CEASE is proud to present our new ‘Spotlight’ series, a series of interviews highlighting the fantastic work organisations and individuals around the world are doing to combat sexual exploitation of all kinds. Neither religious nor partisan, as a human rights advocacy charity, we are proud to platform the work of different groups and organisations from across the spectrum who have a shared purpose: to end all forms of sexual exploitation. If you wish to be featured in one of our Spotlight features, please email contact@ceaseuk.org

This week, CEASE had the privilege of sitting down with Nordic Model Now, a group campaigning for the abolition of prostitution, and the introduction of the Nordic Model approach in the UK. Nordic Model Now are currently asking people to respond to the Scottish Government’s public inquiry into reforming prostitution legislation, and both CEASE and Nordic Model Now urge all individuals to respond here if they are able to.

CEASE: Tell us about yourself/NMN

Nordic Model Now!: Nordic Model Now! (NMN) is a secular feminist grassroots women’s group based in the UK. We are campaigning for the abolition of prostitution and related practices (such as lap-dancing, pornography and surrogacy) and for the introduction and effective implementation of the Nordic Model approach to prostitution.

C: Can you explain what the Nordic Model is?

NMN!: The Nordic Model decriminalises those involved in prostitution in recognition of the exploitation it involves and the exploitative conditions in which their involvement came about; invests heavily in high-quality harm reduction services and genuine routes out for those who want to leave; and criminalises pimps and punters in order to make it clear that prostitution is incompatible with human rights and to reduce the demand that fuels it. To be effective, it needs to be combined with public education, training for the police and other officials, and measures to address poverty and inequality, so that prostitution is never the only option that anyone has for survival.

C: How did you get involved in this sector/area of work?

Anna: We started NMN in early 2016. In the previous August, Amnesty International adopted a policy of promoting the full decriminalisation of the sex trade, including pimps and other profiteers. This was devastating – especially as we had known it was on the cards. While some organisations had worked against this outcome, organised resistance was too little and too late.

Then in February 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee started an inquiry into prostitution policy in the UK. I was almost paralysed with fear that the committee would recommend full decriminalisation and the UK would sleep walk into adopting that, like Amnesty had done.

I couldn’t find a grassroots group in the UK campaigning on this issue that ordinary women like myself could join. It gradually dawned on me that I couldn’t count on anyone else and if I wanted to try to bring about change, I would need to find other like-minded women and set something up ourselves. And so NMN was born.

Rebecca: I have been in NMN since the beginning. I was prostituted for over a decade, having started aged 14. I am now an abolitionist, and see the Nordic Model approach as a building block to true freedom and dignity for all the prostituted. It is a start, not an ending.

I believe we need to tackle the sex trade on many levels, including educating about its harms, lobbying those with the power and influence to make real change, and making the multiple voices of exited women lead the abolitionist movement.

Siobhan: I’m a lifelong feminist and it’s important to me that my actions reflect my values. I have friends and acquaintances who have worked in the sex industry and I’m particularly concerned about the rise of ‘sugar baby’ websites at universities near where I live.

Like many women, I’ve had struggles related to my sex: a severe eating disorder; unwanted touching or comments by men often old enough to be my dad; being recommended webcam ‘work’ when I was looking for a new job.

I work in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector and see the connections between domestic abuse and sexual exploitation. Many women are prostituted by their partners – some after suffering forced marriage or trafficking. Others turn to prostitution as a way to make money after leaving an abuser and finding themselves in a financially vulnerable situation, particularly if they have insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds.

All of this led to my wanting to join NMN and I have found it an incredible organisation to be a part of; the group also offers opportunities for women to learn and develop new skills.

Susannah: I got involved in NMN as a result of feeling simultaneously acknowledged in my own experiences and angry about the collective trauma and the denial that follows it. In the group I found a fierce and radical blend of feminism that was neither gaslighting nor blaming survivors for the violence and abuse we/they have endured.

My negative experiences mostly happened as a teenager growing up in the era of Sex and the City and Britney Spears singing Hit me baby one more time. It was a culture where conversations about sex oscillated around what would make men happy and how to be sexy and I absorbed the confusing and degrading message that empowerment for women came from how good we were in bed.

Then I went to university in Austria where the sex trade is legal. Most men I met at that time were complicit in, or actively, watching pornography. The social understanding of normal sex was already blurred with rape and exploitation but there was no public discourse about it. In fact, people downright avoided talking about it.

Witnessing that and the growing sense of horror as I realised that no one cares about the women trafficked in the sex trade in Austria brought me to a desperate longing: To name this, to challenge it and to start dreaming of a world where it no longer happens.

This longing has grown and continues to grow. Working with NMN has enabled me to feel held and supported so as to emotionally process the truth of what is going on. It can be overwhelming sometimes, but there is comfort in knowing that we are collectively determined to name, challenge and end sexual exploitation, pornography and prostitution, and that we are growing.

