Sex Work

Punishing Prostitution Clients Is Not a Feminist Solution

Conceptually the "Nordic Model"-which criminalizes the buying rather than the selling of sexual services-strips women of agency and autonomy.


This story originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk on July 17, 2014.

Prostitution is known as the "world's oldest profession," and whether it should be criminalized–or not–is one of the oldest debates among social reformers. Today, a growing consensus around the world claims the sex trade perpetuates male violence against women, and so customers should be held as criminals. On the contrary, it's decriminalizing prostitution that could make women—in and outside the sex industry—safer.

This modern debate has roots in Victorian England, which branded prostitutes as wicked, depraved, and a public nuisance. Yet a shift in social thought throughout the era introduced the prostitute as a victim, often lured or forced into sexual slavery by immoral men.

Today, we're seeing a global shift in prostitution attitudes that looks startlingly like the one in Victorian England. Many areas have adopted or are considering what's known as the "Swedish" or "Nordic Model," which criminalizes the buying, rather than the selling, of sexual services (because, as the logic goes, purchasing sex is a form of male violence against women, thus only customers should be held accountable). In this nouveau -Victorian view, "sexual slavery" has become "sex trafficking," and it's common to see media referring to brothel owners, pimps, and madams as "sex traffickers" even when those working for them do so willingly.

Reidar Aulie's "The brothel" (1933) via Bosc d'Anjou/Flickr

The Swedish model (also adopted by Iceland and Norway and under consideration in FranceCanada, and the UK) may seem like a step in the right direction—a progressive step, a feminist step. But it's not. Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy. Under the Swedish model, men "are defined as morally superior to the woman," notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. "He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not." Adult women are legally unable to give consent, "just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape."

From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clients is just the flip side of the same old coin. It still focuses law enforcement efforts and siphons tax dollars toward fighting the sex trade. It still means arresting, fining, and jailing people over consensual sex. If we really want to try something new—and something that has a real chance at decreasing violence against women—we should decriminalize prostitution altogether.

How would this work, exactly? "Decriminalizing" may sound like a less radical step than "legalization," but it's actually quite the opposite. Decriminalization means the removal of all statutory penalties for prostitution and things related to its facilitation, such as advertising. It does not mean there are no municipal codes about how a sex-work business can be run or that general codes about public behavior do not apply, explains Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix, writer, and prominent sex-worker rights advocate. Legalization, on the other hand, is a stricter regime, wherein the state doesn't prosecute prostitution per se but takes a heavy-handed approach to its regulation. "This is how it works in Nevada, for example, where legal brothels exist, but one may not just be an independent sex worker," says Matisse. Under both schemes, forcing someone into prostitution (aka sex trafficking) and being involved in the sale or purchase of sex from a minor would obviously remain a crime.

But other crimes supposedly associated with the sex trade could be reduced if prostitution were decriminalized. Research has shown incidences of rape to decrease with the availability of prostitution. One recent study of data from Rhode Island—where indoor prostitution was legal in 2003-2009—found the state's rape rate declined significantly over this period, especially in urban areas. (The gonorrhea rate also went down.) "Decriminalization could have potentially large social benefits for the population at large–not just sex market participants," wrote economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah in a working paper about their research.

In New Zealand, street prostitution, escort services, pimping, and brothels were decriminalized in 2003, and so far sex workers and the New Zealand government have raved about the arrangement. A government review in 2008 found the overall number of sex workers had not gone up since prostitution became legal, nor had instances of illegal sex-trafficking. The most significant change was sex workers enjoying safer and better working conditions. Researchers also found high levels of condom use and a very low rate of HIV among New Zealand sex workers.

The bottom line on decriminalization is that it is a means of harm reduction.

Keeping prostitution illegal is done in the name of women, yet it only perpetuates violence against them while expanding the reach of the carceral state.  Decriminalization would end the punitive system wherein sex workers—a disproportionately female, minority, and transgender group—are being separated from their families, thrown in jail, and saddled with court costs and criminal records over blow-jobs. It would also allow them to take more measures of precaution (like organizing in brothels) and give them access to the legal protections available other workers (like being able to go to the police when they've been wronged). Yet for Swedish Model advocates, only the total eradication of the sex trade will "save" women from the violence and exploitation associated with it.

Certainly some in the sex trade–like minors, for example–are exploited, abused, and forced into prostitution, while others aren't literally trafficked but feel trapped in the industry by economic necessity. These are the people who should receive attention, and resources, from social reformers. And there would be a lot more resources to devote if we left consenting adults to exchange money for sex in peace.

