The safeguarding delusion: sex work and policing in Wales

Author: Sam Hanks1
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  • 1 Swansea University, , UK
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This article explores the extent to which sex workers’ accounts of living and working in Wales are compatible with the discourses of wellbeing, vulnerability and safeguarding that are increasingly utilised by governments and police forces to frame their interactions with sex work. In revealing a disjuncture between the declared aims of state-based institutions and sex workers’ ongoing experiences of repression and abandonment, the article challenges claims that a more enlightened and transformative approach to sex work is being realised in the UK as a product of updated policing guidance and Welsh legislative change. By drawing on data collected through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests distributed to police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service, in addition to interviews with sex workers, massage-parlour managers, local authority, police and third-sector workers, a critical discourse analysis seeks to demonstrate two conflicting realities of the function of the state’s interaction with sex work. On the one hand, FOI data reveal low rates of arrests and charges for prostitution-related offences in Wales, in line with National Police Chiefs’ Council guidance (; ) that disincentivises their enforcement. But sex workers’ accounts reveal how policing conducted under the guise of welfare, safeguarding, and vulnerability supplement and disguise, rather than replace, increasingly discredited enforcement techniques. Furthermore, the findings reveal how the move away from enforcing prostitution offences does nothing to prevent sex workers from being subjected to policing by virtue of other ‘at risk’ or ‘deviant’ labels imposed on them. It is in this way that the malleability and symbolic power of concepts of safeguarding and vulnerability enable the maintenance of an illusion, whereby oppressive state practices can be recast and presented as enabling progressive and benevolent outcomes for sex workers. The analysis outlines the importance of recognising the function of the front-staging of concepts of vulnerability and safeguarding in enabling the renewal of deviancy control systems, in light of changing social perceptions on how the state should interact with sex workers. In so doing it prompts consideration of the state’s ability to meaningfully address the demands of sex workers, without first recognising and dismantling the multiple structures and processes that undermine their safety and autonomy.

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  • 1 Swansea University, , UK

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