The Women’s Equality Party: A Surveillance State in the name of Liberal Feminism

The Women’s Equality Party, the brainchild of Sandi Toksvig, officially launched to luvvie acclaim yesterday. But the cracks in the sheen were showing while the journalists were eating their canapés. Not only does their policy document not talk about trans women’ equality needs at all – a major omission given the two mainstream parties with comprehensive policy, one with developing policy, and one with a Select Committee – their policy on sex work came out with a left-field proposal nobody is seriously considering:

But freeing women from sexual exploitation also means providing safe alternatives for all those currently reliant on selling sex for their livelihood, including the small percentage who work in the sex trade voluntarily and independently of pimps and drug abuse.
There are two clear options for how to achieve this, in addition to fully decriminalising those who sell sex:

  1. 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. This approach penalises the demand for commercial sex, as well as pimping, while decriminalising individuals who sell sex and providing them with support services. Referred to as the Sex Buyer Law or the Nordic Model, this approach recognises sexual exploitation as a form of violence mainly directed at women and children.
  2. 2. Decriminalising and regulating the sex trade. This approach calls for a regulated sex trade. It legalises the purchase of sex with Registered Sex Workers only. Registered Sex Workers will be guaranteed regular health checks, a named contact in local policing and given access to support and exit services.

The Nordic model is one of the most dangerous models to respond to the issue of sex work – the only noticeable effect it’s had in Sweden is that sex workers are driven underground and women from the former Soviet states experience increased racism as a result of the law. Even Stieg Larsson – whose protection complex to vulnerable women spanned three books before he was assassinated – used part of The Girl Who Played With Fire to talk about how the Sexköpslagen was failing its primary purpose.

But the second model is incredibly more dangerous. While, like the first, it looks nice and happy, there’s a nasty undercurrent beneath it. Sex workers are one the most stigmatised communities in the labour market. Yet the WEP would like sex workers to join a register – which many can’t afford – or else feel the full dangerous brunt of the Nordic model.

It’s indisputable that a large proportion of WEP supporters probably voted Liberal Democrat in 2010. Beyond the economic debate, the Lib Dems ran prominently on a civil liberties campaign, which ended in the successful destruction of the Identity Card database, and other minor reforms to terrorism law – to the chagrin of Labour, of course. How do you go from that to proposing a massive surveillance model?

One of the last gasp acts to save ID cards was a Labour amendment to keep them, but for trans people only. In response to that, Lynne Featherstone, as a junior equality minister, responded in the following:

The new clause is impractical and fails to recognise its impact on transgendered people. It asks that ID cards that have been issued to transgendered people remain valid until expiry or until another system is in place, but in practice that would mean that only transgendered people would have ID cards. Apart from the huge cost of maintaining the ID infrastructure, whenever that card were used the gender background of the cardholder would be immediately identifiable. Rather than enabling transgendered people to get on with their lives without interference, the proposal would bring them unnecessary and potentially harming attention and focus, and the same problems would arise if transgendered people were issued with a bespoke identification document other than a passport.

Basically: having ID cards for trans people only would out them. Obviously.

A register would have similar problematic issues. One of the first lessons in information security and data protection is never assume your data is safe; always assume your data will fall into the wrong hands. The previous government were infamous for leaving CDs of welfare recipients on train seats. But that is not the worst outcome.

Sex workers do not support the strict regulation model as it encourages state violence, especially against unregulated (and more stigmatised) workers. And, in tandem with the above principle: you should always assume the worst possible outcome. Imagine a fascist party romping home to majority government. Imagine them getting a hold of the Gender Recognition Register and the Sex Worker Register. You can bet your bottom dollar that the black bags and featureless vans would be driving to their homes before the new Prime Minister went to bed after the election.

The worst part about this is this idea is coming from a position that likes to call itself liberal feminist – but is neither liberal nor feminist. And in the name of Marsha P. Johnson, the wonderful sex work and trans activist, we should pay it no mind.

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