NEXT: Would Six Californias Be Better Than One?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Without vice laws we would have had no Miami Vice. Do you want to live in that world? Neither do I.

    Obviously women are generally victims, unable to make uncoerced choices for themselves. They need protected. But I still can’t figure out why male prostitution is illegal.

    1. But, a world with vice laws is a world that is always on the brink of a ‘Vice’ *remake*.
      Which is, truly, the greater evil here.

    2. +1 Tubbs

    3. But I still can’t figure out why male prostitution is illegal.

      Men paying women for sex is degrading to women and patriarchy. Women paying men for sex is degrading to women and patriarchy.

      1. And men paying men for sex is just icky. Right?
        Or outside the bounds of the narrative.

        1. Men paying men for sex is exploitative, because patriarchy.

          Goddamn, that works for everything.

          1. Women paying women for sex? I’d watch that.

        2. The only thing a man should ever put inside another man, is a bullet.

          1. I guess surgery is right out for you, then?

            1. Not if the scalpel was fired out of a gun.

    4. “Obviously women are generally victims, unable to make uncoerced choices for themselves”

      Which brings up the question of why they are allowed to vote, enter contracts, or raise children on their own.

      And this is the problem with “Feminism”; it purports to be about “Women’s Issues”, but quickly devolves into the pet peeves and minor distresses of a narrow demographic of White Middle Class College Educated Shrews. They would be HORRIFIED by the logic of the suggesting I made above, if they could be made to see it, but at the same time they are completely unconcerned with the rights of anyone who might want to make choices different from their own.

    5. In feminist-speak men can be victimized the same way women are because reasons.

  2. I’d say that time will show that the Nordic model will acerbate violence against women.

    You think its hard being a pimp now, wait until you’re stable can go to the police without fear of (police) retribution. Now pimps and john’s will have to be even more ready to do violence and instill fear – if only to protect themselves.

  3. Since feminism is no longer about empowerment and equality in the eyes of the law, then punishing johns is fine as a feminist solution.

    In fact, the modern feminist movement is, I dare say, more about punishing men that it is about pulling women up or empowering them. And in that respect it is very much like every other leftist punishment-centric solution to race, sexual orientation, age, class or any combination thereof.

    1. Somebody has to be on the list for re-education and we all know that men are the root cause of every single thing that is wrong in the world. Especially Caucasian men.

      If you won’t check your privilege, we’ll check it for you, zek.

        1. +1 Kyra Nerys

      1. And especiallier straight Caucasian men.

        1. And especiallier straight Caucasian men.

          Now that’s not fair. Feminists tried to have Jamais Winston thrown in prison despite the fact that there was no evidence he’d committed the rape he was accused of.

          It’s irrelevant what race you are, if a woman says you’re guilty then it should be assumed you’re guilty.

          1. Winston is a jock. Their jock hate trumps their solidarity impulse.

          2. Indeed. it’s not like there isn’t a pretty long history of people reflexively believing dubious accusations of rape against black men by white women.

            1. The Winston thing is particularly silly. He’s the QB for FSU. There are literally thousands of nubile coeds in Tallahassee who would come running if he crooked his finger.

  4. In addition to all of the other obvious argument, how ridiculous is it that a full body massage is legal, but if the evil penis is touched OMG PROSTITUTION CHILD SEX SLAVE TRAFFICKING!!

    1. “Well, then, I’ll just touch it myself. That’d be OK, right?”

      1. No. It objectifies women and is thought-rape.

  5. Your average feminist really wouldn’t make a good prostitute.

    1. Your average feminist wouldn’t made a good ANYTHING.

      1. Could we start her with cake?

        1. Only if you grounder her very fine, and used a LOT of sugar.

  6. Reframe the argument as a woman’s choice to do with her body as she wants for economic reasons. Her constutional right!

    1. As a prostitute she could make enough money to support that previously unwanted child, thus eliminating many abortions.

      1. You’re assuming they want to eliminate many abortions.

        While I understand that many people in the “pro-choice” camp earnestly hold premises that they believe to be logically sound in support of their arguments, I’ll never understand those that seem to celebrate the act of abortion itself.

        1. You know who else celebrate the act of abortion itself?

          1. Kermit Gosnell?

            1. Good answer! But what I was looking for was racists.

          2. Margaret Sanger.

      2. Prostitutes are usually able to provide condoms as part of the service, so that solves the whole Hobby Lobby thing right there.

