Queer theory, sex work and the European Union: on the constitutive exclusion of sex work from the European Union’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual policies

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Lucrecia Rubio Grundell Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

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In this article, I analyse the constitutive effects of the exclusion of sex work for the European Union’s (EU’s) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) policies. I combine queer theory, the literature on EU LGBTI politics and approaches that address sex work from a queer perspective and develop a discursive analysis of the EU’s LGBTI policies between 1984 and 2020. I argue that the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work in various ways and that such exclusion is constitutive of the EU’s LGBTI policies themselves, in particular, when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms. Specifically, the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work as a constitutive other against which the neoliberal and homonormative sexual subject of rights and new sexual respectability that structures such policies are constructed. The exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies is thus indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism in such terms.

Abstract

In this article, I analyse the constitutive effects of the exclusion of sex work for the European Union’s (EU’s) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) policies. I combine queer theory, the literature on EU LGBTI politics and approaches that address sex work from a queer perspective and develop a discursive analysis of the EU’s LGBTI policies between 1984 and 2020. I argue that the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work in various ways and that such exclusion is constitutive of the EU’s LGBTI policies themselves, in particular, when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms. Specifically, the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work as a constitutive other against which the neoliberal and homonormative sexual subject of rights and new sexual respectability that structures such policies are constructed. The exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies is thus indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism in such terms.

Key messages

  • The exclusion of sex work, especially in neo-abolitionist terms, has constitutive effects for the European Union’s (EU’s) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI) policies.

  • The EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work as the ‘constitutive other’ of the neoliberal and homonormative sexual subject of rights and new sexual respectability that structure them.

  • The exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies is indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism.

  • Researching LGBTI rights and sex work jointly is academically and politically relevant.

Introduction

This article analyses the constitutive effects of the exclusion of sex work1 for the European Union’s (EU) policies on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual (LGBTI)2 rights. Since the mid-2010s, mainstream LGBTI organisations across Western Europe have started to include sex work in their political agendas and form alliances with sex worker organisations. This is especially the case at the EU level, where the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Europe (ILGA-Europe) and Transgender Europe recently adopted their first official policy on sex work, including its full decriminalisation, within their mandate to promote LGBTI rights (TGEU, 2016; ILGA, 2019). In addition, they form part of the recently established European Coalition on Sex Workers’ Rights and Inclusion (ESWA, 2023).

This incipient convergence of LGBTI rights and sex work follows a long period of divergence in both their legal regulation and the activism of their respective constituencies. Starting in the 1980s, there has been a passage from the criminalisation, stigmatisation and exclusion of LGBTI persons to the burgeoning recognition of their rights (Roseneil et al, 2013). This has been accompanied by the unprecedented mainstreaming of LGBTI politics, all the while sex workers, who were included in the gay liberation movements of the 1970s, were sidelined from its ranks, along with sex work from its agenda (Murib, 2023). Instead, the regulation of sex work has been marked by the spread of neo-abolitionism, fostering the intensification of criminalisation, stigmatisation and exclusion (Ward and Wylie, 2019).

Crucially, these dynamics are not limited to the national level but reinforced at the level of the EU. The EU began to develop its legal and policy framework on LGBTI rights in the mid-1980s, first through the pioneering role of the European Parliament (EP) and strategic litigation before the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU), then through the non-discrimination framework enabled by the Amsterdam Treaty, and finally through a focus on same-sex partnerships and parenting and protection from hate (Eigenmann, 2022). In parallel, the EU has adopted an explicit neo-abolitionist approach to prostitution, which defines it as a form of violence against women and a violation of women’s human rights, actively advocating for client criminalisation (Rubio Grundell, 2021). In turn, both LGBTI and sex worker organisations have developed at the EU level; however, until recently, they have operated fundamentally in isolation. The incipient intersection of LGBTI rights and sex work makes it relevant to analyse the nature and effects of their former divergence, especially when, as I will argue with reference to the supranational level of the EU, the evolution of LGBTI rights and the parallel rise of neo-abolitionism have not taken place in isolation but are inherently, albeit negatively, linked.

Concretely, I argue that the LGBTI policies of the EU exclude sex work in various ways and that such exclusion is constitutive of such policies, especially when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms. First, the EU’s LGBTI policies limit rights claims based on sexual practices to the private realm. Second, they privilege identity as the principal avenue to claim sexual rights, in turn, based on a (neo)liberal conception of the sovereign self as entitled to rights because of its capacity for self-determination and self-ownership, expressed in the notion of free choice. Finally, the EU’s LGBTI policies premise LGBTI rights on a new homonormative and neoliberal sexual respectability that is based on an amative sexual ethic and linked to enhancing the productivity of the EU’s internal market through the exercise of free movement. As the epitome of public, practised, commercial, recreational and fundamentally unfree sex, therefore, the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work as a constitutive other against which the sexual subject of rights and new sexual respectability that structures the EU’s LGBTI policies are constructed. The exclusion of sex work is thus constitutive because it is indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism in such terms.

To substantiate these claims, I combine queer theory, the literature on EU LGBTI politics and novel approaches addressing sex work from a queer perspective to fill the critical gaps at their intersection. Queer theory has profusely criticised current mainstream LGBTI politics for its assimilationist nature and exclusionary effects, premised on the disciplining of both political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism (Weeks, 1985; Evans, 1993; Bell and Binnie, 2000; Warner, 2000; Duggan, 2003; Lamble, 2014; Sabsay, 2013). Yet, these insights have rarely been applied to Europe, let alone to the EU, albeit with notable exceptions (see Stychin, 2003; Beger, 2004; Thiel, 2015; Eigenmann, 2022). In addition, both queer theory and the literature on EU LGBTI politics largely ignore the role of sex work in such processes of assimilation and exclusion. When sex work is addressed, moreover, it is as just another form of sexual deviance excluded from recognition and rights, not work (Weeks, 1985; Warner, 2000; Rubin, 2002; De Orio, 2017). As the emerging approaches that address sex work from a queer perspective argue, however, this deprives sex work of precisely the features that make it subversive of both heteronormativity and neoliberalism: its dissociation of sex from identity and disruption of the sex–economy dichotomy (Zatz, 1997; Smith, 2020).

The article is structured in five parts. The following part outlines the three bodies of literature that the article combines: queer theory, the literature on EU LGBTI politics and the approaches addressing sex work from a queer perspective, highlighting how they can fruitfully interact. The article then outlines the methodology and data used. Third, the article summarises the evolution of the EU’s neo-abolitionist approach to sex work, as I contend that it is especially when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms that its exclusion from the EU’s LGBTI policies is constitutive of them. The fourth part develops the empirical analysis of the EU’s LGBTI policies, focusing on how they exclude sex work and how such exclusion is constitutive. Finally, the conclusions review the main contribution of the article and point to further avenues of research.

Filling the gaps: queer theory, EU LGBTI politics and queer sex work

Queer theory has found in contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics a fruitful case study for its critiques of liberal and identity politics. The central tenet in this regard is that such politics is premised on the disciplining of political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism. As such, it is assimilationist in nature and has exclusionary effects; that is to say, it is based on the inclusion of some LGBTI persons as rights-bearing subjects in existing institutions and systems of power and the attendant exclusion of new constitutive others (Murib, 2023: 9) – others who are not merely left out, therefore, but whose exclusion is indispensable to recognising the former as entitled to rights (Butler, 1998: 42). Sira Kramer (2017: 5) refers to this as a ‘constitutive exclusion’, whereby ‘a system of thought or political body defines itself by excluding some difference which is intolerable to it’, yet such difference ‘continues to do defining or constituting work from within’. I contend that this is precisely what sex work does for the EU’s LGBTI policies, forming a constitutive other against which the sexual subject of rights and the new sexual respectability that structures such policies are constructed.

The disciplining of political subjectivity in heteronormative terms takes place because contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics are fundamentally structured around gender and sexual identities that remain self-enclosed, unequivocal and stable, even while pluralising (Sabsay, 2016b: 14). Such identities, in addition, concede gender, sexuality and desire an ontological bodily status in relation to which freedom is exercised in the form of self-determination and self-ownership, in turn, expressed in the notion of free choice (Beger, 2000: 250). As such, contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics reproduce the binary distinction between anatomical sex and constructed gender that queer theory criticises as exchanging fact for effect, in turn, reproducing the essential tenets of the heterosexual matrix, that is, the binary and coherent articulation of sex, gender and desire that establishes heterosexuality as the norm (Butler, 1990). Under neoliberalism, this operation is transformed in line with its paradigmatic subject, the entrepreneurial self, which is instigated to self-govern and assume responsibility for itself and others as key elements of its freedom and self-realisation (Bröckling, 2015). Gender and sexual identities are thus cultivated and produced as a central enterprise of the self (Cossman, 2007: 13). Yet, they still depend on the heteronormative sex–gender divide. The very notions of sexual orientation and gender identity, even if they invert the direction in which sexual object choice and gender identity formation take place, nonetheless depend on the existence of two discernible sexes and their associated genders (Waites, 2009).

The disciplining of sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism, in turn, takes place as contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics enacts a new homonormative sexual respectability that is depoliticised, de-eroticised, private and consumerist (Duggan, 2003: 50). As Michael Warner (2000: 22) argues, this new sexual respectability is based on the ‘de-sexualisation of sex’ as that which most clearly distinguishes homosexuals from heterosexuals. (Homo)Sexuality is confined to the private domain of love, intimacy and coupledom and thus domesticated (Brodie, 1997) or familiarised (Berlant, 1997). At the same time, as David Evans (1993) suggests, (homo)sexuality is commodified within specialised markets through the recognition of partial rights that enable the construction of sexual identities and lifestyles through consumption (albeit, crucially, not of sex itself). This aligns contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics not only with the fundamental tenets of heteronormativity’s amative sexual ethic – private, domestic, reproductive and for love (Bernstein, 2019) – but also with the economic interests of neoliberal states in boosting the market while privatising the costs of social reproduction within the family (Richardson, 2005). It also aligns such politics with the related punitive interest of neoliberal states in governing newly disenfranchised populations through crime by addressing the state as a protector rather than a target of protest. This becomes evident, as Sarah Lamble (2014) suggests, in the promotion of legislation on hate speech and crimes.

