Arguing about the Nordic Model and family court

This is another repost of an email I sent to the PAR-L listserv, an email discussion list for feminists in Canada. The post I was responding to denied that the continued criminalization of sex work in Sweden had anything to do with the murder of sex worker Petite Jasmine by her ex-husband, who was awarded custody of their children because the woman, as a sex worker, was considered unfit to parent. The post I was responding to was written by a Quebecois translator and “radical feminist” [1] Nordic Model advocate named Martin Dufresne:

“It’s so much better for prostitutes in Sweden, where they aren’t criminalized, isn’t it?”

I don’t understand the point of Nicole’s [a previous poster who sent out the Rose Alliance’s statement on the murder with the above as the subject line] sarcasm here? Her barb seems to be putting down Sweden’s decriminalization of prostituted women, the point on which feminist abolitionists and sexual libertarians agree in this realm? Attempting to “spin” a woman’s murder in support of a political agenda is always chancy at best. But in this case, it just doesn’t make sense. Ms. Jasmine was murdered in the name of male entitlement, in this case her ex-husband’s feeling of entitlement to her children. How could even *more* male entitlement, that to paid sex on demand and profiting from the sale of women (the current sex-libertarian agenda), be part of the solution? That *is* the issue on which we differ.

Also, Nicole suggests that Ms. Jasmine was necessarily denied justice by Sweden’s child protection system. There is no way we can determine that sight unseen from afar, but how could *less* care and justice (insisting that her living conditions be completely kept out of the psychosocial assessment?) then be part of the solution?

To which I answered (against my better judgement, as usual — it is one of my life goals to stop arguing about prostitution on this listserv):

This, as far as I can tell, is the logic of the Nordic Model at work. While Petite Jasmine herself was “decriminalized,” her life was still criminal in the eyes of the family court, still regulated by criminal law. Though she was not at risk of being jailed, she was still on the wrong side of the law. What I have read on the case says that the family court explicitly cited her “self harm” by doing sex work and sex work advocacy as evidence that she was an unfit parent. 

Because that law says prostitution is a harmful behaviour, she was deemed unfit to raise her children — less fit, even, than the man who had abused her.

Because she had already been deemed unfit as a mother and unreliable as a witness, the police did not take her complaints of further abuse and stalking seriously.
Because her custody arrangements kept her in contact with her ex-husband, he had the opportunity to murder her.

This isn’t an unfamiliar or even an unusual story of violence against women. It is the same old story: give a misogynist justice system an excuse, and it will further the oppression of women (and queers, racialized people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities… all the people overrepresented in sex work populations, actually). In this case, the continued criminalization of sex work, if not of the sex worker herself, was the excuse.

Whether the law criminalizing male clients of sex workers is intended to offer “care and justice” or not, the family court’s consideration of this woman’s sex work, as an excuse to hand her children over to a violent man, shows no such thing. The removal of children from women who do sex work is real — in Canada, too — and it causes real immediate and intergenerational trauma, real legal costs, real hopelessness, real structural oppression as a part of a system that renders poor women, Indigenous women, women who use drugs and others as a class unfit to parent.

Any policy model surrounding prostitution is going to have holes, failures, places where the rest of society desperately needs to change if the model is to be successful. This is one place where the Nordic Model fails: where its logic, put into practice within and by a misogynist system, leads to failure. If you are advocating for the implementation of this model in Canada, then you should be thinking seriously about what needs to change here to prevent the same kind of failure.

For my own part, I think the Nordic Model has too many such holes — because it relies on a hostile state to “protect” prostitutes — to be defensible. I gather that you disagree and that is fine. But I don’t think we can pretend this is a case of “care and justice” shown in considering a woman’s sex work against her in a family court case.

This is where the Nordic Model really doesn’t cut it for me — where are the solutions to problems like this one? We can’t just re-start in an egalitarian society because a law says (some) people can’t buy sex. The rest of our social, legal and economic systems are designed to make sure criminal law harms those who are already marginalized and oppressed — if they weren’t, then the existing laws criminalizing the buyers’ roles in prostitution would have done the trick. Those laws aren’t getting anyone out of sex work, willingly or unwillingly, and aren’t making life any better for people who continue to do sex work. A new one won’t work either. All it will do is provide an excuse for the existing justice system to keep on keeping on with violence and oppression.


This has turned into an ongoing argument. My life goal is pretty much out the window now. (I had not intended to write about this at all, since I am so far removed from it and did not feel right doing so, but one ends up feeling less removed when it gets debated by advocates of this poisonous policy at home.)

