Friday the 13th: Why I disagree with Julie Bindel about prostitution and the Nordic Model.

Friday the 13ths (Fridays the 13th?) are days on which I speak out in favour of decriminalising prostitution and abolishing laws that harm sex workers. For details of why, please read this post and the links, which will give you more detail than I’ll be able to manage on this particular Friday 13th. Today, what I want to do is write some comments about Julie Bindel’s article Why prostitution should never be legalised in Wednesday’s Guardian.

As you can probably gather from the article’s title and URL, Bindel takes a very different stance from me on prostitution; she believes all sex work to be inherently exploitative and non-consensual, and believes that buying of sex should be criminalised, a position known as the Nordic (or Swedish) Model on which I’ve previously expressed concerns. Here, rather briefly, are my concerns about Bindel’s beliefs, and why I, although also a feminist, do not feel able to agree with her:

  • I do not believe that it is possible to say of any form of sexual experience amongst adults that this is something to which no-one could or would give consent under any circumstance. I simply don’t believe it’s possible to be that reductionist. Any form of sexual activity can be done forcibly, or coercively – or consensually. I don’t see any reason why selling sex should be the one exception.
  • I believe that the best person to assess an individual’s own experience and how s/he feels about it is that individual. When I read the accounts of women who were forced into sex work or experienced coercion, I believe them. Likewise, when I read the accounts of women who chose sex work (whether as the least of the available evils or as something they actually enjoyed and wanted to do), I believe them. When a woman says that she hated sex work and that it was horribly wrong for her, I believe her. When a woman says that she enjoyed sex work and was happy in her profession, I believe her. It makes my hackles rise when people’s own experiences and emotions are denied because they don’t fit with dogma. Bindel wants to erase the experiences and voices of women whose experience of prostitution doesn’t match her own beliefs on the subject. I do not – I cannot – accept or agree with this.
  • Bindel, in this article, is completely ignoring all of the evidence that the legal solution she proposes will be harmful to sex workers themselves. Quite simply, criminalising the buying of sex does nothing whatsoever to address the many reasons why women sell sex or to change the various situations that lead to women doing this, while doing quite a lot to make it harder for them to make the money they need or to do so safely. This means that it does not help sex workers, but does harm them. I would urge anyone considering supporting the Nordic model to please read the articles at the links in the first sentence of this paragraph. Several were written by sex workers or former sex workers who have seen, first-hand, the harm this law can do; others are about the research showing problems with these laws.

And all of that is why – as a feminist – I cannot support Bindel’s position on prostitution.


  1. agender says

    When the Swedish law was introduced, i felt it to be vaguely puritanic – but trusted the legal situation north to the Latin law in Germany enough to believe the Swedes would not harm sex workers, let alone anybody else.
    But speaking Danish and therefore being able to read Norwegian and Swedish (nynorsk and bokmal) made me aware that the law criminalising the buying of sex and the info campaigns around it present a veritable danger to me personally, and to my political aim to get selfdetermination into each field of law that applies to living beings:
    In these years I had nearly as much pressure to have sexual, even expressis verbis HETEROsexual relationships by aquaintances from Scandinavia as I had since my puberty in Germany!!!
    As you can see from my username, this is and has always been an alien idea to me,
    Also i am extreme in avoiding risk, be it pregnancy or a flashback.
    I followed the rape laws and their efficiency quite closely – and made the horrible experience, that wonderfully worded laws in Sweden that seem so much better than Germany´ s come to nothing as there is increasing assumption towards the ugly Witches´ Hammer worldview that ALL (cis-trans-genderfluid-whatever) women lust for sex all the time and take lots of risks for having it – a combination of mindsets that does not exist at all. In reality there is individual difference toward principle and situation – and this idea that buying and selling sex was bad amounts to a new norm that resembles the former marital duty, but towards everybody who wants sex and in each conceivable variety and undermines the little progress towards personal selfdetermination.

