Our (In)ability To Speak: Interpretations and Representations of Prostitution in an English Policy Context

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Abstract / Description of output

Over the last ten to fifteen years, prostitution policies in England have grown increasingly welfarist in tone, stressing the relative victimhood and vulnerability of women who sell sex. This thesis explores important facets of these emergent narratives. Using a qualitative multi-method approach, it investigates the manner in which 21 policy-actors and seven policy documents - principally originating from the English prostitution ‘policy subsystem’ - interpret and represent prostitution. From a methodological perspective, generated findings are explored through the dual interpretative frameworks of critical discourse analysis and sociological frame theory. These frameworks require that localised narratives be contextualised within, and explained by reference to, broader discursive and cultural conditions. In deference to this, findings are situated within rich bodies of academic literature which commentate on, promote and critique various political philosophies, ideological discourses, and critical social theories, such as (neo)-liberalism, a number of feminisms, and Bourdieusian sociology. More specifically, this thesis explores the way 21 policy actors, and four of the selected policy documents, represent the subjecthood of women who sell sex. It approaches this endeavour via discussions of vulnerability, subjectivity/choice, and gender. Here, it concludes that actors and documents draw on, and contribute to, a plurality of complimentary and contradictory ideological discourses, to interpret and represent certain facets of a woman in prostitution’s ‘self’. Substantively, it suggests that - whilst there is a broad consensus regarding the importance of the internal individualism of women who sell sex, and the instrumentality of externalities with regard to shaping her social spaces and ability to choose - questions of gender remain highly contested. Thereafter, this thesis explores the way the same policy-actors, and three distinct policy documents, discursively include/exclude prostitution from violence against women and girls (VAWG) narratives. It begins by exploring how documents and actors define violence in generic terms, and to what degree they adhere to a feminist sociological model when explaining the aetiology and causality of VAWG. It then discusses how prostitution’s relationship to VAWG is framed, and inclusion/exclusion is justified. Here, it concludes that whilst there is a general commitment to the feminist sociological model of VAWG, the question of whether or not prostitution should be included beneath its auspices is highly contentious – pitting classically oppositional coalitions of actors against one another and creating intramural disputes within coalitions themselves. Drawing these strands together, concluding chapters explore framing dynamics. In total, this thesis offers a number of contributions to the fields of prostitution and VAWG policy studies. It demonstrates that while debates in the English prostitution policy subsystem frequently appear to be comprised of two bitterly oppositional ‘advocacy coalitions’, the two groups share multiple areas of ideological consensus, at least with regard to how they understand prostitution. Indeed, more often than not, coalitions differ principally with regard to their prognostic frames and their judgments of material prevalence. In turn, this disrupts extant literature on advocacy coalitions, which suggests that policy-actors organise themselves into groups by reference to their core belief systems, whilst showing a willingness to compromise on secondary considerations. These areas of consensus by no means suggests that matters are straightforward, however. Indeed, this thesis provides evidence that many facets of the prostitution debate are nuanced, complex and ambivalent – that actors entertain and promote contradictory narratives, that coalitions suffer intra-mural fractures over discursive fault-lines, and that framing preferences are strategically engaged. With regard to the last point, this thesis makes a significant methodological contribution to the field of discourse analysis, insofar as it explores the manner in which respondents can be represented as both formed through, and active users of, discourse. It does so by bringing two distinct discourse theories/methods into dialogue with one another. Over and above this, this thesis seizes upon the theoretical opportunities presented when original findings and extant academic scholarship are used to elucidate and develop one another. Most notably it deploys the work of critical social theorists, Martha Fineman and Pierre Bourdieu, to explore new ways in which the harms of prostitution can be conceived.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • School of Social and Political Science
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2017


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