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Come and find out why the labour and trade union movement should support the Nordic model

With Unison soon to be debating the future of its policy on prostitution, ANNA FISHER encourages trade unionists to take a look at, and think carefully about, the disturbing reality of the so-called ‘sex trade’

LATER this month, the Unison national delegate conference will be debating and voting on a motion to end the union’s long-term support for the Nordic model — because, it is claimed, it increases the risks for “sex workers” — and instead move towards supporting the New Zealand model, which, it is claimed, is so much safer.

Many similar motions calling for the “decriminalisation of sex work” as implemented in New Zealand have been passed by various trade unions and Labour Party branches over recent years.

Typically, the motions do not spell out clearly that “decriminalisation of sex work” (aka “full decrim”) means that all the actors, including punters, brothel-keepers and pimps (revamped as “managers”) would be decriminalised as well as those who sell sex. 

Typically, the debates are brief and are dominated by scare stories about the Nordic model and how it “doesn’t work” and how it “increases violence against sex workers” and leaves “sex workers vulnerable to exploitation.” 

While these claims are much repeated, they do not stand up to scrutiny — and nor do the claims that full decrim in New Zealand has been a success and is nothing like the legalised system that has been such a disaster in Germany.

There is in fact much evidence to the contrary.

Of course, no trade unionist wants women and other marginalised people to be put at increased risk, and so there’s considerable pressure to vote for these motions — and to write off those who argue against them as right-wing, sex-negative prudes, or similar.

But is this good enough? These motions are underpinned by the claim that prostitution is a regular job and therefore needs to be decriminalised and treated like any other job. But is this true? 

Is prostitution really not significantly different from waitressing or childcare? Is “consensual sex work” really a business relationship between free and similarly empowered adults mediated by normal social conventions? Research into men who buy sex suggests it’s not. 

In a study of 103 London men who buy sex, 27 per cent said they believe that once he pays, he’s entitled to any act he chooses. Forty-five per cent believed the woman has more or less no rights during the encounter, and the study found a high correlation between the men’s acceptance of prostitution and their acceptance of rape myths, such as “Women say No but really mean Yes” and “A woman who dresses provocatively is asking to be raped.”

Other studies have found similar results. A US study that compared men who buy sex with men who don’t, found that the sex buyers were much more likely to be sexually aggressive and inclined to rape.

If you suspect these results are down to researcher bias, you might want to read the reviews that men leave on punter forums about the women they pay for sex. They confirm the research findings and then some. Here are a few examples:

“[It was] the sort of experience that you have with your girlfriend when she doesn’t really want a shag, but when you pester her into it.”

“The main event was like shagging a dead fish (No reaction from her at all).”

“Common as fuck, gum-chewing Hungarian whore… Transpired that she had been fucked silly all afternoon and here was I… expecting some type of GFE [girlfriend experience]. So I fucked her as hard as I could in doggy, got a few yelps out of her, but she was well used to it.”

Can anyone really believe that being on the receiving end of that is normal work? Or that it is consistent with the values of the trade union movement to expect marginalised young women to be naked and alone in a room with such men, about one-third of whom believe they have the right to do anything to her they fancy?

How could it ever be safe? How could it ever conform to minimum workplace standards?

And if you are thinking that these quotes are unrepresentative, think again. They are by no means the worst.

I suspect the truth is that many people haven’t thought it through very thoroughly. And certainly not the impact of normalising the sex industry, as full decrim would, on the general prevalence of male violence against women and girls — which is already at epidemic levels.

Of course, it’s easier to think “sex work” is a normal job, and all it needs is to be brought under regular employment protections, than to open your eyes to the disturbing reality.

But democracy puts a heavy onus on all of us to think for ourselves, to not accept platitudes and group think, to search out the truth and creative solutions to social issues. And to prioritise the wellbeing of the most marginalised members of our communities.

You might therefore like to attend the “Why the labour and trade union movement should support the Nordic Model” webinar that’s being hosted by Nordic Model Now! at lunchtime on Tuesday June 7. And bring your colleagues and friends along with you. It’s free but you need to register in advance.

We will hear from a sex trade survivor, a trade union leader, and a support worker about why the movement should unequivocally back the Nordic model: It is the only approach that recognises the prostitution system as part of the structural oppression of women and as both a cause and a consequence of the persistent inequality between the sexes.

It is also the only approach that prioritises support, assistance to exit and alternatives for those caught up in the prostitution system (almost all surveys show that the overwhelming majority are desperate to get out), while holding the pimps and punters to account. 

If you can’t make it, we plan to release the recording on our YouTube channel shortly afterwards.

Anna Fisher is the co-founder and current chair of Nordic Model Now! nordicmodelnow.org.

To find out more about the webinar and to register, go to mstar.link/NordicModel.

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