Iceland has been hailed as ‘the most female-friendly country in the world’. It’s almost a feminist utopia – an almost perfectly gender-balanced parliament, excellent parental leave, and no strip clubs.
In 2010, legislation was passed making it illegal for a business to profit from the nudity of its employees, making strip clubs illegal. Buying sex was already illegal as of 2009, with the selling decriminalised.
“I guess the men of Iceland will just have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale.” It’s hard not to be won over by such emotive words from Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, an Icelandic campaigning organisation against sex work. I would love to live in a country without strip clubs, lapdancing or prostitution. I find them degrading and offensive. The idea that bodies (often women’s) can be bought, and the culture that has sprung up around that, is deeply harmful to all women.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that legislation of this nature is illiberal. Whose rights are being infringed by a cheap lapdance? Not the buyer – he’s paying for a service. If the lapdancer is providing that service willingly, and not being coerced into her work, then she’s not having her rights infringed either. There are sex workers who do it because they enjoy it – not because they are being coerced, or to pay for a drug habit. So why should we prevent them from doing their work?
It’s not that simple, of course. People are being forced into prostitution, through trafficking and addiction and that is not acceptable. But criminalising prostitution will just push it underground, putting already vulnerable sex workers in danger. As long as there is a demand for bought sex, there will always be someone desperate enough to supply it.
So let’s look at reducing the harms of prostitution, not at criminalising it. We need a sensible drugs policy to help people being driven to street prostitution by addiction. Let’s protect sex workers by getting them off the street and letting them work in places of safety, rather than keeping brothels illegal.
I won’t pretend that this solution addresses the issue that motivated Icelanders in the first place. Sex work degrades women, both individually and as a gender. But Liberalism means letting people make their own decisions. All we can do is ensure that those who engage in sex work do it because they want to, not because they have to. I hope that one day, I will live in a society without prostitution – not because it is illegal, but because women have decided that they are not for sale.