying and selling of sexual services is illegal, and licensing regimes, where governments legalise and regulate certain forms of the sex industry – is increasingly becoming recognised as ineffective and even counter-productive.
The Netherlands and Germany, two nations with (in)famous systems of legalised prostitution, are experiencing heated public debate about the limits of this approach.
Dutch authorities have essentially conceded that legalisation has been a failure while Germany has found its sex industry unmanageable, with more than 400,000 people in prostitution, “servicing” approximately one million men a day.
It was probably no surprise to authorities in either country when economists in Germany and Britain determined earlier this year that legalising prostitution leads to increased human trafficking inflows.
In contrast, Sweden’s prohibition on the purchase of sexual services has been remarkably successful. According to a variety of NGOs and government agencies, street prostitution virtually disappeared in major cities after the introduction of the ban, and trafficking networks quickly came to view Sweden as a bad market that wasn’t worth the trouble.
More than a decade on, fewer men report buying sex and the total number of people in prostitution is said to have halved, while fears about the law simply pushing prostitution “underground” have not materialised.
Australia ignores the Nordic Model
The Nordic Model may be becoming de rigueur among progressive governments elsewhere in the world, yet there is still almost no serious discussion of this approach in Australia. Existing legislation on prostitution has recently been reconsidered in Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), yet most MPs steadfastly refuse to consider the Nordic Model as a real alternative to existing arrangements.
Indeed, many lawmakers in Australia have continued to overlook evidence of the harms of prostitution while they ignore, dismiss or misrepresent the Nordic Model. In Tasmania, the state’s Attorney General incorrectly claimed in an official paper that sex work is criminalised in Sweden when, in fact, the opposite is the case and sex work is decriminalised; only the buying of sex is illegal.
Further problems of partiality have occurred in the ACT. In 2012, Liberal MP Vicki Dunne, the Chair of the Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety, took the unusual measure of attaching her dissenting views to the final Inquiry into the Prostitution Act report.
Dunne wrote that she felt the need to do so after other members of the Committee had “played down human rights problems" associated with the sex industry and ignored evidence that did not fit with the government’s preferred approach of legalisation.
In Queensland, which also has a legalised system of prostitution, the Prostitution Licensing Authority (PLA) released a discussion paper in 2010, which attempts to discredit the Nordic Model.
Rather than relying on evidence, the paper promotes legalisation while simply disparaging prominent women who have openly supported the Nordic Model in Australia and overseas. (One woman shouldn’t be trusted, we’re told, because she cried when Nordic Model laws were passed in the Norwegian parliament.)
That the PLA chose to release such an attack, disguised as a discussion paper, is particularly interesting given that the Authority has provided only one such publicly available paper in the past ten years.
Debates about prostitution policy in Australia seem to have reached an impasse. As a result, the patchwork of decriminalisation, criminalisation and legalisation across different states and territories remains inconsistent and ineffective.
Experiments with legalisation and decriminalisation have unfortunately been exposed as resounding failures while traditional criminalisation has also been rightly criticised as an out-dated approach that wrongly punishes people in prostitution.
Fortunately, we need not choose between the extremes of legalisation and criminalisation.
The Nordic Model offers a new way forward for more comprehensive, cohesive and compassionate prostitution policy in Australia. It’s got all the benefits of Scandinavian design – but now with added French flair.
Meagan Tyler is a volunteer with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia.