Last night Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party responded to a comment by a sex worker on twitter by calling her a “sex bot”. For Walker to disparage and dehumanise sex workers in that way is sickening. Is the Women’s Equality Party not for equality and respect for all women, whatever our occupation?
Slurs from a woman in Walker’s position are an invitation to others to abuse and insult us. We are already vulnerable to rape and other violence because of our illegal status. We suffer arrest, imprisonment, exploitation, extortion, and discrimination. Women of colour, migrant and trans women are most likely to be targeted. We face saturation policing and no protection. As a sex worker from Leeds said “”The laws are pointing at us and saying, ‘Nobody cares about you.”
Some commentators on twitter rightly point to rising poverty and the impact of austerity on women as the reason that so many of us go into prostitution to feed ourselves and our families. Walker glibly dismisses this. But this is a crucial question. Four million children are living in poverty (which means that their mothers are distraught and devastated) 1.25 million people in the UK are officially destitute and women seeking asylum are scraping by on £36 a week. Approximately 90% of sex workers are women and the majority are mothers, mostly single mums. If prostitution policy and law was framed by these facts we’d get support for mothers and anti-austerity policies not more criminalisation.
There is nothing in the WEP manifesto against benefit sanctions, recognised as being directly responsible for pushing more women into sex work. Doncaster reports a 60% increase, Sheffield 166%, while charity workers in Hull report: “ . . . women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves.”
Walker claims that “demand” is a “root cause” of prostitution and advocates the criminalisation of clients as a solution. Walker cites a change in the law in Ireland as an example of success. Yet attacks on sex workers in Ireland have increased since the law was brought in. Campaigns to criminalise clients have been spearheaded by an “unlikely union of evangelical Christians and feminist campaigners”.
In comparison, decriminalisation, introduced in New Zealand in 2003 has increased sex workers’ safety and welfare with over 90% of sex workers said decriminalisation gave them additional employment, legal, health and safety rights. Many (64.8%) found it easier to refuse clients and 70% reported that since decriminalisation they were more likely to report incidents of violence to the police.
WEP should pay attention to the prestigious Home Affairs Committee which in 2017 recommended the government:
“ . . . change existing legislation so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises” and that legislation should be drafted to provide for the “deletion of previous convictions and cautions for prostitution from the record of sex workers.”
And to Amnesty International’s impressive body of evidence and recommendation that governments repeal laws that criminalise “the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for remuneration” and provide resources so that those of us who want to leave prostitution can do so.
Walker joins with those who use the public’s understandable concern about trafficking to justify increased police powers against sex workers. Fabricated figures our briefing have been used to mislead and misinform. In reality, anti-trafficking policies have been used primarily to target migrant sex workers for raids, arrests and deportations. These injustices are best expressed by our sisters in Empower, Thailand:
“We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of “protection against trafficking”.
If the Women’s Equality Party is to have any credibility among grassroots women it has to address its elitism and prejudice. Times are changing and the WEP is being left behind. The demand for the ‘feminism of the 99%’ of the International Women’s Strike opened the way for us to be able to forge a feminism that attacks the violence and immorality of poverty not the ways in which the impoverished find to survive, that sides with sex workers against the police and with “bad” women against bad laws.