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The Victorian Liberal Party’s state council has, ahead of this year’s election, endorsed the ‘Nordic model’ to transform sex work laws, but European experiences suggest it can have devastating consequences for workers. By Kate Iselin.

Liberal Party endorses ‘Nordic model’

Sex workers in Paris demonstrate last month for a repeal of “Nordic model” laws.
Credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

When Milan Stamenkovic opened his business 20 years ago, he saw a gap in the market. Not just because he felt he could use his decades of experience in the corporate world to bring a fresh and professional perspective to a new industry, but because up until that point, there were almost no businesses of the same kind operating legally within Victoria. “We wanted to fulfil what I call the ‘success triangle’,” he says. “If we have really good employees, we’ll have really good service providers, and because of that we’ll attract really good clients. We simply ran the business as a business, and from maybe the tenth day of operation onwards, we just kept growing and growing.”

Milan is the owner of The Boardroom, a legal brothel located just outside Melbourne’s central business district. About the same time as he was seeking a change from his prior work in the corporate world, the state of Victoria made legal the operating of brothels and escort agencies with the Sex Work Act of 1994. Milan jumped at the chance to enter the industry.

“The Boardroom generally attracts respectful clients,” he says. “From the moment they walk in they realise it’s a good-looking, professional environment. It’s not a bar, it’s not a place for rowdiness – although it’s certainly a place for sensuality and fun – and their behaviour and attitudes are influenced by that environment.”

He’s right. The Boardroom really is a nice-looking place. I know, because I used to work there. I was a service provider at The Boardroom for almost two years, and more recently, when Milan saw my name pop up in the byline of some news articles about sex work, he called me and asked me to do some copywriting for him. When the Victorian Liberal Party state council recently moved to endorse the “Nordic model” of sex work legislation, as a way to combat illegal brothels operating in Victoria, Milan was one of the first people I thought to speak to.

The Nordic model – so named because it has been implemented in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Iceland, as well as Northern Ireland and France – has been alternately hailed as the solution to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation and condemned for driving the sex industry underground and forcing its workers away from the protection of law enforcement. Under the Nordic model, the illegality of sex work is directed to the consumer rather than the provider. It is not illegal to be an individual sex worker; it’s against the law to engage the services of a sex worker, regardless of how well meaning the client or empowered the worker. It’s also illegal to operate a brothel or an escort service.

Over email, I spoke to shadow minister for consumer affairs Heidi Victoria, who correctly pointed out that resolutions of state council are not binding on the parliamentary Liberal Party. But still, as a sex worker, even the thought of my home state operating under the Nordic model is something that brings up feelings of anger and terror. Anger at the way it makes me feel to be referred to as a prostituted woman rather than simply an adult who made a choice to do sex work, and terror for the friends I’ve worked alongside, who would be losing their jobs and income under the model.

My decision to enter the industry was mine and mine alone, and while I’ve certainly had to follow some workplace rules while at The Boardroom and other brothels – arrive on time, keep the space neat and clean, no alcohol or drugs allowed on shift – I’ve never been made to do anything I didn’t want to do. The world envisioned by proponents of the Nordic model feels far too close to Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale: slatternly girls forced to reform and taken into the bosom of women who simply Know Better.

Jules Kim, the chief executive of sex workers association Scarlet Alliance, says the Nordic model could have a catastrophic impact on the adult industry in Victoria. “There has been a lot said about the Nordic model decreasing the size of the sex industry while supporting the rights of sex workers, but we know that the Nordic model criminalises all of the support structures around sex workers,” Kim says. “We have spoken to workers in Sweden who’ve told us that working under the Nordic model has made them incredibly lonely and isolated: people are afraid to rent them houses or even be their friends because anyone who associates with a sex worker or provides them support is at risk of being criminalised. We’ve even seen adult children charged with pimping because they live off the earnings of a sex worker, or sex workers charged with pimping each other because they work together.”

In a recent study of more than 580 sex workers in France, 63 per cent reported that they had experienced a deterioration in living conditions, including negative psychological effects, since the introduction of the Nordic model. Almost half of the respondents had been more exposed to violence than before the law’s introduction.

As for whether the Nordic model would effectively combat illegal brothels, Kim sees it as doing the opposite: creating illegal brothels rather than shutting them down. “When you criminalise all aspects of sex work it, by nature, creates an illegal sex industry.”

Still, the issue of brothels operating outside of the law is one that continues to vex Milan, who, in operating within Victorian law, is unable to expand The Boardroom beyond the existing six rooms it is legally allowed to have.

“I’m not scared of competition, but I am concerned about competition that undermines the good standards we’ve set,” he says. “There are illegal brothels within a small radius of us who pick up the business that we’re unable to handle because of our size, while we pay taxes as a legal adult business. They don’t adhere to the health or safety regulations in place for brothels because they’re not registered as a brothel, even though they operate as one. If we have so much as a sign missing from a wall in one of our rooms we can face a fine, but an illegal brothel will never have to worry about that.”

A necessary prerequisite to supporting the Nordic model is to believe that sex work should not exist because it is by nature exploitative, unseemly, or challenging to one’s personal beliefs about the nature of sex and the exchange of labour for personal gain. It’s interesting to note that no one has ever suggested a similar model of legislation to combat exploitation in other industries. There is no punishment being considered for all consumers of fruits and vegetables to combat agricultural slavery, no penalties for those who elect to wear clothes despite the prevalence of sweatshop labour in the garment industry.

If sex work has affected my life negatively at all, it has not been through the motions of work itself. The clients I’ve seen have been at worst forgettable, and at best kind and generous men seeking sex, fun and company, and who’ve treated me well in return. A select handful of them, I’m still in touch with – some send me emails of congratulations when they see I’ve had something published.

It’s the stigma attached to sex work that has affected me the most. Not just the fear that came with revealing my work to my family, or the nerves that accompany having “the talk” with a romantic partner, but the reality that there are people out there far more powerful than I may ever be, who can legislate me into victimhood because of their own views of my job. Whether it’s the imaginary evil pimp who controls my every move or the politician who believes they know what’s best for me more than I do, the narrative with which they regard me will never be my own until I’m allowed to define it, on my own terms, and in the eye of the law.

“When I look back over the history of The Boardroom, we’ve had service providers who’ve ranged from 18 years of age into their mid 40s,” Milan reflects. “We’ve had them working with us while they complete degrees in law, medicine, accounting, nursing … Often, they’re making more from their work with us than they are in entry-level roles after they finish their degrees. No matter what happens with the economy or the state, there will always be a need for the service that a brothel provides and the goal for us is to maintain the standards of that service and that level of professionalism and care that we built the business on.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "Modelling error". Subscribe here.

Kate Iselin
is a Sydney-based writer. Her memoir, Naked Ambition, is forthcoming.