  2. Bruce says

    Dr. Sarah, I think you are correct. But I think there’s one aspect where the Nordics could have half of a point. In my view, if society would guarantee to each individual a minimum income to permit life in dignity, then it would be clear that choices are freely made and not coerced. In the current USA, the genuine threat of hard poverty is an inherent form of coercion, that cannot be disproven as a possible factor in any choice, thereby making most choices suspect of not being truly consensual. In a punitive society, the non-rich are essentially denied agency, so people tend to distrust that they were consensual. If we could move society in each country to guarantee a decent minimum income, that would potentially free individuals to make choices in which their personal agency is believed and respected. So, maybe a decade or two after our societies were to become enlightened with minimum incomes, then people would view personal choices as being consensual and not coerced. Then people would give up the unfair presumption that certain choices could not have been made willingly. I think all of these issues hang together. Thanks for writing on this.

  3. Dr Sarah says

    Agender, I’m intrigued by what you say. How do you feel the law has affected you personally? I would love to hear more about this if you’re able to tell me.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    Bruce, you’ve just nailed a key point in the whole issue far more accurately than the Nordic model supporters seem to. In short: Yes, there are indeed many women in the sex work business who don’t really want to be there – but for the majority of those, this isn’t a ‘forced by violent pimp or trafficker’ scenario, but a matter of economics. People have to earn a living, and, sadly, a lot of people have to earn a living doing something they don’t really want to be doing. Improving economic circumstances for the poorest in our society would be a far more constructive way of helping – that way people who actually do hate working in the sex trade but have to do it because of desperate circumstances would be able to get out. And, of course, the same would be true of other people doing jobs they hate (it’s not as though prostitution was a unique career in that regard) because they have no other way to earn money.

    However, I do have to disagree with you on your other point: I don’t believe that this would bring Bindel and her ilk round to the point of viewing sex workers as people who might actually be in their profession by choice. Bindel et al can’t imagine anyone wanting to work as a prostitute. They can’t see the job as being anything other than hateful and degrading beyond redemption, and they simply cannot get their heads around the concept that anybody could feel differently from themselves on that issue. There are many women now who are in the sex trade purely because they want to be there – they’re qualified, they have other job options, they just prefer this one. Bindel and others like her don’t believe such women could possibly exist, so they erase and ignore their experiences. Whatever we did to ensure that people in the sex trade had other options available and only had to stay there if they genuinely wanted to… it doesn’t seem that Bindel would ever want to believe that anyone could choose this job.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts.

  5. agender says

    Have little computer time, so back here that late.
    Dr. Sarah: do you want me to list each instance I was threatened or simply talked over towards having or to have to want sexual activity? I have been used to get rid of acquaintances who deny the right to abortion a long time ago, and tried to get new ones among the Danish minority and in Nynorsk and Bokmal groups at university – in vain!
    I have no time to translate and do not even know the legal situation to forward emails, even those I did not delete in fury to break the contacts.
    I do not write a diary, so I can only describe lasting harm: 2 more scars by street attackers; (adding to coutless catcalls – last Friday was the FIRST here in the North by a darklooking man in 10 years, all others were blond or at least brownhaired)
    All the social services which should help me find a flat or little house useless BECAUSE they do not accept that I am not willing to “sacrifice” -( relspit!) – myself for a family and/or enter typical heterror situations like alcohol?!?
    So I cannot statistically prove that it became worse during the last 5 years or so.
    Spillover from the Scandinavian countries is very common here in the north of Germany, I cannot exactly place ” if you were searching for a lesbian relationship, it would be o.k., it is legal here – Germany – too” or” if you are not christian, so why…” repeated until I leave or deny the next contact – a few years ago i tried up to 5 times to explain to the same persons, last year i came to explaining ONCE and then cut the contact.
    All the lawyers who are specialized in stalking (new law also about 6 years ago) are specialists in FAMILY LAW and could or would not help me against stalkers who stalk me BECAUSE i do not want that kind of GRINS DIRTY relationship!
    I have to concentrate to find a place to live for myself and go to the library only when i am fit to see people.

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