These queer critiques of the assimilationist and exclusionary effects of mainstream LGBTI politics have rarely been applied to Europe, let alone to the supranational level of the EU (Paternotte, 2018). Rather, the literature on EU LGBTI politics has focused on the mutually reinforcing relationship between the EU and LGBTI activism (Ayoub and Paternotte, 2012; 2014; Ayoub, 2016; 2019), the domestic impact of the EU’s LGBTI policies (Kollman, 2009; Paternotte and Kollman, 2013; Slootmaeckers et al, 2016; Drucker, 2017), and the racialised exclusions fostered by the intersection between LGBTI rights and the belief in an inherently progressive notion of Europeanness (El-Tayeb, 2011; Ammaturo, 2015; 2016; Slootmaeckers, 2017). As a result, the assimilationist nature of the EU’s LGBTI policies has been analysed fundamentally in relation to European exceptionalism and thus the exclusions such policies foster outside (and at the margins of) the EU. The exclusions they foster inside the EU remain under-studied, albeit with notable exceptions (Paternotte, 2018).

Carl Stychin (2003) and Nico Beger (2004) analyse the benefits of EU citizenship for LGBTI rights, highlighting its market-based, mobility-centred and comparatively duty-less nature. Yet, these same features also grant it a strong assimilationist potential in terms of the homonormative privatisation of sexuality and care in the family and the focus on market productivity, albeit as workers rather than as consumers. Similarly, Markus Thiel (2015) argues that the EU’s neoliberal nature necessarily subordinates LGBTI rights to the single market, recognising limited rights therein, while promoting the homonormative and neoliberal assimilation of lesbians and gays, in particular. Finally, Laura Eigenmann (2022: 128) has shown that neoliberal discourses were key in expanding the EU’s LGBTI policies ‘by providing frames through which granting equality to LGBTI people was constructed as beneficial’. She argues that this has enhanced the desexualisation, commodification and domestication of sexuality. Yet, she also innovatively suggests that neoliberal discourses can have empowering effects too, which she identifies in the shift within the EU’s LGBTI policies to a focus on hate speech and crime, which, she argues, redefines ‘LGBTI people as especially vulnerable (instead of “productive”) citizens’ (Eigenmann, 2022: 129).

Queer theory and the literature on EU LGBTI politics share a common ignorance of sex work with regard to the processes of assimilation and exclusion that they analyse. At least for the former, however, this has started to be redressed through the emergence of studies that explicitly address sex work from a queer perspective. In these studies, two research lines prevail. The first one focuses on making queer embodiments and practices of sex work visible against its assumed heterosexuality, that is, where queer means ‘non-hetero/homo-normative’ (Laing et al, 2015: 2). The second focuses on sex work itself as queer, that is, where queer means subversive of ‘dominant norms surrounding gender and sexuality’ (Laing et al, 2015: 2). Here, the central aim has been to show that sex work not only reproduces neoliberal and heteronormative logics but can also subvert the former and is also ‘outside of the (hetero) norm’ (Smith and Laing, 2012). It is in this sense that former engagements of queer theory with sex work fall short, as they address sex work as just another form of sexual deviance excluded from recognition and rights, alongside polyamorous groups, fetishists, sadomasochists, persons with AIDS and so on (Weeks, 1985; Warner, 2000; Rubin, 2002; De Orio, 2017). This, however, deprives sex work of precisely the features that make it especially subversive of heteronormativity and neoliberalism: its dissociation of sex from identity and disruption of the sex–economy dichotomy (Zatz, 1997; Smith, 2020). Crucially, this does not mean that sex work itself is not entangled with both heteronormativity and neoliberalism. Its contemporary nature and extent are to a large degree an effect of the market and sexual freedoms ushered by globalised neoliberalism, while it too reproduces heteronormative gendered logics. The point, however, is that it simultaneously has the potential to subvert them.

Indeed, sex work dissociates sex from identity, associating it with work instead in order to contest the identitarian stigmatisation of other terms, such as ‘prostitute’ or ‘whore’. As Kamala Kempadoo (1998: 3) puts it, sex work reframes the phenomenon ‘not as an identity, a social or psychological characteristic … but as an income-generating activity’. In demanding sexual rights on the basis of work rather than identity, therefore, sex work suspends the operation of the sex–gender distinction and the heterosexual matrix that rests upon it. In addition, sex work challenges the central tenets of heteronormativity’s amative sexual ethic: privacy, domesticity, reproduction and love. In fact, it is its antithesis, being the epitome of public, commercial, non-reproductive and recreational sex (Bernstein, 2019). As Nicola Smith argues, heteronormativity has historically been erected through the regulation not only of homosexuality but also of forms of heterosexuality deemed deviant, of which sex work is the epitome. In particular, the regulation of sex work as such has been key ‘to the naturalisation of gender difference, the normalisation of particular expressions of heterosexual desire and the reproduction of the heterosexual family’ (Smith, 2020: 12).

