What is the Abolitionist Model?

The Abolitionist Model (sometimes also known as the Sex Buyer Law, or the Swedish, Nordic, or Equality Model) 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, which recognises prostitution as a form of violence against women, has now been adopted in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, South Korea, Ireland and most recently, Israel. Latvia and Lithuania are in the process of evaluating the possible adoption of this model.

How did this approach come about?
The Abolitionist Model was pioneered in Sweden after extensive research into prostitution. One of the researchers was Cecilie Høigård. Here she describes what happened (translated by Daisy Elizabeth Sjursø and edited slightly for length):

“We spent several years doing fieldwork and we developed close relationships with the prostituted women. We heard about their experiences of past abuse, extreme poverty and violence. We were prepared for these stories, because of our previous studies on outcasts and marginalized people. But what the women told us of their concrete experiences of prostitution was unexpected and shocking.

They told us what it was like to use their bodies and vaginas as rental apartments for unknown men to invade, and how this made it necessary to separate their body from their self: ‘Me and my body are two separate parts. It is not me, my feelings or my soul he fucks. I am not for sale.’

The women had numerous strategies to maintain this separation. To be agents in their own lives they showed great ingenuity and vigour within the little space for manoeuvre they had. However, over time it became more difficult for them to maintain the separation between their body and self. After the punter was done, it became increasingly difficult to bring the self back. Eventually the women came to feel worthless, dirty and disgusting.

These stories were very similar to accounts we’d heard from victims of other sexual violence, such as incest, rape and domestic violence.

The research group disagreed about many things, but we shared the same feelings of despair about the women’s pain and the punters’ lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions.
Then the idea of one-sided criminalisation of the punter struck me like lightning. The idea increased my heart rate, and gave me a sense of everything falling into place.

There was huge opposition to the proposal at first but after some years opponents in the working group changed their point of view.

The debate that followed served as a large-scale educational campaign. In Sweden, the attitudes towards the law changed rapidly in a positive direction, and the proportion of Swedish men buying women’s bodies has decreased.

What is the aim of the Abolitionist Model?
Criminal legislation has the primary purpose of making it clear that buying people for sex is wrong and it has sanctions that discourage people from doing it. Society’s values do change over time and some things that used to be considered acceptable are now considered unacceptable, and vice versa. Examples include smoking tobacco indoors or attitudes towards domestic and sexual violence.

Prostitution causes damage to those in it and it can never be made safe and its existence makes women’s human right to equality with men a distant pipe dream. Vast sums of money are made from the heinous trade in (mostly) women’s and children’s bodies and this leads inexorably to sex trafficking.

It is time to make it clear that buying human beings for sex is unacceptable and to create criminal sanctions that discourage people from doing it. Human rights are not for sale. We do not want to criminalise people. We want to change behaviour. And for those who are in it, we want to provide support to help them make a new life outside it.

Information taken from https://nordicmodelnow.org/what-is-the-nordic-model/

The Abolitionist Model Versus Legalisation
The Abolitionist Model is often presented as one of two or three options in terms of legislation around prostitution. The other option(s) is the legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution and its recognition by a state as a legitimate form of work. Let’s look at some of the facts and figures around the results of these legislative approaches.

The Abolitionist Model targets the demand side of prostitution, which does not only involve the criminalisation of the buyer. It also requires education campaigns and the challenging of society’s ideas around prostitution. The fruit of this effort can already be clearly seen in attitudes towards the purchase of sex in Sweden. While the majority of the population was opposed to the prohibition of the purchase of sex before the adoption of the law, 10 years later three surveys have shown that more than 70% of the population support it fully. The support is even stronger amongst youth.[1]

Even those who do not recognise prostitution for what it is, violence in and of itself, cannot deny the violence that prostituted women experience at the hands of buyers and pimps, under any legal regime. Evidence shows that “[n]o prostitutes were murdered in Sweden [in 2015]; in Germany, where prostitution is legal, 70 were killed by pimps or buyers.”[2] In terms of its primary aim, the reduction and ultimate elimination of prostitution, the Swedish model has already proven effective. Statistics “indicate that the percentage of Swedish men who buy sex dropped to 7.4 per cent in 2014 from 13.6 per cent in 1996”[2]. A study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence states that “[s]ex buyers were more likely than men who did not buy sex to report sexual aggression and likelihood to rape. Men who bought sex scored higher on measures of impersonal sex and hostile masculinity and had less empathy for prostituted women, viewing them as intrinsically different from other women.” When coupled with the Swedish statistics we can conclude that the Abolitionist Model also contributes to a decrease in sexual aggression and rape in society as a whole, as backed up by crime data from New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalised in 2003. Since then there has been an overall fall in crime but an increase in rape and domestic violence and an increase in the severity of domestic violence.[3]

Despite the claims that legalisation brings protection and improves conditions for those in prostitution, women who had been to Germany before arriving in Sweden told the Stockholm police prostitution unit that there is much more violence in legal brothels as sex buyers are entitled to do what they want, as they are the “clients”. Social workers in Sweden see that persons in prostitution feel more confident to come forward for assistance, demonstrating another element to the change in attitudes in society and the shift from offering power and protection to the buyer, the abuser, to offering support and alternatives to victims.