    2. Her constutional right!

      Don’t be ridiculous. The Seers looked into the penumbra and found only an explicit right to abortion. All others are negotiable, whether enumerated or not.

      1. an explicit right to abortion

        And, related, birth control.

    1. Straw man builds shed?

    2. He was getting shade in a natural way, but then the evil capitalist came, took the tree down, and built a vile, man made building to give him shade instead. He then forced the guy to give him money even though the capitalist hadn’t actually provided a service.

      Apparently a capitalist can do something without your consent and then you have to pay for it anyway. That’s why plumbing companies are always putting pipes in my backyard that I didn’t ask for and then charging me for it.

      1. In any case, it’s unclear how the shady layabout was able to afford such a nice shed.

      2. Apparently a capitalist

        1. You win this round squirrels.

      3. Hmm, I read it as some dude was sitting in the shade of a tree, the capitalist came along, bought the tree then built an *improved* shelter (creating wealth)that not only provided better shade than the original tree but also gave shelter from the rain and then sold it to the dude, in a mutually beneficial exchange that made everyone better off.

        1. The lesson to be learned here is that if you just lay around under a tree doing nothing all day everything will work out. Eventually a capitalist will come along and make your life better by building you a shelter, and you can pay for this rent-controlled structure with welfare money from Uncle Sam.

      4. He then forced the guy to give him money even though the capitalist hadn’t actually provided a service.

        Well, you know, except that the silly old building also provides shelter from rain and doesn’t cease being useful when the fall comes and leaves fall.


      Sylvia Hatzl … except that the builders of the hut would be starved brown people, among dead brown people who first used to live with the tree…

      Bharath S Raja Iyer Water being bottled & Food being packeted!! So Sad.

      Yes, packaged food is a great example of a useless service. Why would I want food that doesn’t rot really quickly?

      Shubha Shamim There is one mistake in the cartoon. The real Capitalist will use your natural resources, your labour and sell the product to you only.

      That makes no economic sense. If the capitalist uses your labor and your natural resources and then sells the product to you, there’s no way they can possibly make profit. They can’t sell the product to you for more money than you have, and since they’re the ones giving you money it would basically be a closed loop in which no profit is possible.

      1. This comic makes sense to them because capitalism doesn’t.

      2. “The real Capitalist will use your….. labour..”


      3. Keep in mind that in the pinko mind economics is a zero sum game.

    4. It’s just bizarre that they don’t realize that the capitalist has improved the utility of the shade tree by turning into something that provides not just shade but also shelter from the rain and wind and other elements.

      They really go in on that naturalistic fallacy that something that exists on its own nature must be inherently good and anything that alters it must be bad.

      1. That was my thought.

        “Oh no! If it starts to hail now, he’ll have shelter from that too! That capitalistic monster!”

      2. Not to mention the fact that the shade tree doesn’t do much good after the leaves fall.

    5. I’ll make sense of it three ways.

      1. The union cop in the area refuses to protect the private property rights of the man on the stool when someone cameo onto his property and cut down the tree. Likely, it was because the officer, when called last time by the man,refused to take his statement and instead rifled through his house and treated him like a criminal instead. The man on the stool felt safer being extorted by someone without a gun apart her than one who the state grants a monopoly on violence.

      2. The man, trespassing on another’s property, chose to purchase shade rather than deal with one of the state’s agents with a monopoly on violence when the homeowner caught him trespassing on his property.

      3. The artist wants cake.

      1. Let me tell you, they all want cake. They *all* do.

      2. 4. That wasnt a capitalist. Only the government makes you buy things that you dont want or ask for.

    6. I think the doofus is trying to say that despite the efforts of the evil capitalist that ‘the people’ are no better off which is wildly absurd.

      The cartoon would have a different ending if that lazy ass were seeking shelter from rain rather than sun.

    7. The comic means that the artist is a much better comic artist than he is an economist ? and he’s a lousy artist.

      Back to that Barista job, whippo?..

    8. If you aren’t going to do anything with your life anyway, capitalism doesn’t do you much good.

    9. It’s Occupy Wall Street. People who can’t manage a decent campsite telling us how to run the world.

  7. Fuck the Nordic Model.

    How about we talk about the German Model for a minute?

    1. I want to fuck the Swedish model.

    2. Got something against blondes?

      1. Gentlemen prefer blondes.

        Me? I’ll take ’em however.

