Men’s Development Network/White Ribbon Ireland Submission to UN Women on Human Rights, The Sex Trade & Prostitution.

UN Women are considering their prostitution policy. This was our submission in support of the adoption of the Nordic Model.


The Men’s Development Network (MDN)/White Ribbon Ireland (WRI) support the adoption of the Nordic Model in Ireland. MDN/WRI are key members of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign which has successfully lobbied for legislation that holds purchasers of women for sex accountable for their contribution to a trade that is directed by the commercial interests of criminals[i] and exploits the most vulnerable in our society. As well as lobbying for changes in the law, we have worked alongside sex-trade survivors presenting in schools, colleges and in national campaigns to highlight the need to deal with the demand side of the sex-trade. We feel that tackling demand is essential to delegitimising those who profit from exploitation and to protect the most vulnerable. We see prostitution as a form of male violence against women and an infringement of the human rights of women and girls. Thus we believe that violence against women and girls cannot be dismantled by legitimising the perpetrators or having their actions sanctioned by the state.

Q1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?

Prostitution policy should always reflect Human Rights and Human Dignity in reference to the first sentence of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”[ii]. This is not compatible with a global trade that profits from sexual coercion, is based entirely on the sexual primacy of men and whose victims are most often poor women and/or women of colour.

Commitments to universality in prostitution policy should first recognise that: “Across cultures, at all levels of economic development, whether street or house, when asked, “What do you need?”, the answer of 89% of people in prostitution is to “[l]eave prostitution.””[iii] – Catherine McKinnon

Principles of universality should strive to eliminate a system where a certain class of women is subject to the levels of violence and PTSD faced by prostituted women: A study of 854 women in prostitution in 9 countries reported that 70 – 95% of the women experience physical assault, among which 60 – 75% had been raped. Sixty-eight percent of 827 met the criteria for lifetime diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[iv]

While it is important to acknowledge that no state has managed to abolish prostitution, states have a responsibility to implement best practices to reduce demand which has been shown to reduce instances of trafficking, coercion, pimping and prostitution in the following ways:


There is a temptation to attempt to separate prostitution and voluntary sex-work, as if a neat distinction can be made, especially where poverty is a major push factor. Both legal and illegal trade in free market economies actively seek growth and work aggressively to ensure that supply meets demand. States that have legitimised the purchase of sex have seen rises in levels of trafficking, coercion and illegal markets to meet rising demand. Failure to implement best practice to reduce this demand contravenes a state’s responsibility in Article 9 of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which requires that states take legislative action to discourage exploitation and acts that lead to trafficking.[x]

The abrogation of state responsibility in legalised prostitution violates the international human rights “prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment and torture is a peremptory norm or jus cogens. In other words, a State cannot use any excuse to justify those acts, including the legalization of prostitution.”[xi]

States have a responsibility under Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to “eliminate exploitative prostitution.”[xii] Legal commodification of women’s bodies not only increases exploitation as outlined previously, but also allows the state to profit from exploitation by collecting taxes from those who profit from the sale women’s bodies.

Article 1 of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (1993) defines the term, “violence against women,” as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.[xiii] As mentioned in previous points prostituted women are highly likely to experience physical, sexual or psychological harm (as above “70 – 95% of the women experience physical assault, among which 60 – 75% had been raped. Sixty-eight percent of 827 met the criteria for lifetime diagnosis of PTSD)[xiv] in addition to an extremely high mortality rate (a Canadian study estimated a mortality rate as high as forty times the national average[xv]).

State sanctioning of private brothels may contravene responsibilities under Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms relating to torture[xvi]. The state is liable for actions of private brothel owners in cases of torture, trafficking and imprisonment common in prostitution.

Question 2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as

  • a)      reproductive rights
  • b)      women’s ownership of land and assets
  • c)      building peaceful and inclusive societies
  • d)      ending the trafficking of women
  • e)      eliminating violence against women.

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

The sex trade cannot exist without male demand for commodified bodies. The Nordic Model focuses on eliminating this demand by shifting responsibility on those who create that demand. The normative shift is an important factor. In Sweden this shift is noteworthy, particularly amongst young people with less than 7.8% of its active adult male population buying sex compared to 13.6% before the law was enacted[xvii]. The law now has the support of 70% of the Swedish population, indicating that the stigma has shifted away from those in prostitution to the buyer.

The Nordic Model also decriminalises those victimised by prostitution. This is a crucial step to give women in prostitution the opportunity to report crimes and to seek exit strategies.

The provision of exit strategies in the Nordic Model is an important factor in providing real support and choice to those in prostitution. When prostitution is seen as ‘a job like any other’ there is less incentive to provide alternative opportunities or implantation of policies to lift women out of the poverty that pushes them into prostitution.

