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No, new research does NOT show that violence decreases under the Nordic model

[Update: in response to communication from Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy, I am happy to clarify that the article critiqued below is not a “Feminist Current piece” but a Sam Berg piece which Feminist Current merely hosted.]

There’s been a bit of a social media buzz over this article on a radical feminist website, which claims that a recent Pro Sentret report from Norway – which you can read in English here – shows that “violence decreases under the Nordic model”. The author backs up her claims with an impressive array of graphs (and a fair smattering of ad hominems), and unsurprisingly receives glowing praise in her comments from people who were clearly predisposed to believe anything she said on the subject anyway.

I hate to burst their bubble. Well, actually I don’t.

The author kindly linked to one of my own posts on the report, though she seems not to have read it. If she had, she would have noticed that very near the start I referred to “methodological limitations” that made it unsafe to draw cause-and-effect conclusions from the study. At the time I didn’t feel it important to get into those limitations, but I will now. Apart from the health warning that always applies in studying a hidden population, there are two really massively important issues here:

1. Lifetime vs recent experience. The 2007-2008 study asked sex workers if they had ever experienced violence, throughout their “entire career in prostitution (which could be anything from one day to 50 years)”. The newer study asked about violence in the past three years alone. These are two very different questions, which can’t possibly give rise to comparable answers – at least without a detailed examination of the raw data, which we don’t have. We don’t know how long the respondents had been selling sex, in either survey; we don’t know how many in the first study had sold for more than three years nor how many in the second study had sold for less (though 16% of the latter group said they were not selling at the time the survey was carried out). You would expect, of course, that the more actual sex work-years covered by the survey, the more violence would be reported; and if we assume that the first study covered more actual sex work-years then we would expect to see higher rates of violence in it. I’m not even comfortable making that assumption on such flimsy data (which is why I didn’t make it in my initial post). But we certainly cannot make the implicit assumption that the Feminist Current post depends on, ie, that the two studies cover the same number of actual sex work-years.

2. Norwegian vs. foreign experience. Both surveys recorded sex workers’ experience of violence in prostitution wherever it occurred. For the 2012 study, we have a breakdown: 70% of respondents said it only happened in Norway; 12% said Norway and elsewhere; 10% said only elsewhere; 8% didn’t answer. There is also a breakdown of the venues within each country, but that is all. We don’t know, for example, which types of violence occurred in which country, or how many of the specific incidents occurred in which country. This makes it impossible to know how much of the reported violence even took place under the Nordic model. And we don’t have any of this data from the 2007-2008 study, so there’s really nothing for us to compare here at all.

Now, really, that ought to be enough to make it clear that Feminist Current’s claim is totally unsubstantiated. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we really were comparing like with like. Would that justify their conclusions?

I’ll just address their headline statistic, namely, the claim that rape is down by half in the new study. That comes from here:


And indeed, the drop from 29% to 15% looks impressive. But wait a minute – look over in the left-hand column, halfway down. See that category of “threatened/forced into sex that was not agreed to”? Last I checked, that’s rape. And the number who said it had happened to them in the past three years was not 15%, but 27%.

The Feminist Current author didn’t miss that category of violence – in fact, she commented on it, but totally missed its significance. She also missed what the report’s authors had to say about it, which is as follows:

We have looked at how many checked both answers which could mean that they define both these categories the same way. Only 6 people have done this, which confirms our suspicion that many of the women would not characterize actual rape as rape. This also means that the actual frequency of rape is considerably higher than what is shown in table 10. If we combine the amount that checked these options and then subtract those that checked both we see that as many as 34%(25 people) of those that have experienced violence in the last three years have been raped/threatened into sex that was not agreed to.

So how does the 34% de facto rape rate compare with its 2007-2008 counterpart? To find that out, we’d need the same accounting exercise to be carried out on the earlier data. It could be that in 2007-2008 there was zero overlap between the persons who said they’d experienced rape, and the persons who said they’d been threatened or forced into having sex; this would give us a de facto rape rate of 64%, from which 2012’s 34% would still be an impressive drop. On the other hand, it could be that every person who said in the first study that they’d experienced “rape” also ticked the box for “threatened/forced etc”, which would mean the de facto rate in 2007/2008 was only 35%. In that case, the subsequent drop to 34% would be considerably less impressive, and probably statistically insignificant. The fact is, we simply don’t know.

