Jimmy Carter's "Nordic Solution" to prostitution

I’m not sure when this popped up as a top tier issue in the 2016 campaign, but Jimmy Carter (?!) has jumped into the fray to offer a solution to the world’s oldest profession. Yep… the former president is chiming in on getting rid of prostitution. This will be a neat trick since it shows up in the writings of virtually every society with a written language and predates pretty much every bit of history we can find, including the Bible. Still, since he’s taken the time to tackle this one, let’s give it a look.

Carter begins with an acknowledgement that women who sell sex for a living should not be prosecuted. Instead, the way to get rid of this scourge on society is to only arrest the men who patronize them. (Washington Post)

In my 2014 book “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power,” I described the approach known as the “Nordic model,” which is consistent with advancing human rights and healthy societies. Pioneered in Sweden and adopted most recently in Canada and France, this strategy involves decriminalizing prostituted women and offering them housing, job training and other services. Instead of penalizing the victims, however, the approach treats purchasing and profiting from sex acts as serious crimes. Another key component is public education about the inherent harms of prostitution for those whose bodies are sold.

In Sweden, demand for prostitution has fallen dramatically under this model. Conversely, Germany and New Zealand, which have legalized all aspects of prostitution, have seen an increase in sex trafficking and demand for sexual services.

Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.

While I admittedly wasn’t previously familiar with the “Nordic Model” in this debate, I don’t think the general outlines of how we approach it in the United States have changed much recently. Personally, I find this to be yet another issue where my inner, small “L” libertarian comes out of hiding. It’s foolish to assume that every woman who is out there selling sex is doing it because it was her chosen profession and she likes to sleep in late on weekdays, but there are clearly some who fall into that category and a few who find it lucrative. For those (who have other options but choose to do it anyway), I say go right ahead. This is America… make a buck however you choose and if you’re not harming anyone else the government should leave you alone.

Other women are doing it for one of several reasons, broken down into what I’m sure are three overly generalized categories:

  1. They have run out of other options and are doing it out of desperation
  2. They may be suffering from either drug addiction or mental illness and have fallen into a trap of sorts
  3. They may be actual hostages of pimps and sex traffickers and are essentially being held in slavery

We absolutely could use more community outreach for the women in category 1 to find ways for them to get better employment. This can be a combination of local government/law enforcement efforts with private charities. Similar outreach is needed to rescue those in category 2 and get them some medical help leading to job training. For those in category 3 we need to identify them and execute their pimps in the public square to disincentivize the practice.

The major shortcoming of Carter’s approach, as noble, moral and Biblical as it might sound, is that it doesn’t work very well in the context of our legal system. If the selling of sex is to remain illegal (which it probably shouldn’t) then both the buyer and the seller are at fault. Plenty of poor people have taken up selling drugs out of desperation, addiction or a lack of other options, I’m sure, but we don’t simply lock up the buyers and send the dealers on their way. Something is either legal or it’s not. And what of the (admittedly extremely rare) cases of the gigolos who service women? Do we bust the client in that case as well and let the man sail off to his next appointment? This approach makes no sense.

Assuming you can, or would even want to completely criminalize and attempt to eliminate prostitution there’s got to be a better path than the one suggested by President Carter. But, again… good luck with that. No nation in history has managed to figure out that puzzle yet.