For those missing the action, there has been an exchange questioning whether the worker’s reports on her custody situation were true and pointing out that custody cases are determined in the “best interests of the child.” Also, this (from Martin again):

It’s also true that mothers are denied custody and even access to their children for a host of reasons, many of them bad, but only a case-by-case analysis can determine whether the children’s interest is indeed an issue in each specific case. The abuse of children in prostitution environments is, in fact, a documented reality. Yes, it’s a tragedy that violent men are often given access or custody; but this denial of protection and justice happens equally to the children of women who don’t prostitute. It is predicated on *men’s* rights.

Whores: you have been told. For those of you who are selling sex to feed and house your kids, stop right this second. It’s not like this one guy is the only one saying awful things, but there is something about him that gets to me in a way most other posters do not and makes me forget my most important life goals. It’s the tone, the self-righteousness, and the fact that men will be welcome to tell me what to do and how to think sometime around fucking never.

Still, I responded to an earlier post by someone else about the “best interests of the child” and tried to dial down the anger a bit.

The “best interests of the child” get skewed by patriarchal court systems in general and in cases in which domestic violence is alleged in particular. I would go a step further and imagine that being labelled a “whore” does not help. See, for example,

The ultimate decision about what happens to disputes before the family court rests with a judge who hears the evidence and determines the validity of the allegations of abuse and what arrangement is in the best interests of the children. To some extent, all family court court-related professionals, including custody evaluators, lawyers, judges, and mediators, are involved in a process—whether it is formal or informal—of gathering and weighing relevant information about the individual parents and children in a dispute. To understand the context for this process, it is important to understand the current climate in the family courts (Jaffe & Crooks, 2004). Family court judges generally want cases settled in a cost-efficient and timely manner by pre-court interventions, such as mediation and settlement conferences. Judges often encourage parents to cooperate with each other, suggesting that this is synonymous with the promotion of their children’s best interests. Lawyers for parents (and for children in those jurisdictions that provide them) also generally tell parents that they will save money and better serve the interests of their children by settling their cases without the expense and emotional bitterness associated with litigation. Conventional wisdom and legislation in the divorce field suggests that the “friendly parent” (i.e., the parent who is best able to promote a relationship between the child[ren] and the other parent) is more appropriate for a custodial role. Unfortunately, the friendly parent concept can be misleading in cases where the lack of “friendliness,” that is, an unwillingness to promote a relationship with the other parent, is due to fears resulting from abusive and violent behavior (Dore, 2004).

Domestic violence allegations raised in the context of parental separation are often met with skepticism and a concern that the allegation is being utilized to limit the involvement of the other parent, especially if there has not been significant police and criminal justice system involvement. The making of abuse allegations can be a double-edged sword for abuse victims. If the allegations are proven on the preponderance of evidence, the victim and her children may find a degree of safety, with recent legal reforms and improvements in community resources providing a greater degree of safety than in the past. However, if the allegations appear unfounded and are considered by the judge to have been made maliciously, the abuse victim may lose custody. In some of these cases, mothers are accused of willful alienation of the children against their father. Alienation has even been labeled as a syndrome, although there is no research to support the reliability and validity of this as a syndrome or clinical diagnosis (e.g., Meier, 2009). While alienation of children from one parent as a result of the hostility of the other is a legitimate concern and may warrant court intervention, unfounded allegations of parental alienation are often put forward by abusive fathers; custody evaluators and courts must always consider whether a child’s resistance to visitation is a result of a child’s fears due to abuse or witnessing abuse of a parent (Fidler, Bala, Birnbaum, & Kavassalis, 2008).

Prior to her death, Jasmine’s writing on what happened reported that the court weighed his abuse against her sex work and decided she was the less fit parent. I see no reason not to believe her, and, like Esther, I question the reluctance of other feminists to believe her — we know cops don’t take crimes against sex workers seriously. We know that women reporting demostic abuse are not believed, especially when custody of chidlren is at stake. Weknow that abuse rarely ends with separation and that children can be used by an abusive man to maintain access to his victim. We know that patriarchal states, like the one feminists had to “wrestle” the resources for the Nordic Model away from, assist in the victimization of vulnerable people. So why don’t we believe this victim?

