Belinda Brooks-Gordon on Women’s Hour speaking out against “Nordic Model” on sex work

IMG_9128Today the Commons debates amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill which would criminalise the purchase of sex. Sarah Noble argued against this approach yesterday. The party emphatically passed policy which rejected this “Nordic Model” on the basis that all the evidence suggests that this puts sex workers in danger.

Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, who summated on that motion at Conference, debated the issue on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 with the amendment’s proposer Fiona McTaggart MP. You can listen here from about 20 minutes in.

Belinda had with her a letter signed by herself and a number of academics which supported her case. Here it is in full:

On the basis of our collective [considerable] experience and robust research evidence on sex work in the UK, EU and internationally, we ask that you consider the following serious concerns we have with the proposed amendment to the Modern Slavery Bill that seeks to criminalize paying for sex.

First, any such criminalization of clients is de facto criminalization of sex workers – there is no known area in the sale of services where a seller is helped by criminalizing the buyer.  This will have certain impacts on the safety of sex workers, who will be forced to make decisions about the potential risks posed by clients more quickly, and indeed take risks to ensure their livelihood is maintained. Moreover, blanket criminalization will divert resources away from pursuing serious crimes against sex workers and, indeed, anyone subject to forced labour.

Second, there is already an existing law designed to protect people who are forced into prostitution.

Third, the history of sex work is also the history of a range of piecemeal legislation that criminalizes a variety of ‘objectionable’ conduct. The proposed amendment is another example of simply adding to the current legislation without thinking about the bigger picture. The proposed amendment would be introducing a radical change to the legislation through the back door and criminalizing consensual sexual activities which are currently not illegal.

Fourth, there is a range of robust research that challenges the sense of taking an approach which criminalizes one party in the exchange relationship, with no credible academic research to support the criminalization of clients.

We ask that you give peer reviewed research its proper weighting in considering this amendment. See for example a special edition of Criminology and Criminal Justice: The Governance of Commercial Sex: Global Trends of Criminalisation, Punitive Enforcement, Protection and Rights. .  The research by Levy and Jakobsson demonstrates the detrimental effects of the Swedish law on the wellbeing and safety of sex workers there. Abel et al’s work in New Zealand evidences that an alternative approach – de-criminalizing sex work – is actually a safer and more superior alternative to criminalizing one or other of the partners in the exchange.   See more at:

Finally, It is telling that a Swedish government report lists its own flaws stating: ‘evaluating the effects of the ban has proved to be a difficult task’ because the surveys had ‘limited scope’ as well as ‘different working procedures, methods and purposes’ and ‘In the light of these and other factors, there can be reason to interpret the results with caution’ p34. (accessed 2/11/14 –

We are certain that you want what we all want – to prevent increasing the vulnerability of women, men and transgendered people who sell sex; to uphold the human rights of sex workers and others subject to trafficking and forced labour;  and to bring those who groom, traffic and force human labour to justice.   Criminalizing the purchasers of sex via the proposed amendment is not a sensible or safe option.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Belinda Brooks-Gordo 4th Nov '14 - 3:20pm

    Important to add that it was a collective of over 32 academics (with Prof Maggie O’Neill doing the hard work at the end. There is thus a gathering scientific consensus on this.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Nov '14 - 4:24pm

    I don’t have time to read about this policy at the moment, but let me just say thanks to Belinda, Sarah and others for opposing criminalising sex buyers. This is no small policy for me, it’s a red line issue that makes me so angry I have to stop writing here, otherwise I will launch into a wider diatribe that will derail the debate.

  • Nigel Cheeseman 4th Nov '14 - 6:17pm

    Power to your elbow. As with drugs, we need more research -based approaches to problems like this, along with less reliance on criminalisation of those who, fundamentally, are doing nothing wrong. Perhaps then we can direct resources towards the real problems of slavery, trafficking and drug abuse.

  • Annette Lawson 4th Nov '14 - 10:30pm

    You are, in my opinion completely mistaken to oppose an amendment that would protect and prevent a form of degrading violence against women.
    This is not about labour. This is not about choice. It is a human rights issue and about the human dignity of women and girls.
    What on earth makes it right for men to think that so long as they buy women’s consent (because she needs the money) it is fine to use her body to give them whatever sexual pleasure they want ? Do you, (women) want to have a life in prostitution? Do you, men, want your wives/girlfriends/daughters making a living this way?
    Oh really! I wonder why not?
    Let’s have a society that values women equally with men and has decent work that does not involve having to sell your body.

  • This annoys me so much.

    Surely legalisation is the way to go? Allowing sex workers to vet their clients, and allowing the police to protect the sex workers.

    Also I hate it when people say ‘women’ when around 20% of prostitutes are male.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Nov '14 - 6:16am

    As I said: I am strongly against this policy. However, if anyone, such as Annette Lawson, is strongly in favour of it then I would be willing to have a polite debate over it. Better to do that than fall out.

    The problem is, I think the policy is so flawed that I don’t want to spend time debating it unless I see some people who actually strongly believe in it. Until then, it’s more efficient to just condemn.


  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 5th Nov '14 - 8:28am

    Importing attitudes and laws from a different culture, and implanting them on the open and mixed cultures of Britain, would qickly backfire and have great costs . Whatever your view of this case,and those good intentions to protect sex workers, in our culture evidence-based approaches are the way to go in a liberal society. Sadly, the comments from many conservatives of all kinds is doctrinaire and and not inerested in evidence. We could well awau

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 5th Nov '14 - 1:07pm

    Apology to everyone for an incomplete comment but that is exactly the point I tried to make here many times – if there is no way to update a comment then this site is incomplete and sometimes rubbish for readers to comprehend. As I am usually monitored, and not even controversial, I will not bother to add the missed words.

