Angela Campbell is a professor and associate dean at McGill University’s faculty of law. She is the author of Sister Wives, Surrogates and Sex Workers: Outlaws by Choice?
Last week, Montreal police announced a “policy shift” on prostitution toward the Nordic model, which casts sex workers as victims who need protection rather than offenders who deserve punishment. The Nordic model is also rumoured to be the inspiration for new federal prostitution laws on the horizon, which the Conservatives have announced will be aimed at “protecting the vulnerable.” But despite its progressive sounding name, the Nordic model holds little promise for actually safeguarding the security rights of sex workers.
Instituted in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, the Nordic model uses criminal law to target the purchasers and third-party profiteers (pimps and brothel owners and operators) of sex work. Prostitutes, however, fall outside the prohibitions’ direct ambit. They are therefore shielded from the risk of being charged and prosecuted. This is different from the current but soon-to-be-reformed Canadian laws, which target sex-work consumers, brokers and distributors (meaning the prostitutes).
The Nordic model embodies the view that sex work deeply offends gender equality principles and is inherently violent, oppressive, offensive and undignified to sex workers. It aims to eradicate sex work or minimize it.
Sex work undoubtedly carries high risks of intense violence, meriting state attention and action. But we would be naive to think that revamped criminal prohibitions can lessen these dangers. Criminal law cannot, at least by itself, preserve the security rights of the women, trans people and men who do sex work.
Laws and policies premised on the Nordic model, which outlaws the purchase of sex or the profiting from its sale, will continue to undermine sex workers’ physical and psychological integrity. Involvement in the sex trade would continue to carry stigma. It would also mean continuing to work in the most clandestine circumstances, leading all too easily to exploitation and violence. Because such transactions would remain criminal for clients, they would insist on obscure venues. Because their involvement in the sex trade would still be criminal, clients would also be reluctant to report abuses they witnessed.
Ultimately, the Nordic model overlooks evidence about the risks that criminalization forces sex workers to absorb. It is difficult to see, then, how such a regime coheres with the goals of protecting “the vulnerable” or supporting “victims” (potentially damaging labels often ascribed, flippantly or strategically, to sex workers in political conversations about them). Instead, the Nordic model is entirely consistent with a moralistic agenda and tough-on-crime ethos. It fails outright to support sex workers’ security interests.
Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down criminal laws on prostitution that grossly compromised sex workers’ lives and safety. Now, in the wake of that decision, state actors are charged with devising laws and policies that can address the potential ills of sex work without subjecting sex workers to intolerable harms. Continued blunt reliance on criminal law will go little if any distance in responding to the court’s mandate.
If the protection of sex workers’ security interests is to be the core concern of sex work’s governance, then the policy devised by the Montreal police will fall short. So, too, will any new federal law that bears a similar approach. Law and policy in this area must draw their inspiration from sources other than the Nordic model.