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20 October 2015

The Women’s Equality Party would criminalise buying sex

The party will campaign for the Nordic model – where buyers are criminalised, but sellers are not – rather than full decriminalisation of the sex work industry. 

By Barbara Speed

At the Women’s Equality Party policy launch this morning, we got our first glimpse of how the party aims to improve the lives and representation of women in Britain. The launch – and the accompanying policy document – flesh out the party’s six core goals: equal representation in politics, business and media; equal education; equal pay and work; equal parenting; a reevaluation of women’s portrayals in the media; and an end to violence against women.

Yet as anyone involved with feminism knows, it’s easier to agree to these goals in the abstract than it is to agree upon solutions. The specific policies launched today were agreed in consultation with the party’s new membership base, but one in particular is likely to cause division in its ranks: sex work. 

As the policy document notes on page 24, the party believes that the problems around the trafficking and abuse of sex workers can be tackled in one of two ways: “decriminalising and regulating the sex trade”, which legalises the purchase of sex with registered sex workers; or “criminalising the purchase of sex and providing women who sell sex with support services including help to those who wish to exit the sex trade” (we ran a good piece on the difference between the two yesterday). WE has opted for the latter. 

Under WE’s proposals, those who sell sex will not be criminalised, and the party would remove from law the few scenarios, such as kerb-crawling and soliciting in a public place, under which sex workers can currently be prosecuted. Sophie Walker, leader of the party, said at the launch that the party would aim to begin criminalising sex buyers within two years of establishing support and exiting services for current sex workers. 

The approach, as the document notes, “recognises sexual exploitation as a form of violence mainly directed at women and children”:

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Many women entering the sex trade are living in poverty and many more have been sexually abused as children. This leaves women exposed to exploitation and coercion by pimps and creates vast power imbalances that drive the commercial sex industry.

The document also argues that only a “small percentage” of sex workers work voluntarily and independently of pimps or drug abuse. 

This approach runs contrary to the views of many campaigning sex workers, who are pushing for decriminalisation of the industry. A recent (and controversial) Amnesty report on sex work also called for decrimanilisation, as opposed to the Nordic approach. 

The WEP policy acknowledges that this topic is very divisive, and calls for more debate and education around the issue of sex work: 

WE also recognise that this issue divides individuals, organisations and political parties across the UK. There needs to be a national debate that raises awareness of the realities of the sex trade, so that anyone buying sex understands the likelihood that women who sell sex may well have been trafficked, forced or abused, and understands how the expectation that women and girls can be bought and sold feeds into wider misogyny. The status quo cannot prevail.

Elsewhere, the policy document proposes various costed measures to tackle violence against women. These include:

  • Use the £800m currently spent on the Married Couples’ Allowance to restore Legal Aid for domestic violence cases and use perpetrator programmes accredited by domestic violence charity Respect in cases where the abused partner wishes to continue the relationship.
  • Maintain and strengthen Claire’s Law, which gives individuals a right to ask police whether their partner has a record of abusive offenses, and introduce GPS electronic tagging to enforce restraining and non-molestation orders. 
  • Introduce a national monitoring system to record incidents of forced marriage, Female Genital Mutilation and honour-based violence to “deepen our understanding of these crimes and better target prevention resources”. 
  • End the practice of detaining pregnant asylum seekers. 
  • Make sex and relationships education, including consent, a compulsory part of the curriculum. 

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