Dame Diana Johnson’s Sexual Exploitation Bill: The Debate

By Nordic Model Now


Dame Diana Johnson MP recently introduced into the British Parliament a Sexual Exploitation Bill. If passed, this would introduce a Nordic Model approach to prostitution law and policy in England and Wales. It is described as follows:

“A Bill to criminalise paying for sex; to decriminalise selling sex; to create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation; to make associated provision about sexual exploitation online; to make provision for support services for victims of sexual exploitation; and for connected purposes.”

The Bill was introduced as a Private Members’ Bill under the Ten Minute Rule. The Parliament website explains that “Ten Minute Rule bills are often an opportunity for Members to voice an opinion on a subject or aspect of existing legislation, rather than a serious attempt to get a bill passed.”

Whatever happens, the Bill provides an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the Nordic Model approach and to show that it has considerable public support. We are therefore encouraging all our UK supporters to write to their MPs to ask them to support the Bill.

In the debate on its first reading on 9 December 2020, Dame Diana Johnson spoke powerfully for the Bill and Ms Lyn Brown, the Labour MP for West Ham, argued against it.

This article delves into some of the assertions that Lyn Brown made (and others often claim) and shows that many are oversimplifications and/or are not backed up by robust evidence.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Women working in an asbestos factory in 1918

George Santayana famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is seldom more true than when dealing with dangerous industries that make vast profits.

Consider the asbestos industry. Fears had been raised about the impact of asbestos fibres on human health by 1906, and by 1950 it was beyond doubt that asbestos causes fatal lung diseases, and a slow and painful early death. Yet it wasn’t until 1999 that a full ban came into force in the UK.

We need to ask why, in a modern democratic state that prides itself on its scientific rigour, it took so many decades for the use of this dangerous and unnecessary material to be banned.

The key to understanding this is that it was extremely lucrative. Fortunes were made from asbestos while most of the people whose lives were blighted by it were poor working class men and women, whose poverty and voicelessness were increased by the chronic ill health and painful early demise asbestos caused.

In other words, it was a very uneven playing field. The bosses were able to make their voices heard, to grease the hands of the journalists, academics and politicians, and their propaganda made an easy story: asbestos was a miracle substance that made life safer for everyone.

Who would want to interrupt this happy, uplifting narrative to hear about working class women and men suffering chronic ill health and a slow and distressing early death, and the resulting destitution and suffering of their families?

When the damage that asbestos causes could no longer be denied, the bosses came up with ever more creative tactics. They said that indeed there are some dangerous forms of asbestos but that wasn’t what was used in the industry. They set up lobbying organisations with names that implied neutrality, such as the Asbestos Research Council. They vilified and harassed scientists who published inconvenient results, and they funded scientists to claim there were no risks, or only very small and occasional ones that could easily be mitigated.

This made it very difficult for people to see and understand the truth of what was going on and as a result the widespread use of asbestos continued.

It’s important to understand these dynamics and tactics because we see them repeated again and again. Similar tactics were used by the tobacco lobby and are still used in various other lucrative fields today, including by those who lobby for the sex industry.

Just like the asbestos and tobacco industries, there are huge profits to be made in the sex industry – often with very little risk. For example, Dame Diana Johnson mentioned in her speech a British man who had made £1.6 million in one year from his brothels.

Of course, he and all the other pimps and brothel owners want to be seen as legitimate business men and not as seedy criminals who leech off the suffering of the most vulnerable women and girls. Of course, they don’t want to languish in prison on long sentences. Of course, they are going to be ruthless in fighting for their own interests. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they use many of the tactics so beloved by the old asbestos barons.

And of course men who get off on prostitution, porn and lap dancing and similar consider it their god-given “right” and fight any attempt to curtail their “freedom.” It’s not surprising therefore that many men are so eager to repeat the sex trade lobbyists’ distortions and sweet talk. And sadly many women still defer to the men who surround them and intuit when something disturbs their equilibrium. And so they too repeat the sex trade lobbyists’ propaganda because they have yet to untangle what’s really in their own interest from the web of misinformation and lies.

