In most places in the US, prostitution and patronizing a sex worker are crimes that can carry serious penalties, including jail and prison. Back in 2021, we posted a blog about a bill here in New York that would decriminalize sex work. In 2023, Maine passed a similar set of laws. Yet now, there are growing concerns about the Equality Model of the decriminalization of prostitution, which is the underlying framework of this proposed bill. While at first glance it may seem like a great idea, the proposed changes may not be what all sex workers truly want for the future.
What is the Equality Model?
Under the Equality Model, also referred to as the Nordic model, there is a partial decriminalization of sex work. In particular, the rights of those who have been exploited – the people who are prostituted and trafficked – are prioritized and they don’t face criminal charges for sex crimes. Instead, they are offered social services and other resources. Further, under this model, buyers and exploiters – including pimps, brothel owners, and johns – are held accountable for the harms they cause. So far, countries which have implemented this model include Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Iceland, France, Israel, and Norway. As to results, these countries claim to have reduced the number of people who are trafficked or exploited.
On the other side of the coin is full legalization. In this scenario, also called the sex workers’ rights position, the entire commercial sex work industry is legalized. So far, countries which have legalized sex work include Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Switzerland, the Netherlands. In the countries that have legalized sex work, it has been reported that demand for prostituted persons has increased. As such, some say this has led to an expanded sex trade and a boom in sex tourism.
Criticisms of the Equality Model
However, not everyone supports the push for the partial decriminalization of sex work. Specifically, one criticism of the Nordic model is that all sex workers are treated as victims under this model, and that their consent to sexual activity is irrelevant. For example, the term sex worker is even replaced with terms like “prostituted women” or “sex trade survivor” – implying that the women in this industry have no agency of their own. In essence, these sex workers are treated as if they have no choice and, to some extent, they are infantilized.
Further, even just calling it the Equality Model has drawn criticism, as there is an assumption that those selling sex (mostly women and girls) and those paying for sex (mostly men) would be treated differently under the law. Moreover, the model treats anyone who participates in the commercialization of sex work as a trafficker.
Equality Model Legislation in New York
In line with the Equality Model, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act (A3386 / S1352) has been proposed in New York. This was the bill discussed in our 2021 blog. According to the proposed bill, this legislation would:
- Repeal the crime of selling sex.
- Prevent people in the sex trade from being charged as an accomplice to promoting or compelling prostitution when they are helping others in prostitution like them and are not profiting, and they are being exploited by a third party.
- Prohibit using condoms as evidence in criminal trials for prostitution.
- Expand access to social services.
- Strengthen laws against trafficking, including eliminating a loophole that prevents sex buyers, from being charged with promotion of prostitution when they traffic people to themselves.
- Advance criminal justice reform.
Notably, the laws that hold accountable pimps, sex traffickers, and other profiteers would remain unchanged under this proposed legislation.
- Elizabeth Nolan Brown, “Maine’s bad prostitution law could be coming soon to your state,” Reason (Jan. 3, 2024). Available at: https://reason.com/2024/01/03/maines-bad-prostitution-law-could-be-coming-soon-to-your-state/ (last accessed Jan. 23, 2024).
- Equal Not Exploited, https://www.equalitymodelus.org/ (last accessed Jan. 23, 2024).
- Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act. Available at: https://sanctuaryforfamilies.org/our-approach/advocacy/sts-justice-equality-act/ (last accessed Jan. 23, 2024).
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