The Swedish Model vs. the Nevada Model

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In this short documentary, Reason profiles the Moonlite BunnyRanch, a brothel located in one of Nevada’s isolated counties—the only places in the U.S. where prostitution is legal and regulated:

Any thoughts on the Nevada model discussed in the video? This part of the Wiki page stood out:

The Nevada brothel system has been criticized by activists in the sex worker rights movement, who are otherwise supporters of full decriminalization of prostitution [41][42] for three reasons: [43]

  • the licensing requirements create a permanent record which can lead to discrimination later on;
  • the large power difference between brothel owner and prostitute gives prostitutes very little influence over their working conditions;
  • while prostitutes undergo legal and health background checks, their customers do not; the regulations are thus designed to protect customers, not prostitutes.

The latest reader to say hello@:

In the context of this debate, I think we need to remember that not everything we disapprove of needs to be illegal. For example, there is widespread societal disapproval of adultery outside the context of e.g. open relationships (disapproval of other people’s adultery, at least!), but it’s not illegal.   

Also, behavior that’s harmful to those voluntary participants isn’t necessarily illegal. Someone drinking themselves blackout drunk every night is certainly harmful to the drinker, but unless they do something that harms someone else, it’s not illegal.

I think the question is whether making something illegal is an effective and appropriate way of dealing with a situation that we disapprove of or is harmful to the participants. The Swedish model seems to be based on a feeling that we disapprove of buying sex more than selling it because the former is seen as exploitative, and maybe that’s a correct analysis of the situation. But is the Swedish model an *effective* way of decreasing this exploitation relative to legalizing or decriminalizing both the sale and the purchase?  

Some analyses mentioned in earlier notes seem to suggest that it isn’t. If decriminalizing both buying and selling turns out to be empirically better for prostitutes than the Swedish model, then I’d argue that by adopting the Swedish model, we’d be hurting prostitutes for the sake of sending the message that we think buying sex is bad.

Similarly, the question of whether some (adult) prostitutes are being harmed by the act of selling sex is certainly important when considering whether buying and/or selling sex should be illegal, but it’s not the only thing to consider. We need to again ask ourselves what is the most effective way of helping the people who are being harmed, and experience has shown that making various forms of self-harm—be it drinking, drugs, or whatnot—illegal isn’t always the best way to help the person in question. Again, are prostitutes better off under the Swedish model than under legalization/decriminalization of both the buying and the selling?  That’s an empirical question, and if the answer is “no,” it seems hard to argue that our concern for the well-being of prostitutes should lead us to favor a model that leaves then worse off than the alternatives.

Another reader, Peter Schafer, touches on several of the same themes highlighted in the brothel video from Reason:

Besides being able to make a decent living to support themselves and their families, the sex workers I met in the Dominican Republic are primarily concerned with safety and good working conditions. That’s why most choose to work in brothels as opposed to finding dates in bars.

One of the women I became friends with later worked in a brothel in Curacao on a three-month contract and she talks about how this particular place stood apart from other places she has worked: All clients have to present their passport to be photocopied; there is an alarm button in all rooms to call security; and there is a driver to take and pick up workers from outcalls, which has its supervision purposes but also helps ensure worker safety. This is what full decriminalization can look like. I think the photocopying of the passport is a pretty key deterrent for abusive behavior, and that is something impossible under sex buyer criminalization schemes like the Swedish model.

But brothels are often made illegal even when other aspects of prostitution are decriminalized, with the assumption they are inherently exploitative. If two sex workers share a flat for security and mutual support, that is considered an illegal brothel under the Swedish model. And where my friend worked in Curacao, the driver who provided her security (and, in effect, earns his living off of prostitution) would be considered a pimp and therefore outlawed under the Swedish model. So it’s complicated and important to talk to sex workers in order to understand how their world works so that efforts to help and protect them don't actually harm and endanger them.