Nordic or New Zealand model? NGOs disagree on prostitution reform

Photo by Unsplash

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Impassioned arguments in favour and against the full decriminalisation of prostitution were made by NGOs and experts working in the field as Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee discussed a proposed reform yesterday.

The committee started discussing the proposed reform after the closure of a consultation period, though Parliamentary Secretary for Equality Rosianne Cutajar insisted that the proposals were not set in stone.

The government’s proposals would involve full decriminalisation, but this was strongly condemned by a group of 40 NGOs who argued in favour of the Nordic model, which involves decriminalising prostitution whilst criminalising clients.

But full decriminalisation nevertheless found backing among a number of human rights activists, prompting a lengthy discussion which emphasised the complicated and sensitive nature of the topic at hand.

Criminalisation ‘pushes sex workers underground’

Human rights organisations Aditus and Integra Foundation presented their own joint proposals on reform, involving full decriminalisation.

Integra director Maria Pisani explained that while the NGOs’ proposals acknowledged that sex workers are often at risk of human rights abuses, they were also grounded in the respect of their agency and autonomy.

Pisani argued that full decriminalisation helped to shift the balance of power towards sex workers, allowing for those who choose to enter the trade freely and providing them with an exit programme should they wish to leave.

The criminalisation of their clients would have an adverse effect, she argued. Evidence repeatedly showed that “switching off the red light… pushes sex workers into the dark, and this increases their vulnerability,” she said.

On her part, Aditus assistant director Carla Camilleri emphasised that decriminalisation also needed to be supported by legal protections and access to sexual and reproductive health.

But she also insisted that the consultation process had been far too brief, and that sex workers themselves needed to be involved in the process, even after the reforms are introduced.

Only 1-3%’ enter sex work willingly

However, Anna Vella from Dar Hosea – which provides shelter and support to women involved in prostitution – was adamant that legalisation left prostitutes worse off, though she insisted that sex workers themselves should not face prosecution.

She noted that in a study visit to Amsterdam’s red-light district, a number of things were apparent, not least the absence of any Dutch women doing sex work. Many of the foreign women, she added, also had tattooed barcodes, a sign that they had been victims of trafficking.

Vella said that discussions about women taking up sex work freely were a source of concern, noting that the need to provide exit programmes itself betrayed that the reality was different. Asked about the proportion of women who took up sex work of their own free will, she estimated it only be around 1-3%, with the rest either victims of trafficking or coercion.

She also cited research which indicated that 90% of women doing sex work had a history of sexual abuse, while 80% had mental health issues.

Anna Borg, from the Association for Equality, said that many prostitutes had been groomed, with the process often starting when they were underage. Pimps, she said, preyed on vulnerable girls and women.

Increasing demand could have consequences

Borg also warned that liberalising the sector would naturally increase demand and that this increase in demand could have dire consequences, not least because it could not be met by women seeking to do sex work willingly.

“This is the most fundamental principle of economics,” she said. “Where are they coming from? In Spain, the vast majority are poor immigrants, who may not have a choice.”

She noted that Germany, for instance, had been flooded by sex workers – the number is estimated to be around 400,000 – and that increased competition was making things worse for them.

As a result, she said, not only have prices gone down, but women found it increasingly difficult to turn down requests they would otherwise be unwilling to meet.

Vella said that a Nordic model would not stop prostitution, but it would also not send a positive message to pimps and traffickers, who, she said, sought to operate where laws were most favourable to them.

She insisted that the criminalisation of clients, as opposed to full decriminalisation, would shift the balance of power in sex workers’ favour. Clients would not face an inquisition, but abuses could be reported more easily.

“The Nordic model has saved lives,” Borg maintained. “Other models have not increased protection; they have just expanded the business.”

Decriminalisation, not legalisation

Human rights activist Ruth Baldacchino highlighted that there was a difference between legalisation and decriminalisation and that the European countries cited had legalised the trade. Only one country – New Zealand – has implemented full decriminalisation instead.

The distinction, they explained, was that while decriminalisation removed all laws criminalising sex work, legalisation involved introducing a new legal framework governing it.

Baldacchino is the former secretary-general of ILGA World and noted that in spite of bringing together more than 1,000 LGBT groups around the world, the organisation unanimously agreed to back decriminalisation. Similar recommendations have also been made by the World Health Organisation and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS, among others.

On the other hand, Baldacchino emphasised legalisation should be opposed, agreeing with the NGOs favouring the Nordic model that this did not help protect sex workers. But they emphasised that studies in Sweden showed that over the years, the Nordic model created hierarchies within the sex work sector, pushing sex workers underground.