The concept of ‘human dignity’ sits at the heart of international human rights law and a growing number of national constitutions and yet its meaning is heavily contested and contingent. I aim to supplement the theoretical literature on dignity by providing an empirical study of how the concept is used in the specific context of legal discourse on sex work. I will analyse jurisprudence in which commercial sex was declared as incompatible with human dignity, focussing on the South African Constitutional Court case of S v Jordan and the Indian Supreme Court case of Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal. I will consider how these courts conceptualise dignity and argue that their conclusions on the undignified nature of sex work are predicated on particular sexual norms that privilege emotional and relational intimacy. In light of the stigma faced by sex workers I will explore how a discourse, proclaiming sex work as beneath human dignity, may impact on the way that sex workers are perceived and represented culturally, arguing that it reinforces stigma. I will go on to examine how sex workers subvert the notion that commercial sex is undignified, and resist stigma, by campaigning for the right to sell sex with dignity. I will demonstrate that an alternative legal approach to dignity and sex work is possible, where the two are not considered as inherently incompatible, concluding with thoughts on the risks and benefits of using ‘dignity talk’ in activism and campaigns for sex work law reform.
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I use the terms commercial sex, prostitution and sex work interchangeably to refer to the practice of exchanging sexual services for some form of consideration, normally money.
This statute introduced a range of new prostitution related regulation into Canadian law including a criminal prohibition on the purchase of sex.
European Parliament resolution on sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality—http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+TA+P7-TA-2014-0162+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN. Accessed 18 June 2015.
 ZACC 22.
 2 S.C.R. 925;  9 S.C.R. 680;  10 S.C.R. 577;  11 S.C.R. 397;  7 S.C.R. 881.
See note 4 at paragraph 74.
Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West Bengal  9 S.C.R. 680 (Order of August 2nd 2011) at page 685 (paragraph 11).
2014 NZHRRT 6.
Countries such as Sweden, Iceland and Norway (and most recently Canada and Northern Ireland) criminalise the purchase of sex but not the sale, some countries (e.g. USA) criminalise all parties involved in the commercial sex transaction and others have varying systems of decriminalisation (e.g. New Zealand, New South Wales Australia) and legalised state regulation (e.g. Turkey, Germany, Netherlands).
Cicero, De Officiis I at 30 as quoted in  657.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part One: The Profession of Faith, Section 2: The Profession of the Christian Faith, Chap 1 Art 1, paragraphs 6, sub-paragraph 357 as quoted in  658.
 1 S.C.R. 1123.
Communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution (s. 213(1)(c) Criminal Code) and keeping a bawdy house (s. 210 Criminal Code).
See note 12 at page 1194.
Application no. 37194/02 (judgement of September 11, 2007, unreported)—see Case Comment .
See note 4.
See note 5.
See note 4 at paragraph 34.
Ibid. at paragraph 15.
Ibid. at paragraph 16.
Ibid. at paragraph 65.
Ibid. at paragraph 1. In a judgement that runs to 88 pages the arguments on dignity are given just one paragraph of consideration by the minority.
Ibid. at paragraph 74.
Ibid. at paragraph 83.
Ibid. at paragraph 66.
Ibid. at paragraph 74.
 2 S.C.R. 925 (Order of 14th February 2011).
Ibid. at page 930.
Ibid. at page 926.
Ibid. at page 930.
 9 S.C.R. 680 (Order of August 2nd 2011) at page 685.
The DMSC is the world’s largest sex worker rights organisation, based in Kolkata, with over 60,000 members. See www.durbar.org. Accessed 18 June 2015.
The Panel’s terms of reference were set by Order dated 19th July 2011 (unreported). The terms are reproduced in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court by the Government of India dated 17th April 2012. See paragraph 3. Copy available at http://www.lawyerscollective.org/files/GOI%20affidavit%2017_4_12.pdf. Accessed 18 June 2015.
The case came before the court a number of times to allow the Panel to report back on its progress and to enable the judges to issues any relevant Orders for implementation of the Panel’s recommendations. See note 5 for citations of all reported Orders.
 9 S.C.R. 680 (Order of August 2nd 2011) at page 685 (paragraphs 11–12).
Order of 14th Feb 2011 at page 926.
See note 44.
See note 4 at paragraph 83.
Ibid. at paragraph 79.
Ibid. at paragraph 83.
See note 44.
 9 S.C.R. 680 (Order of August 2nd 2011) at page 685–686 (paragraph 14).
The judicial attempts to ‘dignify’ sex when it takes place in the context of an enduring relationship is not only to be found in the caselaw on commercial sex. See  and  for a discussion of how the same reasoning is applied in cases, from the US and South Africa, where sodomy laws are struck down as unconstitutional.
Sex is sold by people of all genders and yet discourse on commercial sex (including the jurisprudence being explored in this article) is highly gendered with a focus almost exclusively on cis-gendered female sex workers.
 10 S.C.R. 577 (Order of 24th August 2011) at page 580 (paragraph 1).
See note 4 at paragraph 74.
See note 7.
See note 6.
 9 S.C.R. 680 at page 686 (paragraph 15).
The Court initially sought representations on how to create “conditions conducive for sex workers who wish to continue working as sex workers with dignity”, implying that rescue and rehabilitation was not a prerequisite for sex workers to live with dignity. After submission of an affidavit (see note 42) from the Indian government expressing concern that this was tantamount to “encouraging prostitution” the Panel’s terms of reference were amended such that any reference to sex workers continuing in sex work was removed. In a conjoined Order to the one in which the Panel’s terms of reference were varied Justice Gyan Sudha Misra was at pains to point out that the Court was in no way advocating the acceptance and recognition of sex work or encouraging sex workers to continue working “as it cannot be denied that the profession of sex trade is a slur on the dignity of women.” See  7 S.C.R. 881.
See Global Network of Sex Work Projects. www.nswp.org. Accessed 18 June 2015.
DMSC, The Durbar Mission. Available at http://durbar.org/html/profile.aspx. Accessed 18 June 2015.
SCOT-PEP, Home Page. Available at http://www.scot-pep.org.uk/. Accessed 18 June 2015.
See http://www.swopusa.org/about-us/chapters/. Accessed 18 June 2015.
See SWOP Agreements. Available at http://www.swopusa.org/about-us/swop-agreements/. Accessed 18 June 2015.
Sisonke (South African Sex Worker Movement) and SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). ‘Decriminalisation of Sex Work—the only legal arrangement which offers dignity to women’. May 14th 2012. Unpublished, copy held on file and available from author. Page 10.
See note 8.
s.3 Prostitution Reform Act 2003.
See note 8 at paragraph 92.
Ibid. at paragraph 119.1.
Ibid. at paragraph 138.
 1 SCR 497.
Ibid. at paragraph 53.
See note 8 at paragraph 146.
E.g. “Reform of the currently criminalised legal status of South Africa’s sex industry is clearly the way to bring dignity to women involved in that industry”. See note 70.
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I would like to thank my supervisor, Professor Jane Scoular, for extremely helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
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Cunningham, S. Reinforcing or Challenging Stigma? The Risks and Benefits of ‘Dignity Talk’ in Sex Work Discourse. Int J Semiot Law 29, 45–65 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-015-9434-9
- Sex work
- Human dignity
- Laclau and Mouffe
- Discourse theory