Finally, since the Feminist Current argument rests entirely on the claim that “serious” violence is down in the 2012 study, I think there’s one other stat in that image worth highlighting:


This of course is subject to the same flaws as everything else in this study, and I’m not pointing it out to suggest that the number of sex workers threatened with a weapon actually has increased under the Nordic model, by 50%, from less than a quarter to approximately a third. I just think it’s kind of…curious that someone who takes the stats at face value, and accuses others of ignoring inconvenient data, doesn’t see any room for this in her analysis of how “serious” violence has changed under the law. But maybe she doesn’t consider “threatened with a weapon” to be serious enough.

There’s a lot more to criticise in that piece if I had more time, not least its contradictions with the radical feminist conception of sex work as inherently violent, inherently rape – and the way it almost mockingly dismisses certain forms of reported violence as not serious enough to be counted as violence for the purpose of this study, while then going on to insist that “any violence inflicted on them matters”. But I’ll let someone else unpack that one. As I said in my first post, we can’t safely draw any conclusion from the stats. The study’s significance lies in its qualitative findings – which are totally inconsistent with the idea of the law as a “success” and which are, unsurprisingly, totally ignored by Feminist Current.

I didn’t have to dig particularly deep into the study to find why the Feminist Current piece is wrong. Pro Sentret are careful to emphasise the lifetime/three years difference. They also highlight the fact that the number of sex workers who report being raped is much higher than the number who call it rape. There’s no reason why anyone who actually read the study wouldn’t be aware of these issues. If they choose not to share them with their audience, that’s a matter for them to explain.

(ETA: More on this subject here.)

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

24 responses »

  1. I see this as junk science, as if you interview sex workers who do not screen they will no doubt encounter violence, but I wonder why she did not track how many of these sex workers reported the crimes and how many of the violet offenders where criminalized. It is common sense that if the violent offender doesn’t go to jail, that he will keep up this behavior. Common sense tells us when we withdraw the right of sex workers to report violence that it only creates the prefect playground for predators,pimps and bad cops to abuse sex workers. I bet if they look there is just as many violent crimes including rape for non sex workers they would see just as many as those reported by sex workers., because we are living in a rape culture. Which sex workers did she interview, ones that worked the streets that are on drugs or escorts working independely that screen each clients. Both of these groups would no doubt have much different results.

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  7. Your point seems to be that people interpret statistics incorrectly and spread propaganda that the Nordic is achieving its objectives. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. It is really impossible to tell until it has been given time. Maybe the sex has merely shifted to other countries and the Nords are engaging in more ‘sex tourism’, even harder to track.

    I see a lot of people debunking other’s statistics, probably rightly so when it is practically impossible to reach a representative sample of sex-workers. However, I see very few pointing to any country as a model that should be adopted. Its great to sit on the sidelines and snipe, but what legalised model do you advocate? Is it best to simply decriminalise all aspects of sex-work without regulation, sit back and see what happens?

    • No disrespect but if you see “very few” pointing to an alternative model, you aren’t looking very hard. The New Zealand model is very widely accepted as international best practice, including by a number of UN bodies who recently issued a joint report to this effect. The New South Wales, Australia model also has a lot to recommend it. Neither is perfect, but both go much further than any other model in safeguarding sex workers’ rights.

      Do a bit of research on those models and you might find answers to some of the questions you posed in your other comment. Decriminalisation isn’t some wild unworkable fantasy that will give rise to all sorts of fantastic scenarios. It doesn’t turn every home and office into a De Wallen window.

      • Wendy,
        I’ve read though you blog and cannot see which model you would put forward.

        NZ model is unique, in that only NZ-citizens can work.
        Would that model work in Ireland, or would all EU citizens have the right to work?

        I would not hold NSW up as a model of best practice.
        It is purposely designed to limit police powers and give advantage to brothel operators. For an industry that is classically corrupt and exploitative, this is incredible.

        Advertising prostitution premises is forbidden, but I can see them from here.
        Advertising for prostitutes is forbidden, but I can apply for a job from here.

        Offenses/Criminality, a Google news search for ‘Brothel’ in any Aussie newspaper brings up a list of cases. Sentences seem incredibly light.
        Eg A Melbourne escort agency employs a 14-year-old. Their defence is that they thought she was 24. Maximum penalty 10 years, actual penalty 125 hours community service.

        Worker supply: Virtually all new workers are Thai, Korean or Chinese, very few locals. Taking advantage of poor young women, or simply migration.

        NSW does not really look like a regulated industry, it looks more like an industry out of control.

