Pragmatic, progressive, problematic: Addressing vulnerability through a local street sex work partnership initiative
Whilst it remains a criminal activity to solicit sex publicly in the UK, it has become increasingly popular to configure sex workers as ‘vulnerable’, often as a means of foregrounding the significant levels of violence faced by female street sex workers. Sex work scholars have highlighted that this discourse can play an enabling role in a moralistic national policy agenda which criminalises and marginalises those who sell sex. Yet multiple and overlapping narratives of vulnerability circulate in this policy arena, raising questions about how these might operate at ground level. Drawing on empirical data gathered in the development of an innovative local street sex work partnership in Leeds, this article explores debates, discourses and realities of sex worker vulnerability. Setting applied insights within more theoretically-inclined analysis, we suggest how vulnerability might usefully be understood in relation to sex work, but also highlight how social justice for sex workers requires more than progressive discourses and local initiatives. Empirical findings highlight that whilst addressing vulnerability through a local street sex work partnership initiative can provide a valuable platform for shared action on violence in particular, more fundamental legal and social reform is required in order to address the differentiated and diverse lived experiences of sex worker vulnerability.