French ‘Nordic Model’ Sex Work Law Deemed ‘Failure’ in New Study

LOS ANGELES—In 2016, France passed a law decriminalizing sex work, the “Prostitution Act.” The law removed criminal penalties for selling sexual services, but made it a crime to pay for sex, the so-called “Nordic Model” of sex work decriminalization. The model has been law in Sweden since 1999, and was soon followed by Norway and Iceland. But a new study by researchers at the Center for International Studies in Paris recently released a 36-page report deeming the law a “failure” when it comes to redefining the power relationship between sex workers and their clients.

In fact, in just six months leading up to February of 2020, 10 French sex workers were murdered, as part of an overall uptick in violence against sex workers, according to the group Decrim Now, which advocates full decriminalization.

The Center for International Studies report notes that shifting the criminal responsibility for sex work offenses from the providers to the purchasers has actually given clients more power over sex workers.

“The drop in client numbers has increased clients’ power to negotiate acceptance of unsafe sexual practices. In fact, sex workers pointed to client criminalization as the main factor in their loss of power due to a decrease in income, which was reported by 78.2 percent of respondents,” the report states. 

“In contrast to the argument in favor of criminalization, which assumes that sex workers hold the upper hand in the power relationship with a client who is committing an offense, the interviews unanimously revealed that the balance of power has deteriorated. The growing competition between sex workers is advantageous to the clients.”

The law itself had not even succeeded in its stated purpose, of deterring clients from purchasing sexual services, according to French Senator Annick Billon, president of the senate’s delegation for women’s rights. Billon told the German news agency DW that in the four years that the “Prostitution Act” has been in effect, only 5,000 fines have been imposed on prospective customers, though France is estimated to have a sex worker population numbering 40,000.

The law imposes fines equivalent to about $1,800 for a first sex-purchasing offense, and $4,500 for a second offense. 

Even in Sweden, where the “Nordic Model” was first put into effect, a 2015 study found only “weak” evidence that it had any effect on the sex work trade there, while at the same time creating “unintended consequences,” according to the DW report.

Nonetheless, the “Nordic Model” continues to be favored by lawmakers seeking to reform laws against sex work. In the United States, legislators in New York introduced a bill earlier this year that would remove criminal penalties for sex workers, while criminalizing the purchase of sex.

France’s highest constitutional court upheld the “Nordic Model” law in 2019. But the European High Court of Human Rights is now expected to rule on the challenge to the 2016 law.  

"This kind of policy is so bad that I want to make sure that other European countries are sent the message that human rights are being denied with such a law,” said French sex worker Cybele Lesperance, who is one of 260 individuals to file court challenges to the “Prostitution Act.”

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