Dangers of the ‘Nordic model’ for sex work

Evan Van Zijl makes the case for fully decriminalising sex work

Tributes to Slain Sex Worker Tracy ConnellyLast month, a woman was savagely murdered – allegedly stabbed to death in the face and chest – in St. Kilda leaving behind a grief-stricken family and local community. If you are in activist scenes, you might know that her name was Tracy Connelly. However in the mainstream media her name was ‘the prostitute’.

Earlier in July, ‘the prostitute’ was also murdered and brutalised at least twice. Unfortunately, brutality is a risk for many people engaging in sex work where there is not a system of full decriminalisation. An International Day of Action was organised by sex worker unions to demand justice for the savage murders of Dora Özer and Petite Jasmine.

Outside of the United States, most of the developed world has started cottoning on to the fact that prohibition of sex work does not address the underlying concerns that many have about women’s safety. It is not an industry which can simply be shut down and is present in all areas, increasingly even amongst our own student body.

A system of criminalisation only increases the vulnerability of this workforce – which is predominantly made up of women and queer identifying people – from asserting control over wages, working conditions and health needs.

A discourse of saving ‘the prostitute’ has prevailed amongst a number of activists and policy makers with attempts to shut down sex work. An attempt to reconcile the growing push for decriminalisation internationally with a conservative desire to police people’s sexuality can be seen in the ‘Nordic Model’.

In general terms, the ‘Nordic Model’ is an approach which decriminalises someone engaging in sex work so that they can access health services or safely lodge complaints to the police, but criminalises the sex worker’s customers. It sounds appealing at first but let’s consider what this actually means for a sex worker whose every customer will become a criminal.

If your customer becomes criminal then in order to maintain your source of income, you must become complicit in avoiding public practice and fair negotiation of working conditions. This  would render you entirely unable to access the options decriminalisation is intended to open up. The threat of police intervention with attempted undercover stings also escalates the possibility of violence and the precarity of income.

Aspects of this discourse have gained some traction in Victoria’s sex work legislation. If you wish to legally self-organise as a sex worker in Victoria, you are required to register yourself on a permanent, public list with all of your information and are not permitted to practice within the safety of your own home. Further, purchase of street work is both criminalised and policed which gives significant risks.

Police stings on clients of street sex workers have been organised in Melbourne, including ‘Operation Nocturn’ last year, which featured female police officers going undercover as sex workers to find clients in the streets of St Kilda. Part of an ongoing crackdown, the move has been criticised by the Victorian branch of the sex workers’ union which alleged that violence against sex workers statistically increased after the police operations.

While in NSW, we are somewhat lucky that we have a liberalised approach to sex work (though Premier Barry O’Farrell wishes to change this) which prevents undercover stings like Operation Nocturn, not all jurisdictions in Australia are so lucky.

Veiled in a rhetoric of ‘saving and protecting women’, excessive limitations and ‘protections’ put in place are often less about protecting worker’s rights and more about assuaging the sexism that invisibilises women like Tracy as nothing but ‘stigma’.

The Scarlet Alliance, the Australian sex workers’ union, has been fighting hard and has won support for sex workers’ rights from forces like the Greens and the Democrats before them, but some governments still refuse to move forward. Victoria and Western Australia especially have been the sites of greatest contention, with these governments maintaining models of strict regulation rather than decriminalisation.

In WA, this situation has worsened, with the Liberal Party recently proposing a piece of legislation banning brothels from residential areas and harshly increasing regulation on the few zones where it is still permitted. These kinds of measures must be fought as hard as possible.

A fully decriminalised sex work industry is the only way in which safe working conditions and fair pay can be won for sex workers, not an attempt to ‘save’ the ‘bad girls’ like Tracy from themselves.

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