In challenging heteronormativity’s amative sexual ethic in these terms, sex work also challenges the economic interest of neoliberalism in privatising sexuality and social reproduction within the family, which requires the family, no matter how dishevelled by neoliberalism and gender and sexual democratisation, to remain the main repository of unpaid reproductive labour. This, in turn, depends on the demarcation between productive and reproductive labour and hence between sexuality and the economy, which sex work directly contests by commodifying sex. Under neoliberalism, in particular, it is ‘through the marking out of sex work as aberrant that the illusion of separate economic and sexual spheres can be maintained even as heteronormativity itself is organised around consumer logics’ (Smith, 2020: 81). Concretely, the portrayal of sex work as inherently unfree and, thus, of sex workers as the opposite of the entrepreneurial self defines the entrepreneurial choices regarding sexuality that count as autonomous and sets the limit in relation to which sexuality can be commodified without undermining the distinction between sex and the economy that neoliberalism needs to privatise social reproduction in the family. Finally, the demand for decriminalising sex work, in particular, challenges the punitive interest of neoliberal states in governing through crime by claiming social and labour rights instead.

In summary, the defining features of sex work and the rights claims articulated around it are in direct tension with the assimilationist and exclusionary effects of current mainstream LGBTI politics that follows from the disciplining of political subjectivity and sexuality in line with both heteronormativity and neoliberalism. By dissociating sexual rights from identity, sex work suspends the sex–gender divide and the heterosexual matrix. Moreover, it contests the neoliberal reformulation of gender and sexual identities as an enterprise by delimiting the sexual choices deemed autonomous and the extent to which sexuality can be commodified. In disrupting the sex–economy, dichotomy, in turn, sex work challenges heteronormativity’s amative sexual ethic and thus also its homonormative adaptation, as well as the economic interests of neoliberalism in privatising social reproduction within the family and its punitive interests in governing through crime, hence why the exclusion of sex work is constitutive of the neoliberal and homonormative sexual subject of rights and the new sexual respectability that structure contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics. Having outlined these arguments theoretically, I now turn to their empirical analysis with reference to the EU’s LGBTI policies.

Methodology and data

To substantiate my claims, I conduct a critical frame analysis of the EU’s LGBTI policies, using a ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ approach. Critical frame analysis is a qualitative and discursive method designed to analyse the different meanings ascribed to gender equality as a policy issue across Europe. It does so by deconstructing problem representations into comparable dimensions, including diagnosis and prognosis, that is, how the problem is defined and the solutions proposed to address it (Verloo, 2005). As such, it allows us to identify and compare how LGBTI rights are framed within the EU’s policies on the matter, both across policy texts and over time. The notion of a policy frame is essential in this regard, being defined as an ‘organising principle that transforms fragmentary and incidental information into a structured and meaningful policy problem in which a solution is implicitly or explicitly enclosed’ (Verloo, 2005: 20).

However, since the aim is to analyse the constitutive effects of the exclusion of sex work for the EU’s LGBTI policies, I also draw on Carol Bacchi’s ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ approach. This approach addresses problem representations genealogically to ‘examine the unexamined ways of thinking on which they rely’ (Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016: 16, emphasis in original). Hence it focuses on the closure effects of discourse, that is, ‘how the terms of reference established by a problem representation limit what can be thought and said’ (Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016: 21). This is done through a series of sensitising questions that structure the mode of interrogation proposed. I focus on the fourth question, which asks: ‘What is left unproblematised in this problem representation, where are the silences, can the problem be conceptualised differently?’ (Bacchi and Goodwin, 2016: 22, emphasis in original). This allows us to identify and analyse the exclusions that are constitutive of problem representations by being indispensable for the operation of their normativity.

The empirical analysis spans the years between 1984, when the EP first addressed sexual orientation in its Squarcialupi Report (EP, 1984), and 2020, when the EU adopted its first-ever ‘EU LGBTIQ equality strategy’. I divide this time span into four distinct phases and analyse the main frames found in each, highlighting how they exclude sex work and how such exclusion is constitutive of the frames themselves. This periodisation follows the common division of the evolution of such policies within the literature on EU LGBTI politics, which identifies the mid-1980s as the moment of norm emergence, the second half of the 1990s as that of norm consolidation, the first half of the 2000s as the moment of legalisation and the 2010s as one of expansion towards ‘love’ and ‘hate’ (Mos, 2014; Eigenmann, 2022). In each, the distinct content of the EU’s LGBTI policies excludes sex work in a particular way, and hence its exclusion is constitutive of a particular feature of such policies.

