Sex Work

Criminalizing Sex Work Clients: the Hot New Anti-Prostitution Strategy That Works About as Well as the Old Strategy


Jay Verspeelt/Flickr

In the United States and around the world, it's becoming increasingly popular for police to fight prostitution by going after clients. This tack—often referred to as "the Nordic model"—is supposedly more progressive than targeting sex workers themselves. 

A study published this week by medical journal BMJ explores how the criminalization of sex buyers affects the safety and working conditions of sex workers. Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative interviewed 31 street-based sex workers in Vancouver, Canada, where policies that criminalize clients were adopted by local law enforcement in January 2013. 

While police "sustained a high level of visibility," they eased charging or arresting sex workers and showed increased concern for their safety, according to the interviews.

However, participants' accounts and police statistics indicated continued police enforcement of clients. This profoundly impacted the safety strategies sex workers employed. Sex workers continued to mistrust police, had to rush screening clients and were displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex.

Whether cops are arresting sex buyers or sellers makes little difference—it still drives the practice underground and makes it more dangerous for those engaged. Researchers concluded that "criminalization and policing strategies that target clients reproduce the harms created by the criminalization of sex work, in particular, vulnerability to violence and HIV/STIs."

Targeting johns, buyers of sex, also increased the total number of sex-work-related arrests in Vancouver, from 47 in 2012 to 71 in 2013. 

The BMJ study comes as Canada is debating whether to adopt the Nordic Model. In December 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting brothels and prostitution were unconstitutional, giving the parliament 12 months to rewrite them. Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay is expected to release released a new prostitution bill today, patterned on practices in Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. In those countries, selling sexual services is legal but purchasing them is not. 

It's not much of a model to emulate. "Evidence from Sweden, Norway, and now Vancouver confirms that criminalizing clients does not eliminate the sex industry but has a significant negative impact (on) sex workers," said University of Ottawa criminology professor Chris Bruckert. 

Yet it's not just Canada looking to get Scandinavian with its sex work laws. Cities and states across the U.S.—including Boston, St. Louis, and New Jersey—have been planning and testing out similar strategies and touting it as progress. 

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  1. While police “sustained a high level of visibility,” they eased charging or arresting sex workers and showed increased concern for their safety…

    It’s hard to claim you’re using up a lot of time on vice out of concern for human trafficking while trafficking said vulnerable humans off to jail yourself.

    1. That’s never dissuaded them from claiming all sorts of profitable junkets in the name of public safety.

  2. One day, we’ll live in a world free from people buying sex.

    Until that day, hold out for hope, and always believe in yourself!

    1. I think Brian is referring to sex robots.

      1. You’d still have to buy the robots.

        And if the robots can pass the Turing Test, you may have a much worse problem.

        1. What’s the point of a sexbot if it acts just like a human?

        2. Yes, Aresen, but you’re only buying a robot. You’re not buying sweet sweet robot sex.

  3. “If we just keep trying, we can eliminate the world’s oldest profession, that no one has ever been able to eliminate, ever, and why many were smart to not even try. But this time, something’s different! It’s ‘Nordic’! That’s good, right?”

    1. I think they’re on the right Track this time.

      1. Ah, the Nordic Track.

  4. There is no policy so stupid that government can’t make it dumber.

    There will never be Peak Stupid.

    1. Allow me to introduce you to Tony…

      1. Oh, GOOD!

  5. Jerri: “Packing a Musket”, by Jerri Blank. When you work from your home and johns call on the phone, you’re a call girl. When you walk till you limp and give a cut to a pimp, you’re a street whore. When they’re begging ya “please,” to get down on your knees, near their groinage, ‘scusa me, but ya see, don’t ya touch where they pee, without coinage.

    Noblet: Thank you, Jerri, that’ll be…

    Jerri: When I straddle and squat, to show you my… [bell rings, drowning Jerri’s voice out]

  6. No doubt our retarded authoritarian imp Prime Minister is going to shove this down our throats-and very little doubt he is going to get his ass kicked by the Supreme Court, again. Which will be awesome.

    1. retarded authoritarian imp Prime Minister

      I didn’t even know that shriek was a Canadian citizen.

    2. retarded authoritarian imp

      Nice band name.

  7. “Freeezzzeee buddy! I’m a cop!”

  8. Why can government only rebrand the same failed policies, over and over and over again?

    1. No kidding. You either go after the providers, which has been tried, or the consumers, which has also been tried. What the hell else is there?

      1. Well, you could legalize prostitution (from both sides) and let people do what they have done for the last 5,000 years.


        Like PM Harper and his Socon allies, try once again to stamp it out.

        Not that Trudeau the Lesser will be any better when he wins the election in 2016. He will just follow the same policy but dress it up as ‘protecting the victim’ (i.e. the prostitutes).

        1. Yep. The unthinkable (to the control freaks in government) third approach.

    2. Because they’re predatory, and it’s lucrative.

      You’re all mistaken if you believe any of this is goal-oriented. There is no end-game. It’s entirely about extracting lucre from ever more poor sods.

  9. the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative

    What does that even mean?

    1. Neutering.

    2. Anything they damn well want it to.

  10. “participants’ accounts and police statistics indicated continued police enforcement of clients

    “Listen up, pervert! You’re gonne get that handjob and you’re gonna pay for it and say thank you ma’am after it’s done!”

  11. Instead of predatory and disgusting women debasing men, the new paradigm is predatory and disgusting men degrading women.

    This allows people to continue feeling smugly superior and self-righteous when they cast aspersions on the behaviors of the lower class, while still importing a face-saving veneer of mild feminism. By separating out anti-woman from anti-prostitution, even progressive types can be judgmental without feeling guilty.

    1. ^This.

      When people like us say “anti-prostitution laws are an affront to personal liberty and self ownership, and as practiced hurt women who sell sex”, progressives, who could give a fuck about liberty, decide to change it so it doesn’t hurt a favored minority group as directly.

  12. “Evidence from Sweden, Norway, and now Vancouver confirms that criminalizing clients does not eliminate the sex industry but has a significant negative impact (on) sex workers,” said University of Ottawa criminology professor Chris Bruckert.

    I suspect that American cops would be looking at other parts of the study – which strategy brought in the most money? Busting hookers or busting johns? I have to assume that there are far more johns than there are hookers and that, for the category of hookers that we’re talking about here, the average john is driving a better seizable vehicle and carrying more seizable cash than the average hooker. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

  13. Is there any elected officials or parties in Canada that support completely legal prostitution? Besides the Libertarian Party of Canada and that weird B.C. sex party.

  14. White Savior Cat understands the rescue-industry professionals inside and out.…..-industry/

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