Feminist Review

, Volume 107, Issue 1, pp 20–36 | Cite as

rethinking the boundaries: towards a Butlerian ethics of vulnerability in sex trafficking debates

  • Anna Szörényi


Feminist debates on sex trafficking have become entrenched and polarised, with abolitionists producing images of helpless abused victims, while sex worker advocates work hard to achieve some recognition of the agency of migrant sex workers. This article explores constructions of embodiment, subjectivity and agency in the debate, showing how abolitionist views, in spite of their efforts to challenge liberal pro-sex perspectives, rely on a familiar vision of the body as a singular, bounded and sovereign entity whose borders must be secured against invasion. The result is a vision in which victimisation is taken to epistemically compromise the subjectivities of sex workers, forcing them and their advocates to argue for recognition of their agency according to familiar liberal models of consent in order to be able to enter the debate. Drawing on the recent work of Judith Butler on consent and vulnerability, this article argues that what is needed is a rethinking of bodily ontology so that the vulnerability of sex workers is not opposed to their agency, but rather seen as an inevitable aspect of embodied sociality, constituting a call to ethical engagement and a recognition of the inequitable global distributions of precarity that produce sex trafficking as part of contemporary geopolitics. From this perspective, the alignment between radical feminist efforts to secure women’s bodily borders and global efforts to secure national borders no longer appears as coincidence.


sex trafficking Judith Butler victimhood agency vulnerability precarity 



The writing and redrafting of this article was assisted by a fellowship from the Fay Gale Centre for Research on Gender, and a Head of School Research Support Scheme grant from the School of Social Sciences, both at the University of Adelaide. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editors of Feminist Review who provided very helpful feedback on earlier versions. I would also like to thank Penelope Eate for research assistance, and Katrina Jaworksi, Pam Papadelos, Dee Michel and the participants of the Global Sexualities symposium held at Flinders University on 19 February 2013 for their comments and encouragement.


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© Feminist Review 2014

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  • Anna Szörényi

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