The analysis includes the relevant policy texts adopted by the four main institutions of the EU, including two CJEU rulings, two Council directives, six resolutions/reports, a study from the EP and five communications and an audio-visual campaign from the European Commission (EC). Before turning to the constitutive exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies, however, we need to address its neo-abolitionist approach to prostitution, as I contend that it is especially when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms that its exclusion is constitutive of the EU’s LGBTI policies.

The EU’s neo-abolitionist approach to prostitution

To date, the EU has only addressed prostitution within its violence against women policies. Starting in the mid-1990s and intensifying in the mid-2000s, the EP, in particular, abandoned its previous ambivalence towards prostitution and began to adopt an explicit neo-abolitionist approach, which defines it as the epitome of violence against women and actively advocates for client criminalisation. Key in this regard were its 1997 ‘Resolution on the need to establish a European Union wide campaign for zero tolerance of violence against women’ (EP, 1997), its 2004 ‘Report on the consequences of the sex industry in the European Union’ (EP, 2004), its 2006, 2009 and 2011 (EP, 2006; 2009; 2011) resolutions on violence against women and its 2014 resolution on ‘Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality’ (EP, 2014a; in general, see Rubio Grundell, 2021).

Across these policy texts, the EP defines prostitution as ‘neither “real” sex nor “real” work’ (Smith, 2020: 5). First, it repeatedly argues that ‘prostitution can never be reduced to a choice of profession’ (EP, 2004: 14), nor ‘trivialised as a job’ (EP, 2014a: 8). This is the case fundamentally because prostitutes are ‘defined as a commodity on the sex market in terms of economic interests, dependency on pimps, etc., beyond the individual’s power to influence’ (EP, 1997: 12). This reflects what Leticia Sabsay (2016a: 19) calls ‘the logic of denial’: the process of referring to ‘wrong choices as those that do not express the autonomy of the person who chooses and therefore as non-choices’. In fact, the EP (2011: 16) explicitly states that while ‘all individuals have the right to exercise individual freedom of action’, making it ‘reasonable to require consent for any form of sexual intercourse’, some forms of violence against women ‘are of such nature that they fall outside the right to individual self-determination through consent’. In addition, this reflects the metonymic displacement of selling sex into selling one’s body, even oneself, which makes prostitution a form of sexual commodification, not labour. Prostitution, ultimately, is the opposite of self-determination and self-ownership and hence not work, defined by the EP (2014a: 4) as ‘one of the main sources of human self-realisation through which individuals make a supportive contribution to the collective wellbeing’. Prostitution is not only not work but also in fact ‘an obstacle to women’s participation in society and the labour market’ (EP, 2005: 2), as ‘it constructs an image of unequal gender relations’ (EP, 2004: 7).

Second, for the EP, prostitution is also not real sex because, in being contrary to self-determination and self-ownership in general, it is also the opposite of sexual self-determination, in particular. Indeed, the EP (1996: 4, emphasis added) defines sexual self-determination as women’s right ‘to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality’. As such, the EP (2014a: 4) explicitly contrasts prostitution to ‘healthy approaches to sexuality, conducted with mutual respect’, arguing that it has negative effects not only on the women directly involved but also on women as a group and society as a whole. The ‘more widespread the sex trade is, the more male society’s limited view of the relationship between the sexes and sexuality is confirmed’ (EP, 1997: 12). Still, prostitution principally harms the women involved, as it ‘leaves deep psychological scars, damages their general health, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances results in death’ (EP, 2011: 2). Prostitution is not only the cause of sexual violence but also its effect, as ‘65–90% of prostitutes have already been subjected to sexual abuse’ (EP, 2005: 2). Sexual abuse is identified as a key vulnerability factor that explains women’s entry into prostitution, alongside many others. As the EP (2014a: 7) puts it, ‘prostituted persons are particularly vulnerable socially, economically, physically, psychologically, emotionally and in family terms’. The logic of denial and the metonymic displacement of selling sex into selling oneself are thus compounded by the notion of vulnerability as a key signifier of prostitutes’ lack of (sexual) self-determination and self-ownership.

In this light, it is no surprise that the EP (2014a: 10) proposes the adoption of ‘legislation that shifts the criminal burden onto those who purchase sexual services’, that is, client criminalisation, along with existing measures aimed at reinserting women in the labour market and society, that is, in legitimate forms of labour and egalitarian (hetero)sexual relations, which can, if needed, be made compulsory. The EP appeals to the role of the EU and its member states as protectors, in particular, of their female citizens. In fact, the EP (2005: 11) explicitly argues in relation to violence against women that protecting citizens’ lives and health against violence is ‘one of the most important tasks under the rule of law’, continuing that it ‘is the moral, normative basis for the state and, hence, its raison d’être … i.e. to protect the lives, freedom and property of its citizens’.

