On Choice, Agency and the Nordic Model

Choice and Agency

One of the criticisms that regularly gets directed at feminists who critique prostitution is that we are denying the “choice” or “agency” of the women because they have “freely chosen” prostitution. This is disconcerting when it comes from our leftwing comrades, because (a) they don’t accuse us of denying the “choice” or “agency” of workers who are trapped on zero-hour contracts when we critique those, for example, and (b) it echoes the neoliberal argument that justifies zero-hour contracts and other exploitative practices by saying the workers choose them and so to criticise those practices is to deny the workers their “choice” and “agency”.

We don’t buy that neoliberal argument in any other arena. Because it is completely obvious to all of us, I am sure, that critiquing zero-hour contracts is not a criticism of the workers on them. We understand that many workers have few options and most people who accept zero hour contracts do so because they don’t actually have much choice or social or economic power.

So why is it that when we point out that most women in prostitution are there because of a lack of options rather than a real choice (between, say, prostitution and a nice job in banking, nursing or IT), are we accused of attacking those women’s “agency”?

I’ll let you think about that.

But let me make it completely clear, when we critique prostitution, we are not criticising the women involved. Quite the contrary. We stand in solidarity with the women and respect and honour their decisions and resourcefulness. We are critiquing the system and calling for something better, just as we want workers to have something better than zero-hour contracts.

This is why we are calling for the Nordic Model approach.

The Nordic Model

The Nordic Model has three main planks. Firstly, the total decriminalisation of all those in prostitution. One reason for this is that when the women are criminalised, it makes it harder or impossible for them to report abuses and crimes without implicating themselves. We also propose adding to this, the clearing from their criminal records any convictions, cautions or orders (such as ASBOs) associated with their own prostitution, because these make it harder for them to leave prostitution and get work outside it.

Another key plank of the Nordic Model is ring-fenced funding for high quality, non-judgemental services to support those in prostitution in building a new life outside it, if that is what they want. This would include things like access to safe affordable housing, training and further education, child care, legal and benefit advice, emotional and psychological support. Because experience shows that once in prostitution, it can be very hard to get out.

We are also calling for the fixing of all the factors that drive people into prostitution in the first place – things like student fees, benefit cuts and sanctions, lack of affordable childcare, zero-hour contracts, etc.

And we are saying if women want to stay in prostitution, we wish them luck. Truly. We are not making a judgement here.

But what we will not say is that we believe that prostitution is all they’re good for. Because we don’t believe that. They’re brilliant and there’s a whole other world out there and we’d like them to be part of it. And if the jobs aren’t flexible enough to fit in with their caring roles, let’s fix the jobs and let’s sort out the childcare and relief carers.

And what we will also not say is that we believe that it is OK for men to buy women and girls for sex. Because it is not.

Which brings me to the third plank of the Nordic Model, which is the sex buyer’s law that makes buying sex from anyone a criminal offence. This is not because we want to criminalise men or male sexuality. No. The aim is to change attitudes – to make it clear that buying human beings for sex leads to much misery and that there is no way of making it safe. And we believe that men are better than that and that ultimately prostitution hurts them too and makes it harder for them to form mutual sustaining relationships.

And no, legalisation and full decriminalisation does not make it safe. Nothing can make prostitution safe. That’s why we are calling for the Nordic Model.

For more about the thinking behind the Nordic Model, see Prostitution – Calling for a New Paradigm.

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