French prostitute protests
Prostitutes in France protesting against a law that criminalises clients.Reuters

An expert on prostitution laws and their effect on society has said the "Nordic Model", which criminalises the client rather than the sex worker, is "extremely dangerous".

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, reader in psychology and social policy at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy, and Society, made these comments following a vote in the European Parliament's Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee, which passed through a report recommending the adoption of this model.

The Swedish government passed the law that makes it illegal to buy sex, but not sell sex, in 1999. The model has since been adopted in Norway and Iceland, and is currently being pushed through parliament in France by women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Advocates for the law say it protects women from dangers such as sex trafficking. However, others say it actually places both women and men at far more at risk.

Speaking to IBTimes UK, Brooks-Gordon said: "Any law has to be based on some philosophy or evidence, for example, harm is one – the reason murder or theft is a crime is because they cause demonstrable harm. There is no reason to criminalise prostitution clients when you cannot show demonstrable harm. In fact all the evidence is in the other direction, that it is harmful to criminalise."

She said criminalising the purchase of sex can lead to blackmail, that it makes both clients and sex workers less likely to report violence and that it leads to other levels of underground criminality.

Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
France's' Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-BelkacemReuters

"Like with other forms of prohibition it criminalises a vast group of people who would otherwise be law abiding. When you have a law that is based on morality, morality around which not everybody agrees, you end up with something called status law or symbolic law.

"And that was the example with prohibition. You then end up with the legitimacy of the law being called into question. We had it here with our abortion laws and our divorce laws. It brings the law into disrepute. You end up with upright citizens and members of the establishment completely side-lining the law."

But why are many politicians so keen to see this law pushed through? In 2010, Mr Justice Eady said: "Dangerous and discriminatory new provisions against sex workers' clients have repeatedly been put before parliament in England and Wales. Female ministers keen to punish clients of sex workers eagerly supported the Bill. However, while sex work has become a rights issue it is no longer just about women's rights."

Brooks-Gordon explained: "Some female ministers have a vested interest because they feel that they like to be seen to be giving something to women. And this is something that they can give to women. That completely undermines the argument or the evidence that 25% of men who pay for sex pay other men for sex. When you put that argument to them, they try to side-line it and say 'no we're saving women'.

"It's [also] been picked up by a lot of radical feminists. One strand of feminism finds it very attractive. Within separatist lesbian feminism whose ideology is that all heterosexual sex is exploitation, because the only way to overthrow patriarchy is to only ever sleep with women, they find it very attractive."

Explaining how the Swedish law came to pass, Brooks-Gordon said it was pushed through at a time when there were huge concerns over immigration: "They were having a referendum and tempers were very frayed. When you look at the discourse around that, it was 'look at these dirty black people invading our clean white land' - really racist discourses - because there was a fear they would be overrun and this led to rhetoric around trafficking.

prostitution
A woman working as a prostitute in Paris before the Swedish model was pushed though Parliament.Reuters

"It was very easy for government ministers then to talk around 'we will stop trafficking', as a code for 'we will stop immigration and protect your white land'. Laws brought into being like that – knee jerk laws – are generally pretty dangerous. Also if you look at the other laws in Sweden, which has some of the most punitive laws around any kind of sexual behaviour, the Swedish model does not translate to our laws."

Brooks-Gordon is adamant there is no evidence supporting the Swedish model and said there are dozens of academics who can provide reasons why criminalising clients is a dangerous and unworkable model.

Another problem with the Swedish model is that resources are taken away from women who are in real need of help, such as those in domestic servitude or women who are groomed. By "ramping up the rhetoric on trafficking", resources are detracted from people who need them most.

"When you're going after consenting adults, having adult relationships behind closed doors, police will end up picking the low hanging fruit and going after the clients instead of chasing the harder cases. They will go after basic punters because it's much easier police work and that's very damaging to policing. That's a problem," said Brooks-Gordon.

The other aspect of criminalising clients is the knock on effect it will have for sex workers and their income. "If women are not able to make money from their sex work, there are some who may steal and do other things, and there are some who wouldn't. Their children and their other dependables will end up in worse straights."

femen
Activists from women's rights organisation Femen protesting against prostitutionReuters

Similarly she pointed out that the punishment for those breaking the law under the Swedish model is discriminatory, with those who can pay and fight their case getting away with no criminal record:

"It becomes a bit of a revolving door money-maker. People who are policing things should not be the same people taking money from that same thing. It is not good for due process, and lawmakers should understand and recognise that."

Rehabilitation programmes are also ineffective, Brooks-Gordon said, explaining you cannot change someone's behaviour in a short space of time.

But why did other countries introduce the Swedish model when it does not work? "Norway only introduced it because they were terrified people would come over the border," she said. "So they did it as a prophylactic measure. Because of all this rhetoric about 'you're going to be flooded by thousands of trafficking victims', they then introduced the law through a fear and then actually found it to be unworkable and a nightmare.

"It's like the flood of Romanians people worried would come over to the UK, because people will believe in these big numbers if they have no experience of that area. I've been researching this area for 20 years and that's why when people say 'there will be 4,000 trafficking victims', you think well which report?"

Looking at other countries and the prostitution laws they have enacted, Brooks-Gordon said both New Zealand and Germany have more effective methods of controlling the sex industry.

In New Zealand, research showed that decriminalisation (not legalisation), which allowed women to work together in small groups, helped improve trust in police and decrease violence. The model meant women could rely on one another for safety and companionship and that it would be "well worth piloting".

German prostitutes
Prostitution was made legal in Germany in 2002 and women are able to pay taxes and claim national insuranceReuters

In parts of Germany, where mayors have adopted it, prostitution is legal: "German law shows that they consider it a job, but not a job like any other – so somebody could not go to a labour exchange and be told you've got to work in a brothel, that simply wouldn't happen. However, those who are sex workers can pay their taxes, they can claim national insurance – you cut down the stigmatisation and you cut down the criminalisation. In this country, women working for themselves can end up criminalised, then it's hard to get out of once you have a criminal record.

"It doesn't mean you have more people going into it. There are a still a huge number of people who would not feel able to ever do that kind of work. That's always been a fear - that if you put down the barriers then everyone will want to go and do it."

There are difficulties in all models of prostitution laws, but lessons can be learned from each. Offering solutions to how the German and New Zealand laws can be improved, Brooks-Gordon said that offering additional protective services will improve safety for sex workers and reduce crime levels, such as having injecting centres for drug users, to prevent them from entering prostitution in the first place.

"I understand that it can be expensive. It's much cheaper to stand there and say 'this is wrong let's criminalise it', but what happens is that people who are not doing anything wrong get criminalised.

"I think we can take violence against sex workers as a hate crime. I think you could mainstream safety and harm reduction into services for sex workers.

"In Liverpool they trialled a very interesting pilot a few years ago where they had informal tolerance zones and they took violence against sex workers as a hate crime and it really did improve things, but it needs political will and courage to roll those things out and it needs people to be strong on the evidence base to know what they are doing. And a lot of politicians don't know the evidence base because the waters have been so muddied."