The EU’s LGBTI policies and the constitutive exclusion of sex work

In parallel to the EP’s turn to neo-abolitionism, the EU has developed its legal and policy framework on LGBTI rights, recognising an ever-increasing catalogue of specific rights for EU LGBTI citizens. Similarly to its gender equality policies, the LGBTI policies of the EU find their origin in the pioneering role of the EP and strategic litigation before the CJEU based on Article 119 of the Rome Treaty; they were then broadened and deepened through the non-discrimination framework enabled by Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty and finally through the focus on same-sex partnerships and parenting and protection from hate (Eigenmann, 2022). In what follows, I develop a critical frame analysis of the EU’s LGBTI policies between 1984 and 2020, using a ‘What’s the problem represented to be?’ approach, to identify and analyse their constitutive exclusion of sex work. I divide this time into four phases, identifying the main frames in each and specifying the ways in which they exclude sex work and how such exclusion is constitutive of specific features of the LGBTI policies of the EU. As I will show, such policies exclude sex work as a constitutive other against which the homonormative and neoliberal sexual subject of rights and the new sexual respectability that structures them are constructed. Accordingly, the exclusion of sex work is indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with heteronormativity and neoliberalism in such terms.

The 1980s: decriminalising homosexuality between consenting adults in private

The first EU policy text to address LGBTI rights was the EP’s (1984) ‘Report on sexual discrimination at the workplace’ (Squarcialupi Report) adopted in 1984. The report was influenced by the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Dudgeon v. United Kingdom, issued in 1981, which held the criminalisation of homosexual sex between consenting adult men to violate the right to privacy. Indeed, the report calls on member states to ‘abolish laws that make homosexual acts between consenting adults liable’, as well as to ‘apply the same age of consent to homosexual acts’ (EP, 1984: 7). It does so on the grounds that homosexuals should not be ‘unfairly treated for reasons relating to their private life’ (EP, 1984: 7). Hence, the report asks member states to tolerate homosexuals by depicting their different sexual practices as a private affair (Eigenmann, 2022: 131).

Importantly, while this consenting-adults-in-private frame sanctions homosexual sex, it does not concede an absolute right to engage in consensual adult sex, as it does not foreclose the possibility of criminalising such sex tout court, either in public or in private. Concretely, the European Court of Human Rights specified in its Dudgeon ruling that the risk of harm to vulnerable populations and society as a whole was a legitimate ground to warrant punitive interventions even in the private realm. As Scott De Orio (2017: 55) argues, the consenting-adults-in-private standard sanctioned a particular form of gay sex, ‘continuing to disqualify by implication a wide range of behaviours that fell outside that definition, thereby leaving them exposed to criminalisation’.

Among the many forms of bad sex that remain subject to criminalisation, sex work has become a paramount target. This is so, first, because of its identification as the epitome of public sex, regardless of whether it is actually conducted in public. In fact, even indoor sex work, which has grown exponentially following the targeted policing of street sex work since the 1980s, continues to be conceived and addressed as public sex (Bernstein, 2007). This is the case essentially because of sex work’s commercial nature, which situates it on the economy side of the sex–economy dichotomy and thus the public side of the private–public divide (Smith, 2020: 81). Second, sex work is the subject of criminalisation as bad sex because of its alleged harm to vulnerable populations and society as a whole, in particular, when it is framed in neo-abolitionist terms as an obstacle to women’s economic autonomy and to egalitarian (hetero)sexual relations (Rubio Grundell, 2022).

Recognising the formal legal equality of homosexuals with regards to sexual practices on the basis of privacy ultimately excludes sex work and in fact depends on its exclusion, being the epitome of public, harmful and thus intolerable sex against which homosexual sex among consenting adults in private is defined as inoffensive and tolerable. In practice, as Smith (2020) and De Orio (2017) extensively show, the decriminalisation of homosexual sex in private during the 1960s took place against the reinforced criminalisation of public sex, and sex work in particular, through a renewed emphasis on public order and decency that resulted in harsher sanctions than the previous ones aimed specifically at homosexual sex. Hence, as the epitome of public and harmful sex, the exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI politics in this phase is constitutive of one of the defining features of the homonormative sexual respectability that structures such policies and results from the disciplining of sexuality in line with heteronormativity: privacy.

In addition, the Squarcialupi Report attempted to frame the legal discrimination of homosexuals as a matter of concern for the (then) European Community by portraying it as an issue that negatively affected their equality in the workplace and thus constituted a ‘barrier to the right to freedom of movement’ (EP, 1984: 7). In this way, the report anticipated the two pillars that would structure the EU’s LGBTI policies: non-discrimination in the field of employment and freedom of movement. At this stage, however, although the report was adopted by a wide majority in the EP, the EC did not adopt any of its measures, given its lack of competencies on the matter and the anticipated rejection of member states (Eigenmann, 2022: 58). Still, the report played a key role in converting the EP ‘from the target to the mouthpiece of supranational advocacy’ (Mos, 2014: 638, emphasis in original).