  • Rita Giannini 5th Nov '14 - 2:12pm

    well done, Belinda! Even if a little voice in my head tells me: “put those pigs in prison and throw away the key”, I know it is not the right thing to do, as a liberal and a human being.

  • I dislike the use of the sneering term ‘nanny state’, beloved of conservatives and libertarians., and while the religious right in Northern Ireland has a lot to answer for, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a valid point. Even women who were not pimped or trafficked may have got into prostitution because they experienced child abuse, or were on drugs, which desensitised them (or so they thought) to it.

    How are prostitutes supposed to ‘vet’ their clients? Even if they correspond by email or talk on the phone first, what’s to say a client may turn abusive later on? Until now, it hasn’t been easy for women in relationships, never mind prostitutes, to find out if the men they’re with have a history of domestic violence, although this should change with the Domestic Abuse Disclosure Scheme (also known as ‘Clare’s Law’).

    I would propose a licensing scheme for sellers as well as buyers – as is the case with alcohol in Muslim countries, where only non-Muslims may apply for licences to buy alcohol. This would effectively turn brothels (sorry, ‘saunas and massage parlours’) into private clubs, with the right to reject and expel members. Members would have to produce ID as is the case with ‘coffee shops’ in the Netherlands, where you have to produce ID , which is scanned and stored for 48 hours. This is the case in some provinces in border regions, which have had trouble with drug tourists from Belgium and Germany, and seek to restrict the sale of cannabis to local residents. (For the record, I don’t agree with Dutch drug policy, which leaves production and sale in the hands of criminal gangs, I use this example simply to illustrate how buyers could be vetted.)

    It may seem onerous or far-fetched, but no more so than Norway’s law, in which Norwegians who pay for sex abroad can be prosecuted under that law when they return home. (How does it work? Do they send undercover police to Thailand to monitor holidaymakers or expatriates? At least if people pay for sex locally can be closely monitored.) Even Sweden does not criminalise purchasing abroad, although there are proposals to do so, despite people in the south of the country being able to travel across the bridge to Denmark to pay for sex there, and return without fear of prosecution.

    I know that libertarians will shriek ‘Big Brother!’ but if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear. And in response to Annette Lawson, just because work doesn’t involve selling your body doesn’t mean it’s decent. Trafficking of people into Sweden for purposes other than sexual outnumbered those trafficked for sexual purposes.

  • Annette Lawson

    Your comment is the perfect example of what an ex-colleague of mine describes as the obsession with how things “feel” rather than how they are.

    You appear to assume that the women commenting are only concerned with themselves and the men only with the women in their immediate family. A rather sad view of people, all I can see is people focused on harm reduction not some kind of brutal self interest.

    You clearly feel very strongly, which I think is clouding your judgement on this issue of how to reduce harm caused. The views in the original post and the research are an analysis of effective policy; your view is more akin to views held by religion, a faith. Policy has to be based upon logic and evidence not upon faith.

    Consider this separately, if the 18th amendment to the US constitution had banned the purchase and consumption not the production, transportation and sale of Alcohol, would the US now be a happy dry country? I somehow doubt it.

  • Policy has to be based upon logic and evidence not upon faith.

    Policy cannot be based upon logic and evidence, though.

    All logic and evidence can tell you is how best to achieve a particular goal.

    Policy is about deciding which goal you ought to be trying to achieve (either in general, or which of two conflicting goals are more important) and so no amount of evidence can influence that decision.

    Logic and evidence are like a map: once you’ve decided where to go they can tell you the best way to get there, but they can’t help you decide where you ought to be.

  • Dav

    I think we are just dealing with a matter of differences in language. I would consider Objective setting to proceed and be serrate from policy making. I would describe it as setting the objective (minimising the harm to sex workers/those at risk of getting in to sex work), the policy setting being about designing a framework that can achieve that (legislation, services that support etc), then you implement (making budget available to the relevant services incorporating enforcement in to the priorities of police etc).

    The values and principles that come before al of that would be different again.

    Your principles and values are normally fixed, your objectives change slowly over time (priorities change according to circumstances), and policy should be based upon the best understanding at the time and change as evidence changes about how best to achieve the objective.

  • Sweden and the other Nordic countries had the advantage of having already achieved a high level of gender equality before the law was changed. South Korea introduced a similar law (though one which also criminalises sellers) in 2004 but a decade on there are still 250 000 prostitutes, and there hasn’t been a shift in cultural attitudes – businessmen still think it’s acceptable to take clients to brothels or bring prostitutes to work parties.

    I’m not saying British men have anything to feel morally superior about, only that there needs to be a change in attitudes irrespective of what the law on buying sex is.

  • I would consider Objective setting to proceed and be serrate from policy making. I would describe it as setting the objective (minimising the harm to sex workers/those at risk of getting in to sex work), the policy setting being about designing a framework that can achieve that (legislation, services that support etc), then you implement (making budget available to the relevant services incorporating enforcement in to the priorities of police etc).

    Well, that’s a possible semantic distinction, but still, the point is that evidence can’t help you decide between two objectives (‘minimising the harm to sex workers/those at risk of getting in to sex work’ as one objective, say, and ‘eliminating or at least reducing the incidence of prostitution in society’ as another; policies which advance one of these objectives might well hinder the other, and vice versa).

    That’s why we have elections, after all, to find out what objectives people think the government should be pursuing.

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