Ali: I have been a feminist my whole life and have been involved in campaigning and activism on VAWG, including domestic abuse, pornography and sexual violence. I have worked for a number of specialist women’s organisations and have been a qualified social worker for over 20 years.

My interest in prostitution was fuelled when I became the specialist Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence (VAWDASV) Coordinator for my local authority and I saw first-hand how women who were prostituted were spoken about with utter disdain and disgust by professionals who should have been supporting them. They were not seen as victims of abuse like other women accessing support but as agents of their own dysfunction and misery.

Because of this I set up a multi-agency working group with professionals who were open to another viewpoint and successfully applied for funding for the first ever ‘Sex Work’ Support Project in my local authority area. I left my job with the local authority and set up my own specialist VAWDASV Training and Consultancy business which includes training on prostitution from a feminist Nordic Model perspective.

I continue to volunteer on the Project I set up as I believe it is really important to hear the experiences of women directly from them and to listen to what they have to say. My local area is a typical coastal town overrun by poverty, unemployment, drug use and homelessness; all the reasons why the women say they are involved in prostitution.

I cannot sit back in my comfortable life with a clear conscience while my sisters are being bought and sold on the streets. I joined NMN as the Nordic Model is the only model that should be considered in a civilised and equal society. To be a part of a group of like-minded supportive women sustains me when in my daily life I am still arguing the basics of why prostitution is not an empowering choice for women! While I am able to be a voice for all those women who have no voice in society I will carry on the fight.

C: Part of CEASE’s mission is to highlight the links between different forms of sexual exploitation, to show that it is an interconnected system (such as trafficking individuals into prostitution/pornography ). Can you tell me about some of the links between different areas that you might have come across in your work.

Feminist theory and analysis are important tools for understanding all the disparate forms of sexual exploitation and to see that ultimately they all have the same cause: women’s systemic subordination and the exclusion of many women from independent economic means and men’s patriarchal ‘right’ to dominance over, and sexual access to, women – and by extension children.

That men and boys are sexually exploited too, albeit in smaller numbers, does not invalidate this analysis. It is invariably men who drive the exploitation and who consider it their right and who are granted that right under the current social order. That some of them also act it out on some lower status men and boys simply shows how strong these forces are.

Feminist analysis shows that this status quo is not inevitable. Rather than being natural, it is socially constructed, which means that people can change it.

For most of the long history of the human race, human societies were egalitarian and cooperative. Gerda Lerner and other female scholars have shown that this only began to change as the older men seized control a mere 7,000 odd years ago. The patriarchal family became a tool of control of women, and prostitution became the only option for women who would not or could not conform. Along with this subordination of women, slavery and racism were used to expand and concentrate the power of the elite men.

This is when the first pornographic images depicting violent sexual degradation of women started to appear – such images are not seen in the pre-patriarchal art – indicating a catastrophic change in the status of women and public justification for that worsening status.

Sylvia Federici has shown that the development of capitalism in Western Europe coincided with similar brutal and catastrophic deterioration in the status of women and their further exclusion from independent economic means, enforced by the brutal witch hunts and accompanied by misogynistic and pornographic propaganda. Maria Mies showed that the capitalist economic system relies on the patriarchal system and the exploitation and subordination of women, children and colonised peoples for continual expansion.

It is no accident therefore that the deregulation of Western capitalism that began under Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s and that has accelerated ever since, has been accompanied by an explosion of sexual exploitation and the development of an extremely powerful industry profiting from that – alongside erosion of the rights that women fought so hard to gain and an increase in inequality and women and children’s poverty. All of this has happened in plain sight and with the acquiescence and complicity of governments almost everywhere – particularly in the UK and US.

It can be overwhelming when you start to get the size of the picture – when you start to see that it is an interlocking system, with each element holding each other element in place. How do you start unpicking that?

But without understanding the interlinking system, we have little chance of bringing about lasting change.

We have seen, for example, in Northern Ireland that passing a Nordic Model style law hasn’t been as successful in bringing about change as campaigners hoped. There are various reasons for this: It was strongly resisted by the authorities – the police hardly arrested any sex buyers or pimps; there was no investment in high-quality exit services; and there were no accompanying measures to address women’s poverty, inequality and disadvantage. Not to mention that there was no attempt to use education and training to change the culture, which as Susannah and Siobhan so movingly explained, works to groom girls to see themselves as sex objects for the entertainment of men and groom boys to be abusers and exploiters.

As a result, in Northern Ireland all the same forces continue to push women into prostitution and allow men to continue to see their use of prostitution as a right.

However, the law in Northern Ireland is a start and we have to start somewhere. But by having a better understanding of the links and the magnitude of what we’re up against, we have more chance of devising successful strategies.

C: What are some of the challenges you have faced/or those who form the basis of your work (ie, those in prostitution) are facing in recent months (Covid-19 related or otherwise).

Since the Coalition government took office in 2010, we have seen inequality rapidly deepen. We have had a decade of austerity measures that have been borne mostly by women, with single mothers, disabled women and Black and Asian women worst affected.

