Governing in the Name of Caring—The Nordic Model of Prostitution and its Punitive Consequences for Migrants who Sell Sex

Vuolajarvi, N., Governing in the Name of Caring—The Nordic Model of Prostitution and its Punitive Consequences for Migrants who Sell Sex, Sexuality Research & Soc. Policy, 16, 151-165, (2019). Available at:

Findings from Advocating Opportunity’s “END DEMAND LITERATURE – DESK REVIEW” (Compiled by: Emily Dunlap, Komal Hans, and Donna Hoffman with contributions from: Kate D’Adamo and Megan K. Mattimoe):

“This article examines the so-called ‘Nordic model’ in action. Using feminist argumentation, the model aims to abolish commercial sex by criminalizing the buying of sexual services while not criminalizing the selling, as the aim is to protect, rather than punish, women. Utilizing over 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork and 195 interviews in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, this article argues that in a situation where the majority of people who sell sex in the region are migrants/ immigrants, the regulation of commercial sex has shifted from prostitution to immigration policies, resulting in a double standard in the governance of national and foreign sellers of sexual services. Client criminalization has a minor role in the regulation of commercial sex in the area, and instead, migrants become targets of punitive regulation executed through immigration and third-party laws… My fieldwork reveals a tension between the stated feminist-humanitarian aims of the model, to protect and save women, and the punitivist governance of commercial sex that in practice leads to control, deportations, and women’s conditions becoming more difficult” (p. 1) (emphasis added)

“People who sell sex in Sweden reported feeling victimized and treated differently within social services and society at large. Many had bad experiences of reporting violence and harassment to the police and felt that the atmosphere in Sweden is so negative towards commercial sex that the police perceive them as partly guilty for the problems they experience while selling sex. For example, a sex workers’ organization representative explained how the police had told one of their members that the sexual violence she experienced was not rape because she was paid for it; also, one woman reported that in a situation where her former client threatened to expose her identity and stalked her in the vicinity of her house, the police refused to act on it. Many said that they would not contact the police in any case because they were afraid of the consequences, such as being evicted from their apartments, or that more authorities would be involved in their lives like the tax authorities or social services in case they had children.” (p. 8) (emphasis added).

“The immigration and third-party regulations considerably weaken women’s safety as they prevent them from seeking help from officials in exploitative situations. Third-party regulation pushes them into insecure and possibly exploitative living arrangements that can increase rather than reduce pimping.” (p. 12) (emphasis added).

“Social workers in all the countries were constantly frustrated with the institutional obstacles they met in trying to find solutions for their foreign clients. In Norway and Finland, the service providers offer low-threshold health, social, and legal services based on a harm-reduction approach. Hence, they can at least respond to the basic health and legal needs of their foreign clients, even if they cannot help with access to the state benefits and have limited resources to assist with labor market access.” (p. 10).

“Harm-reduction is not part of the Swedish social work agenda and focus on motivating exit with therapeutic emphasis especially limited Swedish social workers’ possibilities to meet the needs of their foreign clients, sometimes the only help they could give being an IOM, International Organization of Migration, assisted return—a plane ticket home, “if they are lucky.” The victims can also be deported if they do not cooperate with the officials based on Aliens and Immigration Acts.” (p. 10).


“2 years of ethnographic fieldwork in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. The study involves ethnographic observations and interviews with people who sell sex, the police, social and healthcare workers, and state officials operating within the field of commercial sex. The intensive fieldwork periods took place in Finland in 2012–2013 (12 months) and in Norway and Sweden in 2016–2018 (7 and 12 months, respectively).” (p. 5).

“In addition to participant observation and field conversations, 195 formal semi-structured interviews were conducted with persons who sell sex, social and healthcare workers, state officials, and police operating within the field of commercial sex. Out of the 195 interviewees, 113 are people who sell sex, and the rest are other people involved in the field of commercial sex. The interviews with social and healthcare workers, the police and policy-makers concerned the field of commercial sex, problems people selling sex face, and legal frameworks and their enforcement. These interviews provided a broader background and context to the interviews conducted with people who sell sex.” (p. 5).

“Most of the migrants met in fieldwork were highly mobile and traveled between their country of residence and the Nordic region. The result was a diverse sample encompassing people who sell sex from different working environments (street, online/indoor, parlors, striptease joints), ethnicity and race, residence permit type and their rights with respect to the state (citizenship, permanent residence permit, temporary residence permit, other country citizenship/permanent residence permit, tourist visa, and undocumented), and education and skills level. The majority of these interviewees are women (109), and their age varies from 20 to 64.” (p. 6).

“Campaigns around human trafficking, or ‘modern slavery,’ rely largely on the spectacle of suffering, the repetition, and circulation of sensationalist images and narratives of sex trafficking, which compel spectators to take action. In this context, the Nordic model (end-demand) emerges as a perfect tool to bridge the paradoxical desires to protect and exclude. It offers ‘a fix’ to the ethical necessity to act in the face of injustice, without demanding rights for migrants and otherwise marginalized people easily exploited in commercial sex—or challenging the wider structural inequalities related to immigration and the global distribution of wealth that drive people to commercial sex and make their exploitation within the industry possible… Instead of focusing on enforcing and protecting the rights of vulnerable populations, or challenging the broader social structures that lead to their violation, humanitarianism turns these populations to receivers of help or victims in need of saving.” (p. 13)