The 1990s: sex discrimination and the limits of the heteronormative family

The EP (1994) ratified its commitment to LGBTI rights in its 1994 ‘Resolution on equal rights for gays and lesbians in the EC’ (Roth Report). The Roth Report was broader in scope than the 1984 Squarcialupi Report, addressing same-sex partnerships and adoption, funding for LGBT organisations, and asylum. This expansion of the EP’s LGBTI rights agenda was enabled by a shift in the conception of sexual orientation from a sexual practice to a fundamental element of one’s identity, which, accordingly, impacts every aspect of life (Eigenmann, 2022: 134). Indeed, the Roth Report no longer speaks of a homosexual disposition or inclination, as the report of 1984 had done, but of a homosexual identity and lifestyle (EP, 1994). This fostered a shift, in turn, from difference to sameness as the ground for equality, that is, from ‘arguing that everyone has the right to be different in private towards emphasising that the sameness of gays and lesbians with heterosexuals outweighs their difference’ (Eigenmann, 2022: 131, emphasis in original). As in the former phase, however, no binding legislation was adopted given the EC’s lack of competencies. It became clear that legal competencies would be needed for the EU to adopt binding legislation, and so the EP turned its efforts to including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination provision of the upcoming Amsterdam Treaty (Mos, 2014: 641).

Until its entry into force in 1999, however, it was the CJEU that legally addressed the issue for the first time. In this phase, the CJEU adopted two rulings that sought to extend the EU’s sex discrimination provisions to gender identity and sexual orientation. The first one, P v. S and Cornwall County Council (13/94 1996), concerned a trans woman who was fired after informing her employer that she would undergo gender reassignment surgery. The CJEU ruled in her favour, stating that sex discrimination could be applied to gender reassignment cases, as these involved unfavourable treatment in comparison to one’s previous sex. In contrast, the CJEU ruled against the plaintiff in the second case, Grant v. South West Trains Ltd (249/96 1998), concerning a lesbian who was denied travel perks for her female partner that were given to ‘the common-law opposite sex spouse of staff … subject to a declaration being made that a meaningful relationship had existed’ (C-249/96, para 5). The CJEU disregarded Grant’s argument that if she had been a man, her partner would have received such perks by comparing her situation to that of a homosexual man instead. Citing the absence of consensus among member states, the CJEU concluded that ‘stable relationships between two persons of the same sex are not regarded as equivalent to marriages or stable relationships between persons of opposite sex’ (C-249/96, para 35).

What explains the success of ‘P’ and the failure of Grant in this sex discrimination frame is the heterosexual matrix. ‘P’ was successful because she was discriminated against as a woman, not a trans person, and hence was recognisable within one of the two sexes and its attendant gender. Grant was discriminated against as a lesbian, not a woman. Her gender was non-conforming because her sexual object choice was, and hence treating her differently was not discriminatory (Beger, 2000: 252). The CJEU accepted the distinction between anatomical sex and constructed gender, therefore, yet assumed their coherent and binary articulation, which establishes heterosexuality as the norm. Indeed, as Stychin contends, Grant fitted the ideological parameters of the EU’s sex discrimination legislation at the time in terms of both the ‘atomistic individual freely and fairly working in the labour market’ (Stychin, 2003: 80) and the ‘conception of women and children as the non-productive appendages of male workers’ (Stychin, 2003: 83), as the perk in dispute was recognised within an employment relation for dependent partners. It was Grant’s homosexuality, ultimately, that disqualified her partnership from being recognised within such a heteronormative breadwinner model. That the heteronormative family was an insuperable limit for LGBTI rights in this phase is confirmed by the dispute between the EC and Council over including sexual orientation within two directives on the reconciliation of work and family life in the mid-1990s (the Parental Leave and Part-Time Workers Directives of 1996 and 1997). While the EC was keen on including sexual orientation in both, the Council was successful in removing it.

This reveals the paradox that Diane Richardson (1998: 90) identifies as the privatisation of homosexuality, according to which it ‘is banished from the public to the private realm and simultaneously excluded from the private when it is conflated with the family’. The heteronormative public–private divide determines not only the where (in private) and by whom (a heterosexual couple) of legitimate sexuality, therefore, but also the what for, stipulating coupledom and kinship as fundamental elements (Turner, 2008). This excludes not only homosexuality from the definition of legitimate sexuality but even more so sex work as the epitome of non-amative, non-reproductive and therefore recreational sex. As Leticia Sabsay (2016b: 61) argues, legitimate sexuality is defined by monogamy, which remains the normative horizon for conceiving sexuality, binding together desire, love and procreation across the heterosexual–homosexual distinction. The result is what Elizabeth Bernstein (2019: 55–6, emphasis in original) calls an ‘amative sexual ethic’, which is based on ‘the conviction that sexuality should be kept within the confines of the pair-bonded, romantic couple’ and is opposed to a ‘consumer-driven paradigm of sexuality that might best be defined as recreational’. Indeed, while the heteronormative family ceases to be a limit for LGBTI rights within the EU’s LGBTI policies in the following phase, it remains so for sex work, and it is actually against sex work as recreational that amative homosexuality is included within the remit of legitimate sexuality.

