A ban on paying for sex according to the Nordic model: opportunities and risks

A debate is currently ongoing in Germany over whether a ban should be imposed on paying for sex, under what is often referred to as the “Nordic model”. This would make it possible in future for the people using the services of prostitutes to be fined, rather than the prostitutes themselves. While there are a number of reasons why such a move would be favourable, it has also sparked criticism from several sides.


A ban on paying for sex could – in theory – make it possible to end the exploitation and bad working conditions suffered by sex workers, without them slipping into illegality themselves. If paying for prostitution becomes illegal, fewer will use the service. And that makes a country with a ban on paying for sex less attractive to people traffickers. The Nordic model was first introduced in Sweden back in 1999, since when it has been adopted in another countries, including France, Ireland and Norway. As well as the ban, Sweden offers support to anyone wishing to escape prostitution. So far, however, Austria has not yet discussed the Nordic model widely.


The Austrian initiative “Stopp Sexkauf” is dedicated to the ban on paying for sex. A range of different feminist groupings, including lightup, SOLWODI Österreich and the Verein feministischer Diskurs, make up part of the initiative. According to the initiative, a ban should be designed to end the physical abuse to which prostitutes are frequently subjected. Wherever you find prostitution, you will also find organised crime, Susanne Riegler, co-founder and speaker of the initiative, said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung. Opponents of the ban, however, often argue that it is women themselves who wish to decide what happens to their bodies. Riegler does not believe this argument holds water; only a tiny minority of women would decide to enter prostitution themselves. In many cases, therefore, control over one’s own body doesn’t just lie with the women themselves; rather, they are forced into prostitution by external circumstances.


Despite all this, a ban on paying for sex has also come in for criticism. The professional association representing sex workers, for example, argues that for many women, sex work is often the only way to earn any money. A ban, therefore, would also take this option away from them. As well as this, the professional association fears that prostitution will simply be shifted back into the shadows and illegality after the ban. Once there, it becomes impossible to carry out checks for her benefit – and attacks on prostitutes could even increase as a result. Instead of a ban, the professional association is demanding more laws designed to improve the working conditions of the prostitutes. Exactly how to check such laws are being observed, however, remains unclear.


Another argument against a ban on paying for sex comes from the care sector. “Sexual companions”, also referred to as assistants, provide sexual services for anyone restricted in their ability to enjoy their sexuality due to physical or mental impairments, old age or other reasons. These services are generally tolerated by society. It is difficult to draw a definitive line here, however: when is it no longer acceptable for prostitution to be used? As people who have no sexual partners for other reasons, for example, do people with physical disabilities no longer have a right to sexual services? Stopp Sexkauf draws the line at sexual companionship: “Nobody has a right to be provided with sex,“ Riegler believes.

It’s difficult, therefore, to reach a conclusive decision for or against imposing a ban on the sale of sex. The most important thing is that the debate should also be had Austrian politics and society – and that those active in prostitution themselves play a key role in that debate. Only then can the actual problems and challenges involved in sex work be recognised, and a solution found which will really benefit those at the sharp end in the industry. 

Translation by Tim Martinz-Lywood, European Exchange Ltd.