Prostitution and trafficking are considered to be a serious global issue in countries around the world. For the past three decades we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the sex trade, sex tourism and sex trafficking of our most marginalized populations. In addition, and throughout history and all over the world it has always been the most disadvantaged populations that have been impacted by prostitution and this needs to end. Here in Massachusetts our most vulnerable populations are from our own local communities, mostly women and girls of color, transgender women, immigrants, young homeless transitional aged youth and prior system involved individuals. New challenges require new solutions, and different legal policies in various countries have had very different and dramatic outcomes.
In France, after the implementation of an Equality Model legislation, it was reported that there were approximately 20,000 to 30,000 prostituted people, with provisions for services throughout the country. In Germany where prostitution has been legalized and normalized there are about 300,000 to 400,000 prostituted people, with no provisions for exit services. Behind Germany’s sex trade is a gruesome reality of drugs and violence, an increase in criminal circles and trafficking of women into its numerous mega brothels from the poorest regions of Europe with Romania being the number one source country for women and children. Legislators are now looking to roll back its liberal policy in favor of an Equality Model approach.
The Sex Purchase Act was passed in Sweden in 1999, the first country to pass legislation that decriminalized all those in prostitution, provided support services to exit out and made sex buying an offense in order to reduce demand. It came about in connection with a series of laws addressing male violence against women as a tool for attaining equality. The integration of sexual exploitation into policies that addressed violence against women was a significant achievement as it identified the commodification of sex as a harmful act, and it allowed for the provision of services and protections for those wanting to leave prostitution.
The Nordic Model, now often referred to as the Equality Model got its name from the fact that it was the first country to apply this legislation, followed by Norway and Iceland. Ten years after the law’s implementation a government commission evaluated its effects and concluded that street prostitution was reduced by half, and Sweden was no longer viewed as an attractive country for criminal networks to engage in trafficking of women and girls; preferring to cross into other neighboring countries. More importantly, the law had a huge social norm effect: the act of buying sex is no longer an accepted practice.
France’s law “Aiming to Reinforce the Fight Against the System of Prostitution” was passed in April 2016, the most comprehensive set of laws compared to other Nordic or Equality Model legislation. It included in its laws strong provisions that included financial assistance for prostituted individuals for an extended period of time, and access to social housing and medical support. This came about after a number of years of effort and hotly debated forums. Unlike similar legislation that was passed in other countries the French law gave financial priority to exit programming that includes providing emergency shelters, and comprehensive services in various districts throughout the country.
In France over 85% of prostituted persons are women and girls and close to 100% of the buyers are men. The majority of prostituted persons come in from neighboring countries such as Romania, Bulgaria Nigeria and China with a growing increase in individuals under the age of 15. The appearance of so called “lover boys” also began to make an appearance in France, young men that seduce and often violently recruit vulnerable young women and girls into prostitution mostly through social media with the usual promises of money and a false sense of caring. Like exploiters here in the US they also target people’s vulnerabilities but are often part of an organized crime group that was sending women from countries like Romania into Germany and the Netherlands and France.
The French law or what is often called Nordic and or Equality Model legislation is about changing the perception of prostitution, that it is not inevitable and the need to address those most marginalized and harmed in the sex trade through exit programming and supports. The law also included prevention and education, and public awareness events, to learn to think of prostitution as violence and exploitation. In 2019 the law was evaluated, and it was reported that 78% of French people surveyed by IPSOS (a market research firm) said they support the law of April 13th, and opposed any appeal. Like Sweden, it appears that the perception of prostitution is changing, and the first exit programs have been implemented. The penalty of sex buying is a fine and the mandatory attendance of awareness workshops. Although the situation regarding prostitution is evolving, two years after its adoption there were approximately 2,800 write-ups of sex buyers and 65 prostituted individuals found an exit path out through programming which is an eventual end to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in France and a shift in its perception.
Germany passed a law in 2012 that legalized prostitution and effectively rendered prostitution as a legitimate business. But it is failing; violence and abuse have increased dramatically for prostituted women in Germany with a surge in sex trafficking and the stranglehold of organized crime over the sex trade. The media recently labeled Germany as the “Bordello of Europe”.
“According to the German Government, there are 1700 prostitution vehicles (love mobiles, sex drive in boxes), and more than 10,000 prostitution businesses, 62% are apartments or private houses, 14% are clubs and 12% are brothels.”
As a direct result of legalization and normalization, sex buyers see themselves as entitled to demand more “services” and reduce women to products and exploit to the maximum, normalizing the abuse of prostituted individuals. The normalization of prostitution is even seen among school aged children and has led to young men celebrating their high school graduation together in brothels. In Germany, prostitution, porn and sex trafficking are all versions of the same violence, porn is vastly celebrated, the German film industry hosts films depicting rape and gang bang parties with various themes, normalizing violence against women.
95% of prostituted women in Germany come from the poorest neighboring countries such as Romania and Bulgaria and it has become “a prostitution of poverty” with no access to exit services, with no understanding that there even needs to be programming when prostitution is viewed as an occupation. There is now a new trend emerging, with more young women coming in from Nigeria. It is widely understood that normalizing prostitution contributes to a surge in demand which has led to Germany’s “mega” brothels and it has been reported there is a kind of inhumanity in these brothels that is unimaginable. Behind the luxurious facades of these brothels is the reality of violence, abuse and the ultimate commodification of women. Sweden’s law resulted in shrinking prostitution and a reduction in sex trafficking, Germany is an example of what happens when you normalize the sex trade, sex trafficking increases harming the lives of the most vulnerable who always make up the majority of those being prostituted. A study several years after the passing of the law reported that 87% of prostituted women in Germany had been exposed to physical violence which should be evidence enough that the sex trade can never be made better or safer.
A growing Movement
A growing number of countries have followed Sweden’s example and many more are considering this approach. After Sweden, Norway and Iceland passed similar laws in 2009, Canada in 2014, Northern Ireland in 2015, France in 2016, Ireland in 2017 and the last country to pass Equality Model laws was Israel in 2020.
An increasing number of organizations around the world, many of which are survivor led, are working to enact an Equality Model set of laws, South Africa, Germany, Italy and some states in the U.S such as Maine and New York. The growth of the sex trade and sex trafficking has led many countries to re-evaluate their policies. This surge in the global sex trade alongside a dramatic increase in economic equality and the availability of pornography that depicts brutal violence against women has contributed to the need to re-evaluate and look at policies that will create a more equitable society and end the sexual exploitation of our most vulnerable populations.
An overwhelming majority of women want to leave prostitution but have no viable options. Almost all who seek out services through front line organizations here in Massachusetts want to exit out but have significant barriers in doing so. Exiting out of prostitution is often extremely difficult as a result of the very circumstances that render vulnerable populations into the sex trade in the first place, such as lack of education, training, homelessness, lack of any family supports, prior abuse, marginalization and social isolation. The Equality Model recognizes the need to address these inequities. Not only is there a large percentage of American youth and young adults growing up badly here in the U.S. but their life circumstances have deteriorated over the years, with a growing number of young people aging out of systems ill prepared for the world. We need policies that will create options and not allow prostitution to be the answer for those with the least options.
Read more research about the Equality Model and its impact on the sex trade:
Equality Not Exploitation: An overview of the global sex trade and trafficking crisis, and the case for the Equality Model
November 2019 – White paper from World Without Exploitation