Former President Jimmy Carter Wrote a Bad Editorial About Sex Work and the 'Nordic Model'

Illustration for article titled Former President Jimmy Carter Wrote a Bad Editorial About Sex Work and the 'Nordic Model'

Former President Jimmy Carter is a humanitarian, a man of faith, an advocate for women’s rights, and an all-around likable former politician. Except when he writes about sex work, as he does periodically, where he promotes the so-called “Nordic Model,” even as Amnesty International and other human rights groups point out that it’s not working. Well, Carter has waded in there again, and it is bad.


Writing for the Washington Post, Carter editorialized that sex work is bad and oppressive. He’s against Amnesty International’s call to decriminalize all aspects of adult, consensual sex work, because he doesn’t think consensual sex work is real.

Some assert that this “profession” can be empowering and that legalizing and regulating all aspects of prostitution will mitigate the harm that accompanies it. But I cannot accept a policy prescription that codifies such a pernicious form of violence against women. Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.

(Emphasis mine.)

It’s curious to suggest that decriminalizing sex work would lead to a wholesale devaluation of womanhood, but other aspects of Carter’s argument aren’t new. He’s argued before in favor of the “Nordic Model,” sometimes also called the Swedish model, which suggest arresting “pimps” and people hiring sex workers, rather than sex workers themselves.

But Amnesty stopped supporting the Nordic model after doing something we’re not sure President Carter has ever tried: they talked to sex workers about it. From their Q&A on sex work policies:

Regardless of their intention, laws against buying sex and against the organisation of sex work can harm sex workers.

They often mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police.

For example, sex workers have told us about feeling pressured to visit customers’ homes so that buyers can avoid the police – meaning sex workers have less control and may have to compromise their safety.

Under the Nordic model, sex workers are still penalized for working together, or organizing, in order to keep themselves safe.

They can also face difficulties in securing accommodation as their landlords can be prosecuted for letting premises to them. This can lead to forced evictions of sex workers from their homes.


Carter is doubling down, though, arguing that decriminalization doesn’t just hurt sex workers; it hurts everybody, somehow, by devaluing the sex you’re having and the nature of sex itself:

Critics of the Nordic model assert that mature adults should be free to exchange money for sex. This argument ignores the power imbalance that defines the vast majority of sex-for-cash transactions, and it demeans the beauty of sexual relations when both parties are respected.

Sex between people who experience mutual enjoyment is a wonderful part of life. But when one party has power over another to demand sexual access, mutuality is extinguished, and the act becomes an expression of domination.


It’s fine to believe, in your private and presidential heart, that sex work “demeans” sex, or to have strong preferences and opinions about when and how other people should have sex. But in a world where men and women engage in sex work either by choice, for survival—or, most often, in a complicated mixture—Carter’s pet solution continues to be a dead end.

Carter in February 2016. Photo via AP

Anna Merlan was a Senior Reporter at G/O Media until September 2019. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.



I feel as though he’s coming from the right place. And unfortunately sex work is not something that has one easy answer. I fully support anyone who would CHOOSE this profession but the issue is that it is hard to separate those who didn’t from those who do. And keep people safe from being trafficked against their will. The whole thing is a mess and it should be well regulated and people should be kept safe.