This has led to a huge rise in the numbers of people in absolute poverty and the numbers of women turning to prostitution, webcamming and similar, in a desperate attempt to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. At the same time the obscene amounts of money that can be made in the sex trade in its various forms is a continual lure for the ruthless to set themselves up as pimps. The irony is that if the Government’s economic measures had been more equitable, none of this would be necessary and men would not have so much spare cash for such nefarious purposes and the pimps would not be getting fatter and more powerful by the day.

The extreme measures put in place in response to Covid-19 are triggering an economic storm, which I fear we’re only at the beginning of and, once again, all the evidence suggests that it is hitting women and children hardest. It also seems likely that we are heading for a no-deal Brexit with further catastrophic impacts on jobs and welfare. This will lead to even more women being driven into the sex trade through financial desperation or coercion from partners and others. There is a very real worry that the sex trade is becoming institutionalised as social security for poor women in the UK, making the chasm of inequality between men and women, rich and poor, white and Black, old and young ever wider.

For the first time in human history a generation that grew up on a diet of unlimited brutal misogynistic, racist and exploitative online porn has reached adulthood and some are moving into powerful positions, including in politics and public policy. . And we have a neoliberal government that has little interest in anyone’s welfare other than their hedge fundie and neoliberal capitalist chums and that has no qualms about selling women and children down the river.

This was demonstrated as clear as day shortly before the election in December last year when the Conservative government cancelled the implementation of age restrictions on online porn for fear of upsetting the men whose votes they rely on – even though exposing children to such material is a form of child sexual abuse.

C: What is the landscape of sexual exploitation like in your region?

The UK Government is pushing through an Internal Market Bill ostensibly to enable goods to move seamlessly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after Brexit. The Bill not only contravenes provisions in the EU Withdrawal Agreement but also states that its provisions override any incompatible international or domestic law and precedents in any court or tribunal, including the European Court of Justice.

There has been a big furore about this, with many commentators stating that the UK is respected around the world because of its record of compliance with international law and treaties that it has ratified – and that this Bill risks the UK being seen as a rogue state.

But the UK has not incorporated a number of treaties it has ratified into domestic law and is in contravention of many of their provisions. Of particular relevance are CEDAW, the Palermo Protocol, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and its optional protocols, and the UN Convention against Torture.

Even the UK Law Commissioners consider that ratified treaties are not binding. For example, on page 111 of their surrogacy consultation paper, they say: “Neither the UNCRC, nor the optional protocols, have been incorporated into UK domestic law. As a result, they are not binding domestically”.

But the UK has ratified the Vienna Law of Treaties, which means that under international law we are legally bound to comply with the terms of a treaty on its ratification.

Surely this means that the UK is already a rogue state?

However, these treaties are important and are one of the most powerful tools we have – because they define an internationally agreed benchmark. We must keep demanding that they are incorporated into domestic law and implemented properly, and support other campaigns and organisations that are doing the same – for example, the CEDAW People’s Tribunal.

In Wales, The Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 identifies prostitution and the sex trade as a form of violence against women. Many Police & Crime Commissioners have VAWG strategies and fund work around prostitution and substance misuse. However, many parts of Wales, especially in the south, have the highest rates for deaths from substance misuse and the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and domestic abuse, all of which are reasons identified by women that push them into prostitution.

There is still no core government funding even though the Welsh Government identifies prostitution in the Act. Local Authorities have a duty under the Act to comply with a number of things, but this is not happening when no ring-fenced funding has been identified and local authorities are already struggling because of Covid-19 restrictions.

In the large cities in South Wales, street prostitution has become so visible that communities want something done about it. Police are becoming heavy handed with the women to placate the communities which is only pushing them indoors or at risk of violence by their pimps.

The Covid-19 situation has made things worse by pushing high unemployment even higher and women are even more desperate to feed their children due to schools being closed and them not having the extra money needed. The closure or restrictions in support services has meant women have no opportunities to receive support in a timely fashion and exit prostitution. Women need ongoing, holistic, tailored wrap around services for it to work and this is not what they are receiving.

C: What do you hope to achieve in the future/what is your “call to action” for the coming months? Whenever we do a blog post/interview, we always like to end on a positive note to try to galvanise readers and inspire them – of course, there is no need to sugarcoat the work you do, but if there is something you are feeling positive about in the coming months, it would be great to hear about that.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do during this time of turmoil and turbulence is to hold a torch for humanness: to insist on human values; to uphold human dignity; to make it clear that we will NEVER accept women and children being for sale in the capitalist markets and that we will not rest until we have seen the entire system of prostitution and sexual exploitation dismantled; to put men on notice that we intend to bring their impunity to use and abuse women and children to an end; to make it clear that the trajectory the world is on is unsustainable and to hold up an image of a different kind of world.

A world in which women and men, young and old, Black and white are valued equally and share the world’s abundance and material resources equitably. A world in which not a single person is left with no option for survival other than prostitution and in which not a single person can get away with building up their ego and identity through the exploitation, abuse, harassment or subordination of anyone else.

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