Supposedly, it’s the oldest profession in the world. Since we first moved out of the caves and into tiny little villages made of mud and stone, there have been people willing to trade sex work for money, food, or other forms of value. Even monkeys are doing it.

Despite its continued presence both in the human and animal kingdoms, however, the practise of sex work has long been under scrutiny. Whether it be the religious leaders of old decrying sex work for its immorality, or legislators with ‘good intentions’, the market for sex work in recent centuries has never been allowed to truly spread its wings.

Sadly, it is this particular market that simply needs to be free far more so than many others. This is not due to an issue of economic growth or job creation, however, but of basic harm prevention. In the UK, after all, few lose out more from draconian restrictions on sex work than the workers themselves, who are forced out of a visible, regulated market, and forced to operate within the dark corners of society.

Sex workers operating in such black markets have a great deal less protection than they would in an open one. They may be reluctant to go to the police about an abusive client for fear of being arrested themselves. Likewise, they may be reluctant to visit clinics for regular STD checks for the same reason.

In this way, a major consequence of criminalised sex work is that workers lose much of their power to be responsible for their own safety, and must instead rely on a criminal underbelly of pimps for their protection. Often, this ‘protection’ amounts to little more than extortion and coercion.

A great deal of harm can therefore be seen to stem from restrictive controls on sex work, often placing the workers themselves in real jeopardy.

How, then, can the market be regulated in a way that puts the safety and wellbeing of sex workers first? Some countries, such as Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, and France have adopted a form of policy dubbed the ‘Nordic Model’.  

Essentially, this model works by regulating the buying and selling of sex differently. Sex workers in countries adhering to this model need not fear any legal reprieve, since selling sex is fully decriminalised. Instead, it is the customers who become the criminals.

Now, the approach is certainly on the right path. It’s clear that the intentions behind such an approach are, correctly, in the interest of protecting those who work in the sex industry. Sadly, as with many well-intentioned policy decisions, the Nordic model doesn’t actually make sex work any less dangerous.

In reality, the fact that purchasing sex remains illegal, while selling it is decriminalised, shifts the attention entirely to a consumer. Whereas in the past, a customer may be more trusting that the location chosen by the sex worker is safe and private, the Nordic model incentivises a far greater deal of customers to ensure that they are fully secluded.

Why is this an issue? Naturally, to a sex worker, a customer who goes to great lengths to make certain that they will not be interrupted is something of a red-flag that they may be planning something nefarious. However, since the Nordic model leads to far more customers doing this, it becomes far more difficult for sex workers to separate the safe, honest customers, from those who may intend harm.

Moreover, since the state will still be attempting to prosecute buyers, they may continue to surveil sex workers in order to catch anyone trying to procure their services. While the worker may not be under any threat of prosecution, their right to privacy can be seriously compromised.

Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense to legalise only one half of a transaction. The only way to ensure a truly safe market for sex, for workers and buyers alike, is full liberalisation. Through taking power out of the hands of policemen and pimps, and back into those of sex workers, we can greatly improve the safety and wellbeing of the people working in the industry.