“Support for the Nordic Model is essential to achieving Sustainable Development Goals, and taken together can eliminate a number of push factors for women into the sex-trade (SDG) (with reference to the above) in the following ways:

SDG goal 1 Poverty: Poverty is the one of the major push factors into the sex trade. Ending global poverty is an essential piece in ending sexual exploitation. As well tackling demand, The Nordic Model commits to offering exit programs that offer women in poverty real opportunities which is compatible with the SDG goal that “Governments can help create an enabling environment to generate productive employment and job opportunities for the poor and the marginalized. They can formulate strategies and fiscal policies that stimulate pro-poor growth, and reduce poverty.” [xviii]

SDG goal 4 Education: The Nordic Model focuses on exit strategies including access to education. Given the disproportionate representation of vulnerable groups in the sex trade, the Nordic Model is compatible with the goal to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.”[xix]

SDG goal 5 Gender Equality: “Worldwide, 35 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.”[xx] As mentioned above the figure for sexual assault almost doubles for those in the sex-trade. We have a responsibility, according to SDG5 to reduce the demand that propels that trade.

SDG goal 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: “Productive employment and “decent work” are key elements to achieving fair globalisation and poverty reduction”[xxi]. The provision of decent work is addressed by the three elements of the Nordic Model by ending demand for sexual exploitation, ensuring those exploited are not criminalised and by providing real alternatives.

SDG goal 10 Reduced Inequalities: “Ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard.”[xxii] Since the sex-trade disproportionately affects women in poverty, indigenous women and women of colour, equality of outcome is not compatible with prostitution considering the high levels of PTSD and violence inherent to the trade in sexual access to marginalsed women as discussed above. Legalisation of the sex-trade fosters demand and grows the industry with the detrimental effects of the most vulnerable. Tackling demand through the Nordic Model has been shown to reduce exploitation and trafficking.

SDG Goal 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: ““End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.”[xxiii] The Nordic Model has been shown to decrease trafficking, while decriminalisation has been shown to increase both legal and illegal trades. As well as the over-representation of indigenous women, the exploitation of children in prostitution has risen in New Zealand with the Prostitution Law Review Commission stating that “20% of street prostitutes and 8% of escort prostitutes are underage. Most coming from backgrounds of sexual abuse, drug taking and family dysfunction all abused drugs and most drank lots of alcohol when serving men. [xxiv]

Question 3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

CEDAW Article 5: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: a. to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women. [xxv]

Choice in prostitution belongs to the (usually male) buyer. This unequal power relation between men and women reflects a normalisation of sexual inequalities between men and women in wider society. Money replacing physical force as an instrument of coercion does not eliminate the fact that it is an act of sexual coercion. Prostitution does not exist in a vacuum. It represents a reiteration of patriarchal norms of male sexual primacy, entitlement, control over women’s bodies and dangerous gender role stereotypes.

Prostitution reaffirms these inequalities in society as a whole, not just for the individuals involved. Sex buying men are more likely to accept rape-myths and are more likely to have accepting attitudes towards violence against women. Peer pressure among men and the disconnection that men must achieve in order to buy a woman for sex contribute to the development and reinforcing of these attitudes of acceptance.[xxvi]

Policy is not just about legislating; it is also an act of communicating and implementing social norms. Legalising the purchase of sex has, in every country that has attempted it, expanded both legal and illegal trades. Increases in the trade have led to increases in incidences of harm drawing a direct correlation between harm and the sex-trade. So called ‘harm reduction models’ have been complicit in increasing harm in the following ways:


Money in exchange for sexual access is an instrument of sexual coercion, not consent. State sanctioning of that transaction is a statement of collusion with those who take advantage of structural, economic and social inequalities for the purposes of sexual exploitation and with those who profit from that exploitation. Reducing demand through the Nordic Model has been shown to disempower that instrument of coercion normatively and materially in both its frequency and intensity by reducing trafficking, abuse and the criminal viability of the sex-trade while offering genuine alternatives to those exploited in prostitution. It is the responsibility of both state and non-state actors, as well as international institutions to take a firm stand against the sexual objectification, commodification and exploitation of women (as shown in the statements referenced herein). It is essential that UN Women takes a lead role in this and officially adopts the Nordic Model as its prostitution policy.

Submission compiled by Tom Meagher on behalf of the Men’s Development Network/ White Ribbon Ireland.

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[iv] Farley M, Cotton A, Lynne J, Zumbeck S, Spiwak F, Reyes ME, et al. Prostitution and trafficking in nine

countries: an update on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. J Trauma Pract 2003;2:33-74.










[xi] Post D, Legalization Of Prostitution Is A Violation Of Human Rights 68 Nat’l Law. Guild Rev. 65 2011


[xiii] Post D, Legalization Of Prostitution Is A Violation Of Human Rights, Nat’l Law. Guild Rev. 65 2011

[xiv] Yonsei Med J, Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Mental Health in Women Who Escaped Prostitution and Helping Activists in Shelters, 49(3):372 – 382, 2008






















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