        Back to my original question:-
        I’ve read through you posts, and you seem to believe the Swedish model would be bad for Irish sex-workers. But I don’t see you point to your preferred model. I still maintain that this common with most people who are anti-abolitionist, because…. there is no model that achieves the things sex-workers say they want:-
        a. Providing a safe working environment
        b. Provide unrestricted access to government services/benefits including justice.
        c. Remove social stigma

        The best you pointed to was NZ.
        Is this really your preferred option in an Irish context?
        Why not retain the status quo? Allow web/print advertising?
        Allow small brothels up to 4 workers? (ie recognise existing massage parlours).
        Or adopt the UNAIDS recommendation?
        “Repeal laws that criminalize activities associated with sex work, including removal of offences relating to: soliciting; living on the earnings of sex work; procuring; pimping; the management and operation of brothels; and promoting or advertising services;”

        I would be interested in hearing you ideas for a realistic solution to sex-workers issues. The ones I have met don’t seem to have any real issues, with the exception that they don’t want anyone to know what they do and prefer to pay as little tax as possible, same as everyone.

        A post idea for you:-
        Assume Swedish model is adopted in Ireland (North & South). Project the structure of the industry 10 years into the future. How many workers, rapes, violent assault, migrants/locals.
        Compare with projections of your preferred model.

        And on the idea of companies employing in-house sex-workers. The German laws don’t impose any restriction on this (though I’m not a lawyer). All I need to provide is adequate sunlight, and such. Unfortunately she needs to retain her self-determination, but there must be a way around that, since the all-you-can-eat business model seems to work. My point is that the definition of sex-as-work is a dangerous concept, it may be an economic activity, but it is not work that I can direct an employee to perform.

        And I’m not really worried about windows, more worried about ‘Dr BJ’s Salon’, (google it), opening a new outlet in Dublin, and queues forming outside on discount Tuesday.

        • You actually commented on a post in which I cited hugely positive findings from the New Zealand model, and yet you say you can’t figure out which model I advocate. Strange. The NZ residency requirement is one of the law’s flaws, and a key reason many who generally support it don’t call for it to be adopted lock stock and barrel – NSW law is actually somewhat better in this regard, although all restrictions on labour migration are problematic, in any industry. That’s a problem of immigration law not unique to sex work.

          Melbourne is not in NSW, by the way.

          As for there being no model that achieves the things sex workers want, I refer you to what I already said: “Neither is perfect, but both go much further than any other model in safeguarding sex workers’ rights.” There’s not much more that any law can ever do. A law is only a framework, it doesn’t turn human beings into automatons who strictly fall into place and behave only according to rigid directions – contrary to the claims of those Nordic model supporters who describe it as a programme to eradicate prostitution.

          As for Dr BJ’s Salon, I think it’s rather telling that you cite a business in a country where sex work is actually illegal, rather than finding one in NZ or NSW to object to. If places like that don’t exist in those jurisdictions, why do you imagine they would exist here?

          And by the way, what model(s) do you advocate?

    • Bella Robinson

      One example many do not even consider was in the USA, in the state of Rhode Island indoor sex work was decriminalized in 1976 (however they voted back in to criminalize all sex work in 2009). There was NO regulations, some women worked from spa’s that paid taxes and donated money to local charities even the state police, other sex workers worked from home or hotels, and in 30 years there was not one public nuisance complaint filed, and not 1 case of human trafficking., We even caught the Craigslist killer, as after he killed the girl in Boston, he went to Rhode Island and robbed a escort and she dialed 911 because she was recriminated under the law, and the killer was caught. Regulations will only give those in power the ability to harass and further stigmatize sex workers. I think Rhode Island is a great example of how decriminalization works and reduces harm.

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  14. The elephant in the room here is that women in prostitution are suffering extreme forms of violence one way or another. How anyone can oppose abolition at face of this glaring fact is beyond me.

    I guess we are supposed to accept women getting raped one way or another for the sake of male orgasms. Putting your energy into constructive criticism of abolitionism to make it go smoother must be unthinkable.

    • OK, here’s your constructive criticism: stop framing what you call “abolitionism” in terms of measures aimed at ending demand, and refocus it entirely into creating real and acceptable alternatives for people who sell sex. Otherwise, you’re just advocating for policies that increase vulnerability to violence while doing nothing to actually abolish anything.

      • mrsrobinsoninri

        Why do people assume that sex workers are looking for alternatives. As a sex worker of over 30 years why would I want to change professions, why are people only concerned with getting sex workers to conform. Why isn’t the conversation about how to promote the health and safety of sex workers, and create better models that empower them while allowing them to access their labor rights and access the justice system.


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