The Nordic Criminal Model (NCM), which was orginally called the Swedish model and is now being marketed as the “equality” model, criminalises sex work by targeting clients and third parties. This legislation makes buying commercial sexual services and various third-party activities like being a driver, receptionist or work collaegue against the law.

Althought this model claims to protect sex workers by not criminalising them it is important to note that it is not possible to criminalise one side of a commerical sexual service transcation without putting all parties involved at risk. This legal model forces sex workers into dangerous work situations, targets ethnic miniorities and migrants, and has negative ramifications for families. It has also led to the continued punitive policing and arrest of sex workers.

The NCM began in Sweden where it was based on 1995-1997 parliamentary committees which presumed “no prostitution can be said to be of a volunary nature. All sex workers are victims without personal agency”. The Swedish government at the time was duped by partiarchical power structures and therefore purposely ignored the rights of sex workers, who are predominaently women. As an Amnesty International representative stated for the 2016 SA Parliamentary Committee into sex work law reform: “laws against buying sex and against the organisation of sex work can actually harm sex workers, and that’s often missed when talking about the Nordic model.”

A 2014 Norwegian Government’s Ministry of Justice report found that the Nordic Criminal Model legislation did not decrease demand for commercial sexual services. It had however, created a buyers market where violence against sex workers increased.

What Happens Under the NCM?

Under the Nordic Criminal Model sex workers are unable to access their human rights to autonomy and agency, face barriers to reporting crimes, are at a greater risk of violence and are entrapped by police.

Under the NCM legislation in Oslo, Norway, sex workers were targeted by police in “Operation Homeless”. Police would either entrap workers or use information provided when workers reported a crime to locate the sex worker’s address. The police then threatened the landlord with criminal charges if they did not evict the sex worker immediately or, if the sex worker owned the properity, they would arrest and charge the sex worker. Once a worker was listed as an evicted sex worker, it became very difficult to find new housing (Ulla Bjørndahl Oslo 2012). It is illegal in Sweden to rent a room to a sex worker. If they own their own home, it can be seized if used for sex work. 

Sex workers continue to experience high levels of stigma and discrimination under the NCM. This legislation was specifically intentioned to increase stigma as this was seen as a positive result that would deter people from entering the industry. (Skarhed 2010).

Part of the Nordic Criminal Model is to criminalise sex workers working together. This is a key strategy used by sex workers for safety but under NCM it is seen as “benefiting from the proceeds of prostitution”. In Norway and Sweden this particular law can also criminalise sex workers’ partners and any adult children living with them (Chu and Glass 2013-14).

Shifting criminalisation to clients means that there are less safe clients. Clients that intend to abuse or assault sex workers and who are aggressive or dangerous, especially those who are purchasing sex on the street are more likely to seek services knowning sex workers are unlikely to report crimes (UNAIDS 2009, ScotPEP 2015).

A raft of laws within the Nordic Criminal Models employed in Norway, France, Canada and Sweden are used to unjustifiable remove sex worker’s children and deport migrant workers (Amnesty International 2015).

In Ireland, about a year after the NCM was enacted 55 people had been arrested for sex work-related charges. Only 2 of these arrests were clients. The rest? Sex workers charged for working together, using a receptionist, renting a unit or just for advertising a service.