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The false promise of the Nordic model of sex work

The model of criminalising only the clients of sex workers is becoming increasingly popular, but what do those working with sex workers in Finland actually think of it?

Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity in 2016, Vancouver, Canada. Sally T. Buck/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I'm Essi Thesslund from Pro Tukipiste-Finland. We started 27 years ago, and we mainly work with workers in the erotic industry and sex industry. Ten years ago, we started also working with victims of trafficking. However, our position regarding so-called ‘anti-trafficking’ work has always been quite critical. This is because, coming from the Nordic countries, the discussion around trafficking has been framed within a criminal justice approach to controlling prostitution, and whether we should criminalise the clients of sex workers.

Sam (oD): I’ve heard you say elsewhere that there is no such thing as the Nordic model. But as anybody with an interest in the topic knows, there is something that is being sold as the Nordic model – the basic idea of criminalising the clients but not the workers. This is becoming more popular, so I wanted to ask you to respond very directly to the suggestion that this causes no harm to the women involved. What are your thoughts on that?

Essi: I think it's very hard to have a person who is selling, a person who is buying, and to then criminalise one part of that transaction. How would that not affect the other part of the transaction? And what we have heard – we have had many Swedish advocates coming to show us how they implement their policy – is that they surveil sex workers to catch clients. We see this kind of policy as a violation against sex workers’ integrity and right to privacy. It seems to be difficult to get the clients without harassing the sex workers.

Finland didn't adopt the Swedish model, which does this. The Finnish model is the partial criminalisation of sex buyers. Finnish law differentiates between different kinds of sex work. Sex work is not illegal. It's legal to buy and legal to sell if the person is working individually. But it’s illegal to buy sex from sex workers who are working under a pimp, or from victims of trafficking, or from minors.

It seems to be difficult to get the clients without harassing the sex workers.

The partial criminalisation used to be implemented in some cases, but not so much anymore. In practice it has been hard to prove that the clients should have known that the person had been under working under a pimp or had been trafficked.

We have assisted individuals during the criminal proceedings against buyers of sex. In our experience, it was a humiliating, extensive criminal process for the victims who went through that. In Finland there are no traditions or practices to protect the privacy of the person who has been sexually exploited, or the person who has been procured, or those who have had to go through these proceedings.

When we counsel people who we think might be trafficked, we have to say that if they want to get assistance from the national assistance system, they need to tell their story to the authorities. Doing so, we further explain, might lead to possible criminal proceedings. And in some cases, the police might be also interested in the individuals who bought sex or who were exploitative.

For many people that’s a big problem or threat. They are afraid that their identities will be exposed to maybe hundreds of men, and there’s no guarantee that the person will get any kind of compensation for that process. Cases regarding ‘victims of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation’ might also lead to two big criminal processes taking place. One concerns the trafficking of human beings, and the other concerns the sex buyers who are suspected of sexual exploitation of the victim of trafficking. All this raises the threshold to seeking help from the authorities.

Because the threshold of seeking help from the authorities has been high, we have had to shift our work away from providing victim assistance and identification in cooperation with the national authorities, and towards trying to assist people who are not willing to go to the authorities. We try to find other ways of helping them. Furthermore, at a more structural level, we lobby for better and safer assistance for victims of trafficking and for more effective criminal investigation and proceedings concerning trafficking in human beings.

Sam (oD): So the Finnish model doesn’t criminalise individual sex work but it gets more problematic when it begins to be organised. The basic logic is to make it less likely for women to work under pimps or criminal gangs, I would assume, but what does this do to sex workers organising themselves into collectives? If, say, three sex workers came together and hired a flat somewhere – would that also be treated as a problem under the law?

Essi: That's the problem with having a very wide procuring/pimping law. In principle all activities carried out by so-called third parties – anybody apart from the person selling sex and the person buying sex – are criminalised as pimping, or, when it comes to exploitation and violence, as trafficking in human beings. For example, renting a flat, or working with a person in your own flat, could both lead to you being prosecuted as a pimp. Even helping someone to advertise selling sexual services could be interpreted as pimping. So in practice, most people would fall under the category of people from whom you shouldn’t buy sex.

The police are often seen as a threat.

You should have your own flat, work individually, and not advertise anywhere. You should also own that flat, as your landlord could also be prosecuted for pimping. We also have a public order act that prohibits people from selling sex in public spaces, and buying sex from public spaces. So in practice, working in a safe, legal way in sex work is quite difficult.

Pimping crimes, as well as trafficking in human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation, have been rarely investigated and prosecuted in past years. This means that although there is the wide pimping law, it’s not often implemented. For non-EU citizens, there is however a provision in the Finnish Aliens Act that makes suspicion that they will be selling sexual services grounds for refusing entry into the country. Because of these different laws and the ways in which they have been or haven’t been implemented, many sex workers earn their income in a vulnerable position and find it difficult to know what their rights in practice are.

Sam Okyere (oD): In that sort of context, how do they identify victims of trafficking and differentiate them from something else?

