From New Zealand to Sweden: Different ways to regulate sex work

JAMES DEBONO analyses different ways to regulate sex work ranging from recognising it as a job like any other, as in New Zealand, to criminalising clients who buy sex as happens in Sweden and France

In Germany, sex work is  regulated by the government, which levies taxes on it
In Germany, sex work is regulated by the government, which levies taxes on it

Maltese law does not criminalise the act of selling sex but punishes loitering and those living off the earnings of prostitution.

Other countries have opted for different models ranging from recognising sex work as a job like any other, as in New Zealand, to criminalising clients who buy sex as happens in Sweden and France.

The Nordic model

The Nordic model approach to prostitution decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.

This approach has now been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, France, and most recently, Israel.

The model is intended to cut demand on what proponents say is an inherently violent and misogynistic trade.

In Norway, activities associated with sex work are criminalised, including “promotion of prostitution” and allowing premises to be used for selling sex.

The New Zealand model

New Zealand has repealed all laws that had been used to criminalise sex workers.

But unlike other countries, which regulate prostitution, sex work is not restricted to licenced brothels.

The law was itself promoted by the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC), an organisation that supports sex workers' rights and educates prostitutes about minimising the risks of the job.

The aim of the law was to decriminalise prostitution and safeguard the human rights of sex workers, while protecting them from exploitation.

In New Zealand, sex workers are allowed to work in managed brothels with no size restrictions, or to work as equals with colleagues, or to work alone.

Street prostitution has also been legalised. Brothel operators have to obtain a certificate from Auckland District Court. Up to four sex workers can work together, as equals, without requiring an operators’ certificate – so long as no one is in control of anyone else or their work.

Sex workers have a legal right to decline clients without providing a reason. The laws pertaining to sex work are the same as those for other workplaces; sex workers are able to have the same labour rights as workers in other occupations.

They are entitled to workplace protections and access to healthcare.  It is also illegal to do sex work if you are visiting New Zealand on a temporary visa.

The German model

Prostitution in Germany is legal, as are other aspects of the sex industry, including brothels and advertisement.

Sex work is regulated by the German government, which levies taxes on it.

In 2016, the government adopted a new law, the Prostitutes Protection Act, in an effort to improve the legal situation of sex workers.

But the law initially meant to empower sex workers has failed to stem the exploitation of women from Eastern and Southeastern Europe. A new law passed in 2017 prohibits flat-rate brothels and gang-bang parties, in which a sex worker must service several men concurrently.

Also, sex without a condom is prohibited. Furthermore, clients who knowingly make use of the services provided by people who have been forced into prostitution are penalised.

Other regulatory systems

Tunisian sex workers working in licensed brothels who wish to leave their jobs must obtain authorisation from the police and demonstrate they can earn a living through “honest” means.

Those who operate outside these regulations are still criminalised, without protection of the law.

Malta presently follows the UK model where prostitution itself (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but a number of related activities, including soliciting in a public place, kerb-crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering, are crimes.

In Northern Ireland, which previously had similar laws, paying for sex became illegal from 1 June 2015.

How the Nordic and New Zealand models fared

The Nordic model has been effective in reducing the demand for paid sexual services.

Prostitution hasn’t been eliminated, but surveys indicate that the percentage of Swedish men who buy sex dropped by half as has the number of prostitutes.

The decrease in the demand for prostitution is linked to a reduction in trafficking.

But the Nordic model, which criminalises clients, has been criticised by leading human rights organisation Amnesty International for making sex workers more vulnerable to the demands of clients and for perpetuating the stigma against sex workers.

To avoid police detection, sex workers increasingly rely on customers to provide a place to work where they may be more exposed to violence and abuse.

Amnesty’s researchers spoke to 54 people in Norway, including police officers, prosecutors, academics, social science providers and 30 sex workers, including three victims of trafficking.

“I went to the house of a man. He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn’t tell the police. I don’t want it on my records,” one sex worker told Amnesty International.

The report found that workers remain “at high risk of violence and abuse” but rarely turn to the police.

One sex worker told Amnesty: “If a customer is bad, you need to manage it yourself to the end. You only call the police if you think you’re going to die. If you call the police, you risk losing everything.”

Under Norway’s laws, sex workers are at risk of forced evictions as their landlords can be prosecuted for renting property to them if they sell sex there.

A representative of a Norwegian sex workers’ rights organisation explained: “If landlords don’t evict, the police will launch a criminal case against them... The police are encouraging landlords to take the law into their own hands and enforce it themselves.”

People who do sex work are also unable to work together for safety, or hire third party support like security, as this would likely qualify as ‘promotion of prostitution’ under the law.

A review of the Swedish law carried out in 2015 found that one of the unintended consequences of the policy is increased support for criminalising prostitutes, currently at 48% of all Swedes; 59% of women and 38% of men.

The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education has suggested that the law has increased both stigma and discrimination, putting prostitutes in a more precarious position. However, the group has opposed legalisation and instead has been pressing for changes to address those unintended consequences.

The pitfalls of legalisation

In 2001, the German parliament passed a prostitution law intended to improve working conditions for prostitutes. Under the new law, women could sue for their wages and contribute to health, unemployment and pension insurance programs.

The goal of the legislation was to make prostitution a profession like any other, accepted instead of ostracised.

But the law contributed to a proliferation of brothels advertising their services at all-inclusive rates.

When the Pussy Club opened near Stuttgart in 2009, the management advertised the club as follows: "Sex with all women as long as you want, as often as you want and the way you want. Sex. Anal sex. Oral sex without a condom. Three-ways. Group sex. Gang bangs."

The price: €70 during the day and €100 in the evening.

In 2017, the law was changed again to ban such practices.

An investigative report by Der Spiegel denounced "explosive increase in human trafficking from Romania and Bulgaria" and a dramatic decrease in the price of sexual services.

But research has also demonstrated that decriminalisation in New Zealand has enabled those who sell sex to determine what services they will and will not provide, which clients they will provide services to, as well as negotiate safer sex practice.

But the greatest pitfalls of legalisation is the risk of opening the floodgates for human trafficking.

New Zealand addresses this by banning temporary residents from the trade, but this in itself has resulted in creating a new category of vulnerable women.

Another pitfall is sex tourism. A case in point is the Netherlands, which earned a reputation for its window brothels. The US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, lists the country as a "source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour".

READ MORE: Activists call for the buying of sex to be criminalised

More in National