Why do parliaments reject legislation to criminalise those who pay for sexual access to female bodies? Because of the deep misogyny carved into the male power structures of our world. No wonder the second class status of women is upheld, when the spurious idea that we exist for the use and entertainment of men is promoted at governmental level.
Like many campaigners who have personal experience of prostitution, I support the “Nordic model”, which criminalises the demand for paid sexual access to people, decriminalises those who are so exploited, and offers exit routes including education and training. It can only be objected to from a standpoint that refuses to view women as fully viable humans on a par with men. The reason for this is simple: the overwhelming majority of those exploited in prostitution are female. Added to that, many are adolescent girls below the age of consent. I know from first-hand experience that very often females are prostituted before they’ve even reached the age of sexual consent. That was the case for me also; I was 15 years old when I was coerced into prostitution by an adult male.
From my the seven years I spent in prostitution, I also know is that most women and girls are there because of social marginalisation – with the causes ranging from educational disadvantage to outright destitution. I and the other teenage girls who prostituted themselves alongside me in the early 1990s would sometimes, but rarely, talk about how we might get out of that life. The conversations were rare because it was generally accepted that there was no way out. Had the Nordic model existed in Ireland of the 1990s, along with decriminalising us, it would have offered us help with housing, childcare, addiction and the all-important education and training so that we would have had a real and viable way out. It is both saddening and disturbing to see the level of political opposition to the only legal framework that has ever sought to address prostitution from a human rights perspective. This is simply the only law on earth that assumes, as a starting point, that prostituted persons are worth more than what the circumstances of their lives have forced them to accept.
The Nordic model is also a gender-neutral law, and rightly so. It recognises prostitution as a system of exploitation generally entered into under extreme coercion and that such exploitation should is never acceptable, regardless of a person’s biological sex. This is fair and just. Prostitution is simply incompatible with the dignity of human beings. But while we are talking about biological sex, let’s not forget which sex is responsible for the demand for prostitution in the first place. According to Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, in the 15 years since the sex buyers law has been implemented in Sweden, not one woman has been found paying for sex. Not one.
Politicians who oppose the Nordic Model prefer not to recognise prostitution for what it is. Their arguments often list numerous “pro-prostitution lobby groups”. We do not, of course, hear that many of them are pimp-founded, pimp-funded or pimp-affiliated, and naturally we hear nothing of the lists of women’s and human rights groups that oppose them. Such lobbyists use the deliberately whitewashing language of “sex work”; as though oppression could be morphed into something else by simply assigning it a different name. The truth is prostitution is a brutal system of socially institutionalised and financially compensated sexual abuse, and no amount of repackaging will ever do anything to change that.
While efforts to reform legislation are often resisted by male-majority governments, thankfully that is not always the case. Lord Morrow of Northern Ireland steered his Anti-Trafficking Bill, which includes all the elements of the Nordic model, past substantial opposition in October 2014, and it looks set to become law in the near future. It will make Northern Ireland a hostile environment for pimping and trafficking gangs. In June 2013 a male-majority committee in the Republic of Ireland unanimously voted in favour of the Nordic model. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe also voted, by substantial majorities, to adopt the same principles, as did the French and Canadian Parliaments. It is now illegal to purchase sexual access to another human being in Canada. UK Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart recently attempted to amend the Modern Slavery Bill that is currently passing through parliament to import some of these ideas, but was unsuccessful.
Frances Fitzgerald, the minister for justice and equality in the Republic of Ireland, has publicly announced that the demand for paid sex must be tackled at legislative level. It is now clear what way the political wind is blowing on my island, and the organised pimping and trafficking gangs that have plagued us for years will soon be looking for somewhere else to go.
To the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales, I would say, if you would like to inherit them, you are more than welcome to them, but I think it’s safe to assume this is not the case. I would advise British people to look at how this situation is playing out elsewhere in Europe. It is not strange or surprising that prostitution rates in Denmark are many times higher than in Sweden. The figures tell an irrefutable story: the population of Sweden is 9.4 million and prostituted persons there are estimated to number 650. At 5.6 million, Denmark’s population is close to half that, but the estimated figure for Denmark is 5,567; almost nine times that of neighbouring Sweden. If you want to protect your countries from this inevitability, you must insist that your politicians act in your own national interests.
Many people refuse to recognise the very essence of prostitution, and language is a commonly used tool in the circumnavigation of truth. For example, the term “paid sex” is a misnomer. Sex is not something you can package and hand to somebody so that they can go off and enjoy some of your “sex”. No, what we are talking about here is not “paid sex”; it is paid sexual access, so let’s get real about what it is that many people refuse to recognise about the prostitution exchange. What men are buying in prostitution is not a “paid sex”; it is the temporary suspension of a woman’s sexual autonomy. It is the last socially acceptable form of sexual abuse.
The progression of the law has been stalled in France at Senate level, which is depressingly unsurprising. Does anybody seriously think that if we had, and had always had, equal political participation of women and men, prostitution would be tolerated by our governments today? If so they need to develop their understanding of oppression. People learn to accept oppression and to manage within it. They do not, from a position of freedom, seek it out.
It is high time we women stood up and asked ourselves why we are accepting an enormous global human rights violation whereby almost all of those exploited are female and almost all of those exploiting them are male. Here’s my answer: we are accepting it because females have been so long at the bottom of the gender caste system that we have come to accept the inferior position imposed upon us. We need to get out of that mode of thinking, and fast, because there is a legislative battle raging right now in the world; it is the battle for female sexual liberation and it is opposed tooth and nail by those invested in female sexual subjection.
It is very telling that the first governments who ever adopted the Nordic model had close to equal male and female participation, and it tells us this: wherever women have an equal voice, we tell men that we are not for sale. It is well past time we raised our voices and challenged the male majority governments who refuse to recognise the global commercialised sexual abuse of women and girls by men for the human rights scandal that it is.
Rachel Moran is from Dublin, Ireland. She is the author of “Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution” and tweets as @RachelRMoran