Criminalizing the sex buyer is trending in Europe

By Amal Guerdali & Ronja Pilgaard

More and more European countries have started to evaluate their former very liberal stance on prostitution. Most recently in December, France introduced legislation to combat the growing number of trafficked women in the country by criminalizing the sex buyer. And more European countries could follow suit, as Ireland – and even in Germany where prostitution is fully legalized – has started to review just how effective this policy is.

Recently the EU parliament voted on the issue and has recommended all member states to introduce the Nordic model in which the buyer is criminalized. Chairman on the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, MEP Mikael Gustafsson, a member of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, calls the vote a milestone for European prostitution policy.

“I don’t believe we will end prostitution with this, but the law can set a standard saying; ‘This is not ok,’” he says.

The recommendation has sparked debate across Europe, as countries are now discussing what the best approach to combat human trafficking is and whether or not prostitution is ok. And the European landscape is very diverse. While some countries like Germany and The Netherlands have fully legalized sex industries, countries like Romania and Albania have a total ban on prostitution. Although most countries fall in between, having some sort of regulated prostitution.

Worse conditions
Associate professor at the Institute for Society and Globalization at Roskilde University, Signe Arnfred, does not think criminalizing the sex buyer is the right way to eliminate prostitution.

”Criminalization will only drive it further underground. It’s the wrong way to go about it, and it is very annoying that this approach has become so popular.”

Following the vote in EU parliament, 91 researchers have opposed the Nordic model in an open letter to the parliament stating, that this policy will harm the most vulnerable of the prostitutes: the trafficked women.

They fear, that such legislation will make the women more dependant of the trafficker to find them clients, and that the Nordic Model will make the sex workers even more stigmatized than they already are.

However Mikael Gustafsson does not agree with this.

“Prostitutes are at risk all the time. There is always secrecy in prostitution. It would definitely be a problem if the whole industry was criminalized. If you criminalize the prostitute, then you will have the problem.”

MEP, Britta Thomsen, member of the social democratic S&D group and an avid supporter of the law, backs Mikael Gustafssons statement. She believes that the Nordic model will empower sex workers.

“Today a prostitute in Sweden calls the police when she is in trouble; she is not the one at fault,” she says.

However recent studies have shown, that Swedish prostitutes in fact fear the authorities more today, than when buying sex was legal, since the prostitutes are often put under surveillance and thereby lose their customers.

Enfant terrible
The Nordic model has in recent years become the poster child for prostitution policy. But there is heated debate among researchers whether or not the policy actually works. Professor in criminology and sociology of law, May-Len Skilbrei, has reseacently published a book on the outcomes of the Nordic Model in the Nordic countries. According to her there is no research that proves that the Nordic model works – one way or another.

“There are many claims about what outcomes the law has had in Sweden. But we haven’t seen a thorough analysis of what has actually been going on. I don’t think the research and knowledge so far is good enough.”

Furthermore researchers say, that the law will make prostitutes more vulnerable and dependant on the trafficker.

Europol estimates that there in the EU are 880.000 trafficked people whereof almost 500.000 are trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Red: Prostitution is illegal, Pink: Nordic model implemented, Yellow: Sex industry fully legalized, Green: Prostitution legal with restrictions
Source: University of Exeter