        1. I like em raw and wriggling.

        2. But gentlemen marry brunettes.

  8. Oops

    Shucard was arrested about 9:15 a.m. Friday as he went through security screening. The court documents, providing the first detailed account of the arrest, say Shucard put a bag on the X-ray belt at the Cannon House Office Building. A U.S. Capitol Police officer spotted the ammunition magazine, halted screening and detained Shucard, according to the documents filed in D.C. Superior Court.

    Police said they found the black handgun, which was unloaded, when they searched the bag by hand. Marino’s chief of staff, Bill Tighe, said Friday that police indicated that Shucard appeared to have accidentally brought the weapon with him to work.

    Comments are as insightful as you might expect:

    Who did he want to kill? Honest mistake is just a bunch of crap.

    1. Oh god the derp.

    2. I don’t understand. Why didn’t the aide say he was doing some freelance work for a newspaper, therefore his possession of the gun and magazine are perfectly acceptable.

    3. While I’m sympathetic I really have to question this guys explanation (and intelligence). Seriously, how do you forget you’re carrying a gun?

      1. Shit goes in the bag, sometimes it doesn’t come out.

        I assume that this guy, being part of the protected class, will get off.

        1. Well, he’s a Republican so it’s pretty much 50/50 there. Still it’s pretty sloppy gun handling. I was always told (by two Vietnam vet relatives and a USMC range safety instructor) to always treat firearms as if they’re loaded. And I don’t see how anyone could really be that absent-minded.

          1. Well he wasn’t handling the gun at all. It was stowed in a bag, unloaded.

            It would have been more dangerous to enter the building carrying scissors with the point facing up.

              1. I see what you did there.

      2. Not so difficult Susan. If you carry frequently for long periods it is no problem to forget the thing is there. More than once I have stopped at a convenience store hopped out of the car and run in for smokes only to realize I was still carrying when I got back in the car.

        1. I guess. I suppose it’s what you’re used to!

    4. Who did he want to kill? Honest mistake is just a bunch of crap.

      His master plan involved smuggling the gun past security by running it through the x-ray scanner. “Damn my compulsive rule-abiding nature!”

  9. Queen’s Guards play ‘Game of Thrones’ theme outside Buckingham Palace

    In honor of Elizabeth of the House Windsor, Second of Her Name, King of the Celts and the Saxons, Lord of the Three Kingdoms and Ireland, and Protector of the Realm.

    1. Lol. People that bow their knee to another because of some birthright aren’t to be taken seriously.

      1. Okay, Mance.

      2. People that bow their knee to another because of some birthright aren’t to be taken seriously.

        Many are England’s enemies who rued the day that they failed to take the Queen’s Guards seriously.

        In spite of their Comic Opera ceremonial uniforms the Queen’s Guards is the elite of the elite.

        Gaining a commission in the Queen’s Guards is due to a pure meritocracy. “Gentlemen” could buy commissions in any of the county regiments but the monarch always held his/her protection to a higher standard.

        Such is the prestige of a Guards commission that fiction is awash with examples.

        The most recent example are from TV where both (Patrick McGoohan – Dangerman/Secret Agent) and John Steed – Coldstream Guards (Patrick Mcnnee (who IRF while possibly destined for a career in the gurds ended up in the RN – Coldstream Guards) traced their military/intelligence origins to The Guards.

    2. King of the Celts and the Saxons, Lord of the Three Kingdoms and Ireland, and Protector of the Realm

      That’s not even her final form.

  10. I don’t think the writer of this article gets how widespread sexual slavery is. For instance, in my neighborhood alone I know dozens of men who buy women jewelry and sometimes even houses in exchange for a lifetime of sex. How is this even legal?

    Feminists need to step in a put a stop to this immediately. Get these women out from the control of men, and put them under the control of a more benevolent authority like the state.

    1. :). Nice.

    2. Where is this neighborhood where men are the ones in control?

      Oh, wait. You’re talking to feminists. Nevermind.

    3. Um, what happens when we don’t get the lifetime of sex? I need government intervention.

  11. Does the world benefit if the usage is switched from the instructive word “prostitute” or the primely evocative word “whore” to the bloodless phrase “sex worker”?

    They should proudly “reclaim” whore.

  12. Decriminalization means the removal of all statutory penalties for prostitution and things related to its facilitation, such as advertising. It does not mean there are no municipal codes about how a sex-work business can be run or that general codes about public behavior do not apply, explains Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix, writer, and prominent sex-worker rights advocate. Legalization, on the other hand, is a stricter regime, wherein the state doesn’t prosecute prostitution per se but takes a heavy-handed approach to its regulation.

