“#MeToo means standing by the most marginalised. It is time to end prostitution,” declared Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party. Fresh from winning the leadership contest to secure her position in the 30-month-old party, Walker announced its core policy to introduce a Sex Buyer Law in Britain that would make buying sex a crime.
Like much of the developments around F1’s grid girls and the #NoMorePage3 campaign, Walker’s actioning of #MeToo, was more of a signalling of #YouToo, campaigning to restrict the rights of other women for the sake of their liberation. Had she examined various sex workers’ takes on the same concerns, her solution wouldn’t be to seek to cut off their livelihoods.
I love my job. I’m respected, paid well & proud to represent the team I’m working for. It’s not right for anyone, let alone ‘feminists’ to judge our job when quite frankly they are putting so many women out of work. Where is the equality & empowerment here? #GridGirls #F1 💛🏁 pic.twitter.com/ookyjB1A8Q
— Lucy Stokes (@LucyStokes_) January 31, 2018
While it took an army of Hollywood actresses to galvanise their movement, sex workers had for decades risked their lives to articulate a far more robust concept of #MeToo, rallying against the state, law enforcement, the criminal justice system and on-the-job violence. But as the state evolves progressively, advocates increasingly find themselves up against middle-class feminists.
Walker alludes to lax laws on prostitution being responsible for organised child sexual exploitation; “Where no-one has yet provided an answer to why Telford, Rochdale, Oxford and other massive cases of organised sexual abuse of vulnerable girls keep happening; but men’s right to access the inside of a woman for orgasm whenever they wish is never questioned,” seemingly oblivious to the well-documented aspects of racialism (on the part of the perpetrators and their victims as well as the police and social services) that fuelled the epidemic.
What Walker gets right is the marginalisation of the sex worker demographic – while a few are lifestyle hobbyists, most are driven to the field by poverty, exacerbated by welfare cuts and rising childcare costs. But Walker’s remedy is to nudge slowly to the complete abolition of the industry, starting with criminalising buyers.
In arguing for the Nordic model where buying sex is illegal, Walker conflates distinctly separate issues attempting to link a child-grooming scandal and global trafficking with transactional sex between consenting adults. Walker’s praise for Ireland’s Nordic approach in form of the Sex Buyer’s Law ignores the evidence-led opposition it received from Sex Workers Alliance Ireland and the 77% increase in violent crime against sex workers reported by the National Ugly Mugs since it was implemented.
The WEP attempts to achieve an outcome of equality for women by limiting that of their male counterparts, with Walker aiming to remove ‘men’s right to access the inside of a woman for orgasm whenever they wish,’ echoing that of Sarah Ditum, who mocked the Liberal Democrats’ sex work decriminalisation strategy as an ‘Orange Book of penis rights,’ both disregarding the agency of the woman involved.
The Lib Dems had outlined a detailed policy that would eliminate criminal records related to soliciting, kerb-crawling and brothel keeping, with the latter often being a dubious charge that can be applied to anyone working in a flat share, compelling women to work in isolation. The Lib Dems also welcomed bolstering laws and prosecution of non-consensual activities such as trafficking and grooming, both of which Walker simply conflates as part of the prostitution problem.
Both Ditum and Walker believe that it is not the poor working conditions by part-criminalisation that makes the work unsafe, but the male clients themselves. As buyers of sex, their action violates women and makes them criminal.
Criminalisation not only increases stigmatisation, it forces anonymous exchanges where the provider is put at greater risk, allowing further exploitation by middlemen and madams who had become nearly obsolete in the internet age. Demand also collapses among ordinary punters but increases among men with a criminal disposition.
It would seem that this women’s party takes the hardest line on sex workers’ rights given that Jeremy Corbyn has backed decriminalisation even without party-wide support, and the Green Party explicitly called for full decriminalisation to all aspects of sex work. The Conservatives rejected calls by feminists to adopt the Nordic model, citing the increased risks a ‘Sex Buyer Law’ would generate, referencing the work of the English Collective of Prostitutes.
Far from its claim of making politics more diverse and representative, the WEP appears to be a platform for a singular elite to wield power by enacting a form of feminism that only achieves women’s liberation by curtailing that of men.
But the real battleground is for creating safe and democratised working conditions for the most marginalised women, and the task at hand should include decriminalising all aspects of their work, undoing historic criminal records in relation to prostitution and removing barriers to reporting, such as threats of arrest and deportation of victims of sexual violence.