Sex buyers in Northern Ireland beware—today if you buy sex, you’ll face a fine or up to a year in jail under a new law criminalizing sex buying. The country is the first in the UK to make paying for sex a crime, joining a growing movement worldwide to target the demand for illegal commercial sex by going after buyers as the best way to end the exploitation of millions of women and girls.
First implemented by Sweden in 1999—and followed by Norway, Iceland, and Canada—this “Nordic model” of prostitution policy targets the buyers, traffickers, and pimps that fuel the illegal commercial sex industry. The approach also decriminalizes the selling of sex, providing services and support to people in prostitution, typically women and girls with limited options. Sweden has nearly eradicated street prostitution, and police state that the number of street prostitutes has fallen by two-thirds.
This is in stark contrast to countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, which legalized prostitution more than a decade ago, expecting better conditions for sex workers. Both countries have actually seen an increase in organized crime and trafficking, and exploitation remains a rampant problem.
America is not immune. From back alleys to Backpage.com, suburbs to cyber sites, human beings—especially women and girls—are bought and sold for sex in every corner of our country. As many as 100,000 to 300,000 children are bought for sex in the US every year. And while buying is illegal in all but a few counties in Nevada, the commercial sex trade persists nationally because the threat of arrest is so low. Each year, about 1 in 100 men buy sex. But rough figures indicate that man has about a 1 in 100,000 chance of being arrested while doing so.
Fortunately for our society, a quiet revolution is under way, transforming the way Americans think about trafficking and how to confront it. Congress recently passed and President Obama signed into law the Joint Victims of Trafficking Act, which in addition to directing far more resources to help survivors, increases the accountability of sex buyers for their role in fueling this market.
This reflects an emerging philosophy first embraced in the Nordic countries and increasingly welcomed as the most effective path to protect trafficking victims’ human rights: Let’s stop the sex buyers—those with the power in this relationship, those with the resources, those with a real choice.
Key elements of the Nordic model are being implemented, de facto, in cities across the United States through the leadership of local officials. Demand Abolition recently launched a multi-year, multi-stakeholder national strategy to reduce demand for buying sex by 20 percent in two years. Eleven pioneering cities make up the CEASE Network (Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation), a collaboration of criminal justice professionals, survivors, practitioners, researchers, policymakers, corporate leaders, philanthropists, and media in cities nationwide, who are identifying and implementing demand-reduction interventions that are respectful, pragmatic, sustainable, and effective.
Through CEASE Denver, local police are drastically shifting their strategy in tackling prostitution and sex trafficking, focusing more on busting buyers than arresting prostitutes who they often find were victims before they broke the law. Just a year ago, officers were rounding up about three prostitutes for every two johns. Now, it’s the opposite.
King County in Seattle is also making huge strides in reversing the ratio. Since joining the CEASE Network in 2013, they’ve drastically increased the number of buyers arrested and charged. Over the last several years, there has been a 138 percent increase in charges against sex buyers and a 52 percent decrease in prostitution charges.
As understanding grows that sexual exploitation is one of the most serious of human rights abuses, so must our recognition that addressing it demands global attention and innovative strategies. We urge the US and all governments to join Northern Ireland and implement the Nordic model globally. By far the most efficient approach in ending commercial sexual exploitation is to focus on the buyers: When they stop buying, the entire system of degradation collapses.
Photo Credit: Jacqui Brown