    She’s wrong. Decriminaliz’n is removal of criminal penalties, not necessarily all penalties. Legaliz’n is making something legal. The words are very simple & straightforward, so let’s not try to complicate them.

  13. Australia is a Federation of Constitutional Monarchist States.

    Each State in the Federation has taken their own path on prostitution.

    West Australia (pretty much a desert the size of Europe, with a metric s**t-ton of mines and gas-fields) has always had legal or semi-legal prostitution.

    Victoria (the staid southern state) about twenty years ago legalized it.
    Since then all the metrics have been good.

    I supply software to this industry, and i have three observations:

    (1) The Uber/Lyft model makes sense for the industry – but the legalization came with heavy regulation, a lot more than the taxi industry. So it wont fly.

    (2) Internet “hookup” sites have given the hookers a real belting in the market-place. The only advantage of a hooker is that she will leave you in peace once you’ve fucked her. In all other respects, the “hookup” is very competitive. Dirt-cheap, just as presentable, drops the knickers just as fast.

    (3) I have worked in a lot of different industries, and this is the most “feminist” of all, in terms of control and respect. Unfortunately, none of the women in it see themselves as victims, ergo, not “real” feminists.

  14. Whats the difference between the sex you pay for and the sex you don’t pay for? The sex you don’t pay for is more expensive.

  15. Anything goes when it comes to hoes. After all, pimpin’ ain’t easy.

  16. Depraved may be too harsh, but rode hard put away wet sums up the whore profession these days. They are caricatures of femininity. A commodity to be sold as thou wilt.

  17. “Punishing Prostitution Clients Is Not a Feminist Solution”

    Sure it is. Marxist feminism is the main variety, and under it’s terms, women are oppressed, and men are oppressors. Since women are generally the prostitutes, you can’t punish them, therefore the male clients are punished.

  18. ###
    It may seem like a step in the right direction?a progressive step, a feminist step. But it’s not.

    It is both a Progressive step, and a feminist step, thereby making it a step in the wrong direction. Two out of three aint bad.

    Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy.

    Now you’re catching on. This is true of both feminism and progressivism.

    Under the Swedish model, men “are defined as morally superior to the woman,” notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. “He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not.”

    No, he’s morally *inferior*, by being born a member of the Oppressor class. All bad things are his fault. No bad things can ever be a woman’s fault, because *she is the VICTIM*. STOP BLAMING THE VICTIM.

    To get a little less snide, *IF* you were a theocrat intending to stamp out prostitution, this is a perfectly sensible policy. When both the profits and criminal risks were born by the same person, the centralized benefits of profit would outweigh the potential criminal penalties.

    But if going to a prostitute risks jail time for the John, that risk is a huge cost increase for the John, likely outweighing the potential net benefit of the transaction for him.

  19. I totally agree with the article. The Nordic model does more harm than good; it doesn’t even make any sense. How can providing a service be legal, but using the service be illegal ? The Swedish model is better. All sex workers must be registered and ONLY work in brothels, not on the street, and not in their home. Anyone doing sex work who is NOT registered, it should be assumed that the person is either being forced against their will , or chooses to work illegally . All sex workers would pay taxes,health insurance, and have regular check ups. What is wrong with this ? Nothing that I can see.By regulating prostitution and making it a legal profession, this might also help victims of sex trafficking also.

    1. “What is wrong with this ?”

      1. Forcing them to pay taxes.
      2. Forcing them to work within specific institutions.

  20. When society seeks to punish those seeking to fulfill a basic human need, (according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) they have become less reasonable and compassionate than wild animals. Sex should not be viewed as a luxury reserved only for those in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship.

  21. Wow, I have met Mistress Matisse. She is empowered to say the least, all men obey her mastery. Just stunning.

    Why is exchanging things of value if it involves cash BAD, but if it is a dinner out, a gift, or a gold ring is it GOOD.

    I have been married, have had girlfriends, dated, had FWB, and seen escorts. Actually the best has been with escorts and all cost pretty much the same. All of the ladies I have been with were in control of their lives and comparable self esteem among all of them.

    Decriminalize it, get the escorts to be paying taxes and earning a living. A big sector of the black market surfaces, they also are protected. Put general controls around no pimps and brothels be regulated, but the individual is living her life.

  22. The current policy of prohibition is no longer working. Unpaid sex of all types and kinds is allowed between consenting adults; the supreme court has struck down the sodomy laws. That a person is paid should not make a difference. Giving away controlled substances does not make their distribution legal.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.