As described by Janice Raymond in 2010, five years after the decriminalization of prostitution and the legal provision for establishing brothels, “a federal government evaluation of the law found that the German Prostitution Act, as it is called, has failed to improve conditions for women in the prostitution industry nor helped women to leave. It has also failed “to reduce crime in the world of prostitution.” As a result, the report stated that “prostitution should not be considered to be a reasonable means for securing one’s living.” The federal government is drafting a criminal provision to punish the clients of those forced into prostitution or who are victims of trafficking — the Swedish model lite with all its caloric value removed.”[4] Germany itself recognises the failure of legalisation to reap the benefits professed by advocates of so-called ‘sex work’. There is little difference in the situation seen in the Netherlands. The government-commissioned Daalder Report in fact found that the majority of women in the window brothels are still subject to pimp control and that their emotional well-being is lower than in 2001 “on all measured aspects.”[4]

“Legalization of prostitution is a failed policy in practice. The prostitution policy tide is turning from legalization of prostitution to targeting the demand for prostitution without penalizing the victims. Countries who want to be effective in the fight against trafficking and not havens of sexual exploitation are beginning to understand that they cannot sanction pimps as legitimate sexual entrepreneurs and must take legal action against the buyers.”

Janice Raymond, Trafficking, Prostitution and the Sex Industry: The Nordic Legal Model

Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation
Human trafficking increased by 38% between 2007-2016 and 72% of victims in 2016 were women and girls. Of those women and girls, the vast majority were trafficked for sexual exploitation.[5]

The Abolitionist Model aims to tackle this problem by targeting the demand side of prostitution. All too often when we think about prostitution, we think about the supply, the prostituted women selling sexual acts, and we forget about the other side of this transaction. In every situation of prostitution there is a buyer, almost certainly a man. This man’s desire to pay for sex, his demand for prostitution, is what fuels the sex trade. If we remove demand from the equation, prostitution will cease to exist. If prostitution no longer exists then trafficking for sexual exploitation will no longer have a ‘destination’.

In an academic study across 150 countries, Cho, Dreher and Neumayer conclude that “countries with legalized prostitution experience a larger reported incidence of trafficking inflows”[6]. As recently as February 2019 a high-profile German brothel owner, known as the ‘brothel king’ and his ‘marketing manager’ were given prison sentences of five years and three years and three months respectively, for “aiding and abetting human trafficking”[7]. “The court found that in many cases the women were threatened, beaten and humiliated by their pimps in order to make [them], some of whom were under 21 years of age, submissive.”[7] In contrast, “Sweden appears to be the only country in Europe where prostitution and sex trafficking has not increased.”[4]

We wholeheartedly endorse the position of Rachel Moran, a survivor who was forced to sell her body from age 14 when she lost her father and her mother struggled with mental health issues, and had no other means to support herself:

I know there are some advocates who argue that women in prostitution sell sex as consenting adults. But those who do are a relatively privileged minority — primarily white, middle-class, Western women in escort agencies — not remotely representative of the global majority. Their right to sell doesn’t trump my right and others’ not to be sold in a trade that preys on women already marginalised by class and race.”[8]


For further information on Sweden’s laws around prostitution and trafficking, as well as their implementation and results, see ‘SWEDISH LAWS, POLICIES AND INTERVENTIONS ON PROSTITUTION AND TRAFFICKING IN HUMAN BEINGS: A COMPREHENSIVE OVERVIEW‘ by Gunilla S. Ekberg B.S.W., J.D. 

1] https://www.womenlobby.org/IMG/pdf/prostitution_myths_final_ewl.pdf

[2] https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/outlawing-the-purchase-of-sex-has-been-key-to-swedens-success-in-reducing-prostitution
[3] https://nordicmodelnow.org/2016/08/11/meme-about-new-zealand-since-the-full-decriminalisation-of-the-sex-trade/?fbclid=IwAR0bMybrrl4OZKQlrboRUWXPY7RzzJ7TEvwbcxu5LJD29tNvdGWKXET1Zw4