The sex trade lobby’s dominance of academia

The sex trade lobby has been so successful at dominating the mainstream narrative that in many institutions it is difficult for academics to get or retain jobs, funding, or even recognition, if they diverge from the prevailing view that ‘sex work’ is empowering for women and a normal kind of work, in which the only problems are how it’s policed and people’s negative attitudes towards it (‘stigma’) rather than any intrinsic problems it may have.

We have analysed a number of studies of prostitution in the UK and have found a breath-taking lack of intellectual honesty and rigour, alongside headline claims that are not backed up by the evidence – for example, recent studies by Huddersfield University into the Holbeck red-light zone, by Queen’s University Belfast into the implementation of the Nordic Model in Northern Ireland, and by Amnesty International into the Nordic Model in Norway.

We therefore need to retain a degree of scepticism when we hear those who advocate for the sex trade claiming that academic studies have proved that full decriminalisation is the best approach and that the Nordic Model (which would have the pimps languishing in jail and the sex buyers exposed) is the worst.


In her speech, Lyn Brown MP quoted statistics from a study by the French NGO, Medecins du Monde, to suggest that since the Nordic Model was introduced in France in 2016, “sex workers” have been exposed to more violence, have worse relationships with the police, and are less likely to use condoms; the implication being that the Nordic Model is the cause of all these things.

Another French NGO, Amicale du Nid, wrote a response to the Medecins du Monde study, which shows that, like the Holbeck, Northern Ireland and Norway studies mentioned above, it makes many alarmist claims that are contradicted by the data.

Furthermore, the interviews and surveys were all completed before the end of February 2018, less than two years after the Nordic Model law was passed – which for the introduction of an approach that is so different from what went before, is hardly any time at all.

France is a large country with a population of 66 million and 18 administrative regions, each divided into numerous departments. The implementation of much of the approach is devolved to the local and regional administrations and there has been considerable variation in how thoroughly they have undertaken this, if at all.

This was confirmed by the 2019 official assessment, which found that implementation was less successful where there was a lack of support for the approach from key high-level officials, including prosecutors and préfets.

It seems that in some French regions there has been little or no commitment to prosecuting sex buyers and investing in services for women involved in prostitution – meaning that in practice the Nordic Model is not in operation in those parts of France.

Yes, the Medecins du Monde study found that “sex workers” are exposed to violence, but there was no evidence to suggest that this had significantly increased or was a result of the Nordic Model. In fact, the official assessment did not find evidence of any increase in such violence.

Violence is intrinsic to prostitution regardless of the policy and legislation that is in force – and this is why we believe that the only ethical approach is to work to reduce the amount of prostitution that happens and the numbers of new women and girls being drawn into it, while providing routes out and genuine alternatives for those already caught up in it. This is the what the Nordic Model approach aims to achieve.

For a full critique of the claims in the Medecins du Monde study, please see the Amicale du Nid response.

The Nordic Model drives prostitution “underground” and other claims

Lyn Brown repeated several other claims we often hear from those who advocate for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade. For example, not only that the Nordic Model increases violence against women involved in prostitution, but that it also makes them poorer, it fails to improve relationships with the police, and it drives prostitution “underground.”

Sweden was the first country to introduce the Nordic Model approach and it has had the time and political will to iron out many of the implementation problems that are still seen in France and elsewhere.

I therefore caught up with Lea, a representative of #intedinhora, a Swedish organisation of people with experience of prostitution, and put these claims to her. She was keen to correct them.

She said that the price of prostitution in Sweden is much higher than in European countries where the sex trade is condoned. “This makes the johns furious,” she said. “You can often see them talking in online forums about how the ‘hookers’ here in Sweden are ‘spoiled’ and how they wish it were more like Germany where prices are less than half what they are in Sweden. This means that we don’t have to see as many johns to survive and can say no when we’re uncomfortable.”

She countered the claim that the Nordic Model pushes prostitution underground by asking whether there is anywhere in the world where johns want to have sex in the open.

She said, “The law makes little difference in this regard because they don’t want their wife, girlfriend or employer to find out and anyway most people want to have sex in private. The fact that the meeting in some countries takes place in public areas doesn’t mean that the selling part is safer. Women get killed every year in those small cubicles in the red-light district in Amsterdam. And in Sweden we haven’t yet had one reported murder of a person in prostitution by a john since the sex buyer law was established in 1999.”

Read the full article, originally published by

Further reading:

What’s Wrong With Prostitution


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