Governing in the Name of Caring—the Nordic Model of Prostitution and its Punitive Consequences for Migrants Who Sell Sex

  • Niina VuolajärviEmail author


This article examines the so-called “Nordic model” in action. Using feminist argumentation, the model aims to abolish commercial sex by criminalizing the buying of sexual services while not criminalizing the selling, as the aim is to protect, rather than punish, women. Utilizing over 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork and 195 interviews in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, this article argues that in a situation where the majority of people who sell sex in the region are migrants, the regulation of commercial sex has shifted from prostitution to immigration policies, resulting in a double standard in the governance of national and foreign sellers of sexual services. Client criminalization has a minor role in the regulation of commercial sex in the area, and instead, migrants become targets of punitive regulation executed through immigration and third-party laws. Nationals are provided social welfare policies to assist exit from commercial sex such as therapeutic counseling, whereas foreigners are excluded from state services and targeted with punitive measures, like deportations and evictions. My fieldwork reveals a tension between the stated feminist-humanitarian aims of the model, to protect and save women, and the punitivist governance of commercial sex that in practice leads to control, deportations, and women’s conditions becoming more difficult. The article concludes that when examined in action, the Nordic model is a form of humanitarian governance that I call punitivist humanitarianism, or governing in the name of caring.


Client criminalization Sex work Prostitution Prostitution policies Humanitarianism Migration Nordic model End demand Sweden 



I am grateful to all the individual participants and organizations that contributed to the research. I would also like to express my warm thanks to Isabel Crowhurst, Ida Kock, Jukka Könönen, and Petra Östergren for their insightful comments on the earlier drafts. Finally, I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and comprehensive comments.

Funding information

This study was funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of Interest

Author Niina Vuolajärvi has received research grants from the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Scandinavian Research Council of Criminology. Author Niina Vuolajärvi declares that she has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

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