I do not believe, as Martin appears to, that sex working women are more likely to abuse their children (or to take them into “prostitution environments” where they will be abused) and thus deserve to lose custody, or that the awarding of custody to an abusive man in this case is an exceptional tragedy. I believe this is a part of a larger form of myth-making that considers low-class and racialized women morally bankrupt and presumes they are unable to raise children properly. It is victim-blaming at its finest, in all its systemic glory. I see no reason to hesitate or qualify when I say that it is unjust.

I wholeheartedly agree that this is a problem that comes up in fully decriminalized environments and in criminalized environments. My question is: what would a policy model look that that actually prevented the removal of children from women who do sex work — that not only did not hold people doing sex work to be criminals, but also supported them as parents? (Presuming the revolution isn’t on its way, I like the “Merseyside Model,” which treats crimes against sex workers as hate crimes, while making available resources similar to the ones proposed for the Nordic Model.)


[1] Oops, he’s proféministe. I changed it for accuracy’s sake, but please don’t comment here any more, Martin.


  1. Mike Ballard

    Find a need a fill it. This has been the commodity trader’s maxim since the birth of trade in commodities began. Class society is erected on this principle, the principle of commodity ownership and trade. The community is class divided and in the case of Sweden, the class domination favours the capitalists and landlords who make their politicians pass the laws which the State they dominate hires armed humans to enforce–for wages, of course. The Puritan moralist radical liberals see a need to criminalise pleasure wherever they see it. Patriarchal political power is embedded with the Puritan moralist desire to honour the monogamous family, private property and the State.

    Thanks. I’ll share this little know tragedy on my Facebook page.

    • sarah m

      I appreciate the sentiment, but this seems a bit imprecise–I’m not sure just throwing adjectives at the other side really captures what’s wrong with their politics (and “radical” and “liberal,” in political terms, are contradictory).

      The law criminalizing the purchase of sex in Sweden was written as a “feminist” law. It is written, its proponents say, not to criminalize pleasure, but to criminalize male entitlement to access to women’s bodies: that can only be called pleasure if only men’s pleasure counts. The case here is yet more evidence of the law’s failure to address the equity issues sex workers face–some of them, as women.

      My problem with proponents of this law calling themselves “radical” is not that they’re radicals, but rather that in my opinion they are not. It does not address the roots of patriarchy and it does not implement systemic change. Instead it relies on patriarchal systems to protect people from other patriarchal systems. The problem is not that the state has interfered with the worker’s access to “pleasure”–it’s that it has used whatever excuses available to it to interfere with her access to safety.

  2. everydaywhorephobia

    Also it is important to remember that sex work was legal in Sweden, it didnt decriminalize it, the position for independent sex workers was the same as it is in Canada now. This lie is put about by the antis. They criminlized it by association

  3. sarah m

    In Canada, while exchanging sex for money is not itself illegal, “keeping a common bawdy house” and “communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution” are. Most prostitution-related arrests in Canada are of outdoor workers for communicating. I don’t know what the laws in Sweden were like before the “Swedish Model” was invented, but the situation in Canada right now is one of criminalization of workers. While the adoption of the Nordic Model would be a change inasmuch as there would be a whole new law actually related to the sale of sex itself, it would also be an improvement on the current laws, since right now sex workers *are* criminalized (for doing the things we need to do to sell sex, if not for selling sex itself) and under the Nordic Model we would not be.

    But–and this is a big, important “but”–the Nordic Model would not be sufficient improvement because it would not sufficiently address the injustices sex workers have to deal with. Clients trying to have sex with us is not high on the list of most sex workers’ complaints. Having their kids stolen by the state, sadly, is. If the Nordic Model were adopted here, it would replace one kind of criminalization that makes sex workers’ lives worse with another — there is no substantive decriminalization in Canada as yet.

  4. Norma Jean Almodovar

    Not to mention, it changes nothing when it comes to abuse by police officers- instead of threatening to arrest us if we don’t comply with their demands for ‘free samples’- they threaten to arrest OUR clients if we don’t comply with their demands. And given the number of reported violent rapes and sexual assaults where the rape kit isn’t even tested (at least here in the US) – because there are insufficient resources- why would it be rational or in the best interests of all the women in our communities to spend scarce resources to pursue, arrest, prosecute and punish the non violent, non abusive clients, employers and associates of sex workers who have not filed a complaint of a crime committed by said non violent, non abusive clients?

  5. Pingback: APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Ruth Jacobs
  6. Pingback: APPG on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade Report “Shifting the Burden” Increases Violence Against Women | Soul Destruction
  7. Pingback: They Shoot Hookers Don’t They?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s