By Heather Brunskell-Evans

In a ‘voice piece’ published on the 11th June in the Independent, Molly Smith suggests that the safety of “sex workers” can only be guaranteed through full decriminalisation of all laws relating to prostitution. She alleges that whenever there are laws criminalising prostitution, a misogynistic state and police brutality stigmatise and victimize women. She suggests her own views are universally held by all women “working” in the sex-trade by describing an event on the 10th of June when, on the steps of New York’s City Hall, campaigners unveiled a proposal for the decriminalisation of prostitution in New York. At a New York press conference, speakers emphasised their proposal is not only about women’s “safety from criminalisation, but also about economic justice. It is about supporting New Yorkers to work in safety, regardless of where or how they work”.

Smith omits to tell us of the equally passionate voices of campaigners three months earlier on 11th March where, on the very same steps of New York’s City Hall, women with experience of the sex-trade, many of whom are Black or ethnic minority,  protested, alongside their supporters,  that full decriminalisation is not a solution to the dangers of prostitution or of economic injustice to women.  I know this because I was there!

At that event, women who had been prostituted described their experiences as a violation of their human rights when they were already vulnerable because of sexist, economic and racial injustices. Prostitution is not work like any other but, in contrast, is inherently abusive, dangerous and violent. Decriminalisation not only exacerbates the sexual violence inherent in the sex trade but normalises it. Speakers insisted that decriminalisation is, in effect, a pimp’s charter which licenses men, without sanction, to dehumanize women by buying and exchanging them as commodities in the market place. The model of safety advocated on the steps of New York’s City Hall was End Demand, encapsulated by The Nordic Model.

It is understandable that Smith doesn’t refer to evidence which contradicts the alleged global unity of the “sex worker” plea for decriminalisation since her article is polemical and has no intention of displaying journalistic balance. But what she can’t do, in my view, is tell untruths and get away with it.

Firstly, in making her case, Smith describes the recent incarceration of two migrant women, one of whom is pregnant, in Kildare, Ireland as directly resulting from the Ireland’s adoption of the Nordic Model.  Ireland, alongside Northern Ireland, France, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and South Korea has officially adopted the Nordic Model for regulating the harms of prostitution.   The Nordic model advocates partial criminalisation:  the criminalisation of those paying for sex, but the decriminalisation of those selling it. Smith alleges that the direct consequence of Nordic Model however is that “working” women are punished for sharing a flat for safety reasons. She accuses Julie Bindel, in her book The Pimping of Prostitution, of “not acknowledging that the laws she advocates for criminalise sex working women”.  However, Bindel cannot acknowledge the Nordic Model leads to the criminalisation of women because it specifically advocates the total decriminalisation of all women (and men) who sell sex.

Secondly, Smith argues that Bindel is presently in the Scottish parliament calling for Scotland to adopt the Nordic Model, implying that Bindel supports the Irish government’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the Nordic Model. However, the very raison d’etre of the model, as Bindel constantly repeats, is to decriminalise and de-stigmatise women.

Smith tells us there are two kinds of feminist: Nice, kind feminists who advocate total decriminalisation because they don’t want vulnerable women to go to prison; Nasty feminists like Bindel who, because of their views, would happily see vulnerable women incarcerated, even if they are migrant and pregnant. In misrepresenting the Nordic Model, and then castigating Bindel for advocating it, Smith’s allegations perform a rhetorical strategy:  We are distracted from recognising the source of the violence, namely the pimps and the male buyers;  The breach of women’s human rights is laid at the feet of an overarching misogynistic state in tandem with women like Bindel.

Pitting women against each other, as this voice piece does, is not progressive but an orthodox ploy that reduces any social concern for prostitution to issues of the inflated powers of the state or to a conflict between feminists. It hides in plain sight what we all know in our heart of hearts as people on the left (however ‘woke’ we imagine ourselves to be), that prostitution is a man’s game created and maintained by men for men. The Nordic Model, when fully implemented, is revolutionary since it challenges the norms and sensibilities of liberal democratic societies in 2019 which effectively still hold women, rather than men or social structures of inequality, responsible for women’s sexual, racial and economic class exploitation. This is why feminists like Bindel support it and it is disingenuous, and sometimes self-interested, to suggest otherwise.