Essi: That's a problem, actually. Since 2004 we’ve had the criminalisation of trafficking in human beings in the Finnish penal code. In 2006 we got this partial criminalisation of buying sex, and apart from that laws and practices have developed to assist victims of trafficking. For many reasons – like the problematic and unclear legislation and policies on prostitution and human trafficking – the result has been that most victims of trafficking in Finland are identified in the labour sector. That’s different from other countries.

From the point of view of an NGO working with persons whose situation can be identified as human trafficking, it has proven hard to convince people that seeking help from authorities could be a safe option. Assistance for victims of trafficking in Finland, like in many other countries, is closely tied to the criminal identification of trafficking. This means that a person is entitled to assistance from the national assistance system if the crime is investigated and prosecuted as trafficking in human beings, and not as something else, like pimping or extortionate work. That’s very complex, and for normal people or even the authorities, it's very hard to separate pimping and procuring from trafficking. For NGOs providing counselling and legal advice for persons whose situation has indicators of trafficking, it’s very hard to predict how the criminal proceedings would work out if the person chooses to report to the police.

The police are often seen as a threat, especially as this provision in the Finnish Aliens Act enables people to be deported if they are suspected of selling sex as third country nationals. So, if you are caught by the authorities in some kind of raid or any kind of investigation, it might be that you don’t want to tell the police anything as there's always the risk of deportation.

People tend to feel more secure staying in even more exploitative situations than going through a criminal process with an unpredictable outcome and duration. The criminal process could mean that one would have to give the names and details of the perpetrators, and they be only entitled to very weak protections. Residency permits for victims of trafficking, for example, are usually only temporary. It's not an option that many people choose.

Sam (oD): One of the main criticisms of anti-trafficking legislation and policies is that it puts a chilling effect on migration. Has that been born out in the work which you do in your organisation?

Essi: Migrant sex workers are considered to be unwanted aliens in Finland. And, if you are a migrant sex worker, you don't always know the system or trust the authorities. We have also witnessed a tightening of immigration laws, and nowadays it’s harder to receive a continuous resident permit as a victim of trafficking. We used to be able to say that that is possible. Now we have to say that in some cases, you might be able to get a temporary residence permit, and in other cases – if the authorities consider you to be an ‘extremely vulnerable’ victim of trafficking – there might be a chance to apply for a continuous permit. And in other cases you will be deported.

This Aliens Act provision which enables people to be deported because of the suspicion of selling sex is mainly targeted towards black people, street workers, and people who stand out as non-Finnish nationals. Finland is quite a homogenous country, and the police carry out this type of ethnic profiling.

We think that the approach to assisting victims of trafficking and to preventing trafficking from happening in Finland is too centred around criminal justice and migration control. The needs of the people are very concrete. They would like to have a sustainable stay and income, rights as any other people, and so on.

Sam (oD): What are some of the challenges you face as a pro sex work organisation trying to do your advocacy and human rights work?

Essi: I think it can be said that advocating both for sex workers’ rights and for the rights of victims of trafficking is considered controversial in the Nordic countries. The mainstream idea of sex work is that the term itself is not considered to be a good term, and the work is not considered to be work. It's more considered to be a form of violence against women.

We consider ourselves to be a feminist organisation. But our approach towards sex work has put us in conflict with the more traditional women's organisations. We have found some areas of collaboration though. For example, many feminist organisations agree with our critiques of immigration controls, and about the how the threat of deportation affects the identification of trafficking victims.

When it comes to victim assistance, we also can collaborate with some abolitionist organisations and individuals. I think this is possible because in Finland the atmosphere surrounding the debates about sex work and trafficking in human beings is nowadays less radical. So, for example, we have formed an alliance with four NGOs, one of which is abolitionist. They understand the troubles that people face and agree, at least at some level, that just criminalising the purchase of sex doesn’t in practice provide people with better options. It doesn’t create new options for making a living or staying in the country legally – instead it marginalises people. We have many other, more relevant issues to lobby for together nationally, like better assistance and protection for victims of crimes and more effective criminal proceedings in trafficking cases, for example.

Sam (oD): Sorry to interrupt you here, but that sounds remarkable to me. In many places there's such a huge divide between sex workers’ groups and abolitionist groups. Is there a reason why there's so much harmony, to use the term a bit guardedly?

Essi: It's been a long process, and it has to do with new waves of feminism and intersectional feminist thinking. It's now more recognised that women are not a uniform group of people, and that different laws have different effects for different groups of women. I think that in Finland, the discussion no longer centres on claims that sex work (or prostitution/sexual exploitation in this discourse) endangers or negatively affects the rights and societal positions of ‘all women’. So it's easier to explain where the faults with the criminal justice approach are with concrete examples.

Sam (oD): That's really inspiring, I have to say.

Essi: In some policies, of course, we cannot do advocacy work together. But we usually do. If we do statements together with this alliance, for example, we make a statement about the points that we agree on. And then we do our own part in our own statement, that brings out our point of view. We are hoping that this could be kind of a model for others – if you can agree on some points, maybe there are places for cooperation.

About the authors

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.

Essi Thesslund works at Pro Tukipiste-Finland, a Finnish NGO working mainly with workers in the erotic and sex industries.


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