No 41: Rights not rescue – What social policy can learn from sex workers

Sex workers want rights, not rescue. Dr Kate Brown explains why and how.
Mosaic in Leeds made by sex workers. (Basis Yorkshire)

by Kate Brown

During National Anti-trafficking Week in October 2016, the UK’s anti-trafficking commissioner reported that “more victims [are] being identified, referred for appropriate support and restored of their freedom”. In the same week, an ‘anti-trafficking’ operation in Leeds resulted in 11 migrant street sex workers forcibly detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre or deported to their country of origin, in the name of protecting ‘vulnerable’ women. How such ‘rescue’ initiatives operate as cover for social control is well known in critical anti-trafficking research, but this has wider relevance for social policy.

Welfare has always been bound up with the social control of marginalised groups. Conditional social security benefits and interventions with ‘troubled families’ are prominent contemporary examples of this symbiosis. In recent decades there has been a closer relationship between care and control, for some populations more than others. Scholars have referred to these developments as ‘coercive welfare’ or ‘authoritarian therapeutism’. Failures to protect vulnerable people are now a permanent feature of the political landscape. In a climate of austerity politics and diffuse social anxiety, debates about these failings give rise to powerful political projects and radical forms of social intervention. It is against this backdrop that ideas about vulnerability have taken root in social policy.

The vulnerability zeitgeist

Vulnerability is now an important classifier in UK social policy, from criminal justice and English housing interventions to the immigration system. It is a key concept in international development, European human rights law and global anti-poverty work. It functions as a frame through which to understand disadvantage — a contemporary reworking of distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ in society.

My research on how vulnerability interventions play out in practice shows how support given to vulnerable people can be extremely valuable but also blends with subtle discipline and control. Take for example this city council housing manager talking about a young man incarcerated several times before his 18th birthday, who did not qualify for ‘priority need’ housing as he was not deemed ‘vulnerable’:

… if someone’s lived at home and they’re just being naughty and they keep going into prison, we wouldn’t say that’s vulnerability, that’s just them, they’re not abiding by the rules and they just think it’s a joke and they think it’s a game.

Young people who are repeatedly incarcerated face some of the harshest disadvantages in society, but here we see moral evaluation playing a central role in vulnerability classifications, resulting in the exclusion of the most vulnerable. Norms of gender and (hetero)sexuality provide subtext for vulnerability classifications, raising questions about how other social divisions such as race and ethnicity play out in vulnerability management. For example, young women are seen as vulnerable when they are passive and accommodating, less so when they are confident, assertive, sexually active. As I explore in a forthcoming paper, this has major implications for how services respond to issues like child sexual exploitation.

Stereotypical image of a ‘vulnerable’ young person. (Creative Commons)

My book, Vulnerability and young people, shows how vulnerable young people’s lives are structured by political and social marginalisation, with this marginalisation then re-framed as misfortune, misadventure, or family problems — to be solved by interventions focussed on behaviour. As with anti-trafficking initiatives, vulnerability management can amplify deeply flawed hierarchies of ‘deservingness’, often making vulnerable people’s lives worse rather than better.

Resistance to such trends offers valuable insights, and on December 17thInternational Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers — we see such resistance in action. Sex workers and allies from all over the world come together to remember victims of violence and reinforce the message that crimes against sex workers will not be tolerated.

Learning from sex workers: Rights not rescue

Soliciting sex publicly is criminalised in the UK, but at the same time, female sex workers have increasingly been described as a highly ‘vulnerable’ group. This vulnerability narrative has underpinned policies such as coercing ‘exit’ from sex work and calls to shut down online platforms where sex workers advertise and screen clients. By contrast, the vulnerability of male, trans, indoor and migrant sex workers causes less concern and the harms they may experience are less visible. This is a classic example of the ‘vulnerable group’ trope operating to entrench injustices, flatten out diversity and difference, and obscure potential for vulnerability to be ‘designed out’ through policy.  

Despite their voices often being side-lined in debates about the sex industry, sex workers have refused to be positioned as a homogenous group in need of ‘saving’. Under the red umbrella symbol of sex worker rights, they have built a worldwide movement showing that sex worker vulnerability is a result of socio-economic and legal marginalisations intensified by state-sanctioned stigma and differentiated by gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity and migration status in particular. Supported by a large and growing body of research, this approach does not underplay the importance of individual support (such as specialist housing or health provisions) to ease the burden of vulnerability but underlines that this provision must never be divorced from its social, economic and political context.

One of the rallying cries of the sex worker rights movement is ‘rights not rescue’. From this position, policy responses to vulnerability include the decriminalisation of sex work, with enhanced welfare and work rights sensitive to gendered, racialised and sexualised injustices. This approach to vulnerability combats the damaging and simplistic understandings of human agency that can occur in social policy, where agency is seen as ‘good’ and lack of agency ‘bad’, where vulnerable people are pitied, othered and controlled in the name of protection.

Freedom, control and vulnerability

Social control is a necessary function of government. Indeed, it might be seen as central to the project of social policy to seek to shape people’s actions and lives ‘positively’. Yet policy processes are characterised by power imbalances and the imposition of standpoints (often moral), which perpetuate inequalities. In a society where freedom so often means freedom of enterprise (to accumulate capital), vulnerable people become targets for control and coercion because they are failures in the market — or because their existence embodies the failures of capitalism. Add to the mix deep-rooted and connected oppressions related to race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, age and other social divisions, and the result is a matrix of intersectional hostility towards the most vulnerable, with some exceptions granted for those who are willing and able to prove their worthiness.

Rights enhancements would not a be cure-all for vulnerability, but advancing welfare as a right rather than a gift might be one way to mitigate the increasingly brutal social control of the most vulnerable. By addressing vulnerability and harm in this way —  who knows — the need for welfare might even be reduced.

When it comes to showing the political, economic and social dimensions of vulnerability, perhaps social policy scholars have something to learn from sex workers.

To find out more about International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, see #IDEVASW on Twitter.

This blog is based on talks the author gave at USS strike teach-outs held at the University of York in March 2018 and is written with thanks to those who supported, asked questions and gave comments.

Kate Brown is a Lecturer in Social Policy and Crime at the University of York. A recent paper on which this blog draws can be found here. She tweets @DrKateBrown_.