SWARM, Scot-Pep and National Ugly Mugs are calling for an apology after the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Sophie Walker, publicly dismissed a sex working woman as a “sex bot”.
Walker is surely aware that it is women’s perceived disposability that props up violence. For sex workers this is heightened – and Walker’s comments only add to this stigma. Much is made of the misogynist language used by sex workers’ clients. To hear the leader of the Women’s Equality Party dehumanise us in the same way is truly disturbing.
Hurtful things can be said on all sides of this heated debate. Indeed, the tweet to which Walker responded was, itself, misogynistic – but we would ask the Women’s Equality Party to take into account the vast power inequality in this exchange and the fact that Walker felt it appropriate to share her “sex bot” comment with 33,000 followers. The sex work community must hold itself accountable for the pitfalls of misogynistic rhetoric when it arises. We can simultaneously be self-critical whilst also demanding humanisation. We urge the Women's Equality Party to exercise the same self-reflection.
The same goes for Walker’s comment to another sex worker, who called out her lack of knowledge on the topic, that “As a woman who claims to be doing this from choice you are in a powerful position to help other women who don’t have a choice. Protecting yourself to their cost isn’t ok.”
We would like to unpick this. Firstly, Walker’s inability to distinguish between sex workers’ marketing and their real life situation speaks to a complete lack of understanding of the industry. Her suggestion that a sex worker’s power is somehow equivalent to her own is baffling.
Most importantly though, we would like to draw attention to the view – repeated by many high profile feminists – that sex workers and sex worker-led organisations calling for decriminalisation are doing so at the expense of the exploited. Branding us as “pimps” is a blatant attempt to discredit our voices. Likewise, the suggestion that any man who supports our rights must be a punter is a handy way of discrediting any men who disagree with their opinion, and ensuring that their only opponents are those less privileged than them.
Many of us have encountered violence and exploitation at work. Our more privileged members recognise their position. The idea that sex workers themselves are somehow devoid of empathy for the more marginalised, while comfortably-off politicians and journalists are filled with compassion is bizarre.
We campaign for decriminalisation because it is better for all sex workers, not only a chosen few. When sex workers are arrested for soliciting or brothel-keeping, nobody wins. Sex workers are disproportionately migrants, single mothers, people with illnesses and disabilities, trans people; those who have struggled or been unable to make money in any other way. We imagine a world in which everyone had access to housing and healthcare, in which austerity has ended, in which childcare is free and mothers have the ability to feed their children. We imagine a world with open borders in which no human is “illegal” and under whose conditions trafficking would not flourish.
What we do not believe is that increased police powers and enforcement against sex workers is the way to bring this about. Criminalising any aspect of the sex industry does nothing to end poverty or give migrants better options for work.
For as long as we sell sex, we should be able to do so as safely as possible. Decriminalisation won’t make the world a perfect place but it will mean we can work together in safety, that we can screen our clients and that the deep stigma which makes our lives seem worthless will lessen.
We are calling on the Women’s Equality Party to acknowledge and apologise for the careless and dangerous message espoused by its leader last night. While sex workers are viewed as nothing more than “sex bots”, no wonder we are such easy targets.