Why I Am No Longer an Abolitionist

Michelle Kelly
Mar 12 · 5 min read

This time last year, I was a prostitution abolitionist. Pro Sex Buyer Law (also known as the Nordic or End Demand Model, although this is misleading) and anti sex industry. It was something I had flirted with before, then stepped away from, then leaped into. I spoke at the CPHRC report launch last July that promoted an End Demand approach, wrote some articles on here and for the Telegraph, was asked to speak at various abolitionist and feminist conferences, and got a book deal.

Then I changed my mind. Before I explain why, I need to explain how I got there in the first place. I’m a survivor of abuse both within and without the industry. I was originally domestically trafficked at 21, then chose sex work at 29, largely due to a raging drug addiction, but also the debt and unemployment I had been left in after fleeing an abusive relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that having already experienced sexual abuse and trafficking it was easier for me to ‘numb out’ when having sex with clients, something I personally needed to do. When I shifted from escorting to porn work,I found this side of the industry to be horrifically exploitative. I finally left, in tatters, after being spiked and raped. It took two more years to get drug free.

So when I came across the ‘survivor’ movement, talking about experiences I recognized, it was like coming home. I finally felt able to share my experiences honestly and without feeling judged, shamed or as if I was titillating the listener. I accepted what I was told about the Nordic Model; that it was a framework which supported women and punished the perpetrators. And all buyers were perpetrators. I was encouraged to share and re-share and share again my trauma experiences (for no compensation, of course) to the point that I was a quivering wreck, angry at the world and thoroughly believed that women were doomed without the passing of a Sex Buyer Law, and anyone who said otherwise was part of the Big Pimp Conspiracy. Looking back it felt a little like joining a cult. I was saved! And I had a responsibility to save others.

I’m mortified, now, at the way I ignored the efforts of those who patiently tried to show me the documented evidence against the Nordic Model. That it not only doesn’t work (when has criminalizing anything ever gotten rid of it?)but that in areas where it has been passed, sex workers are suffering. That while sex workers aren’t prosecuted for selling sex, they can have their monies seized, be evicted, be harassed by police, be prosecuted for brothel-keeping just for working in a pair, and are still being stigmatized. Of course, I assumed there must be some mistake. Abolitionists informed me it was all false, that this was part of the ‘pro-lobby’ plan to legalize the exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable women (they routinely ignore the existence of male or GNC sex workers.) That terrified me. I started seeing bogeymen and pimps at every turn.

When I joined Twitter and was met with the inevitable trolling and doxxing, I believed the abolitionists even more. When sex worker activists accused me of lying or dismissed the abuse, and when I came across people denying that trafficking even exists, it was the evidence I needed.

But that wasn’t all that I experienced. I also spoke to people, mostly current sex workers, who took the time to politely point out that I was wrong. That the Nordic Model is making their lives harder and doing the exact opposite of helping those who want to exit to do so. That criminalizing sex work has never stopped trafficking. That I could think buying sex was mostly ethically wrong while admitting a Sex Buyer Law was in practice a terrible idea. I came across fantastic sex worker organisations that don’t glamorize the industry but insist on the recognition of the fact that consensual sex work exists, and if women are doing it because of addiction, poverty or homelessness then a Sex Buyer Law doesn’t remove any of those. Supply and demand is a two way street. They spoke against deportations of trafficking victims, bad housing and drugs policy and were fiercely anti-austerity. All things I passionately believe in.

So I started to listen, and to think more objectively about my own experiences. I also started to see a different side to the abolitionist movement. It is fueled primarily by right-wing religious movements and radical feminists, two groups I had never previously imagined finding anything to agree about. Most shockingly, I discovered the radical feminist survivors movement I had joined, and had been invited abroad to speak for, were linked to religious orders in Ireland that are connected to the infamous Magdalene Laundries. The same places that, in the name of rescuing ‘fallen’ women, abused and enslaved them. Not a good look. But when I questioned this, I was told it was ‘irrelevant.’

I was also unceremoniously dropped. No more speaking events, no more book endorsements. For rather gently questioning whether we shouldn’t start to move away from a model that all the available evidence said wasn’t working. I was also told that ‘yes, it will sting in the short-term but it’s worth it in the end’ by a prominent abolitionist, referring to the increased violence towards sex workers and continuing poverty propagated by the Nordic Model. That was the last straw for me. Throwing the very people you claim to care about under the bus in pursuit of an ideology it is not, in my book, okay. I was that woman eight years ago, and I’m ashamed at how easily I abandoned her.

I also witnessed an organisation that campaigns for the NM release statistics that they knew were false, because ‘it gets the message across.’ Was told by middle-class radical feminists who admitted never having spoken to a sex worker in their life that ‘prostitution harms all women,’ therefore passing laws that harm sex workers was justified. Was told that all sex work is rape, even if the sex worker assures us it isn’t. Not allowing women to say what is abuse and what is consent is dangerous. How does a sex worker report being raped if all sex work is rape?

Of course, this will all come as no surprise to current sex workers, who were trying to tell me this all along. But I hope other ‘survivors’ might allow themselves to come to their own conclusions, rather than being brainwashed. Because what I learned the hard way was that the abolitionists don’t care about our pain but use our trauma to serve their own agenda. The minute I questioned that agenda, I became the wrong sort of survivor.

I slunk off with my tail between my legs, feeling wounded and betrayed and angry at myself for being so gullible. I would have happily stayed there, but I still have a book to write and a story to tell, and therefore a chance to hopefully attempt to redress any harm I caused the first time around.

Say ‘No’ to the Nordic Model.

Michelle Kelly

Written by

Bestselling author. Former sex worker.

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