, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 189-206
Date: 10 Nov 2012

Abusing Vulnerability? Contemporary Law and Policy Responses to Sex Work in the UK

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There has been an exponential rise in use of the term vulnerability across a number of political and policy arenas, including child protection, sexual offences, poverty, development, care for the elderly, patient autonomy, globalisation, war, public health and ecology. Yet despite its increasing deployment, the exact meaning and parameters of this concept remain somewhat elusive. In this article, we explore the interaction of two very different strategies—one in which vulnerability is relied upon by those seeking improved social justice as a mechanism by which to identify, problematise and compel state responses to a universal condition of precarious dependency, and the other in which it is used as a category of neo-liberal governance which legitimates state encroachment whilst constructing ‘vulnerable’ individuals as ‘risk-managers’ who must behave ‘responsibly’ in the face of disadvantage. We suggest that the co-existence of these divergent approaches highlights the fluidity and malleability of the concept of vulnerability. Using sex work as a specific case study, we explore the ways in which vulnerability bears multiple meanings, and has been used in recent times in the furtherance of moralistic and regressive agendas, which collude with, rather than challenge, state power. Without seeking to reject the label or normative import of vulnerability, we call, therefore, for a more circumspect approach to its usage, and a more critical evaluation of recent claims which hail it as a mechanism, preferable to the conventional use of equality paradigms, by which to secure progressive feminist outcomes.