The 2000s: non-discrimination and the limits of homonormativity

It was not until the 2000s that the EU’s LGBTI policies materialised. This was surely the result of Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, which explicitly included sexual orientation within the EU’s non-discrimination competencies. The latter was followed by two key directives, the Employment Equality Directive of 2000 and the Free Movement Directive of 2004, which made non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation legally binding in relation to employment and freedom of movement, respectively. Both directives define sexual orientation discrimination as a problem of unequal treatment that emerges from individual prejudice. As the EP (2000: 51) contends, ‘outlawing discrimination means not allowing one person to treat another differently on the basis of a characteristic that the former attributes to the latter’. Hence, that which is protected is the public expression of a personal characteristic, in this case, one’s sexual orientation, by outlawing (unjustified) differential treatment on the basis of it.

This consolidates the shift in the conception of sexual orientation from a practice to an identity and from difference to sameness as the grounds for equality enacted by the Roth Report (EP, 1994) in the former phase. The privileging of identity as the only way to claim sexual rights was made explicit by the EC (1999: 8) within its draft proposal for the Employment Equality Directive, which stated: ‘a clear dividing line should be drawn between sexual orientation, covered by this proposal, and sexual behaviour, which is not’. As Eigenmann (2022: 135) suggests, the shift from practices to identity was a strategic choice aimed at making LGBTI rights respectable by detaching them from sex. Yet, it is a move, as Michael Warner (2000: 31) argues, that not only de-sexualises sexual identity but also ‘challenges the stigma on [it] by reinforcing the shame on sex’. It is thus based on the exclusion of those closely associated with sexual practices, especially practices not conducted in private and that are non-amative and non-reproductive, such as sex work. In fact, sex workers use the opposite strategy to claim rights, contesting their identitarian stigmatisation and challenging the shame of sex by identifying it as work. In this phase, the exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies as a non-normative sexual practice ultimately contributes to disciplining political subjectivity in line with heteronormativity by limiting the recognition of sexual rights to non-sexualised, unequivocal and stable sexual identities. As such, it is constitutive of a key feature of the homonormative sexual subject of rights that structures such policies.

In addition, non-discrimination assumes identity to be the cause of discrimination and thus to precede it (Beger, 2004: 90). As such, it endorses the neoliberal fiction of the sovereign self as entitled to rights because of its capacity for self-determination and self-government and of sexuality as an ontological fact over which autonomy is exercised as an enterprise – an enterprise that, at the EU level, is fundamentally linked to the exercise of free movement for labour (Thiel, 2015: 57). This excludes those subjects whose gender and sexual identities contest the stability of the heterosexual matrix, that is, the coherent and binary articulation between sex, gender and desire. This is reflected in the overwhelming disavowal of transgender and bisexual persons by the EU’s LGBTI policies in this phase, which focus almost exclusively on sexual orientation and therefore on gay men and, to a more limited extent, lesbian women (Eigenmann, 2022). Indeed, transgender persons challenge the coherent and binary articulation of sex and gender as either male/masculine or female/feminine, while bisexuality in turn challenges their attendant coherent and binary articulation with desire, whether towards the same or the opposite sex, but just one of them.

The endorsement by the EU’s LGBTI policies of the figure of the entrepreneurial self also excludes sex work, however, especially when it is framed in feminist neo-abolitionist terms as the opposite of (sexual) self-determination and self-ownership. Indeed, in such terms, sex workers are the antithesis of the entrepreneurial self in their inherent inability to self-govern and assume responsibility for themselves and others, in particular, in their inability to exercise their sexual freedom responsibly, which the EP includes in its definition of sexual self-determination. The exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies as essentially unfree contributes to disciplining political subjectivity in line with neoliberalism by demarcating the entrepreneurial choices regarding sexuality that count as expressions of self-determination and self-ownership and therefore as meriting rights and recognition, limiting them to the free movement for labour of an identity. As such, it is constitutive of the entrepreneurial nature of the sexual subject of rights that structures the EU’s LGBTI policies and thus of the inclusion of LGBTI persons as entrepreneurial subjects.

Finally, non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation does not concede an unconditional right to equal treatment but rests, as Beger (2004: 111) suggests, on an ‘agreed-upon common sense about which differentiations should be acceptable and which ones should not’. A relevant example is the extension to same-sex partnerships of the right to free movement by the 2004 Free Movement Directive. After much lobbying by ILGA-Europe and the EP, the directive extended the definition of a family member to include ‘the partner with whom the EU citizen has contracted a registered partnership, on the basis of the legislation of a Member State, if the host Member State treats registered partnerships as equivalent to marriage’, as well as ‘the partner with whom the EU citizen has a durable relationship, duly attested’ (EU, 2004: 12). The directive thus recognised the unprecedented rights of EU LGBTI citizens. It did so, however, to enhance their productivity, as freedom of movement is recognised fundamentally in relation to the internal market (Eigenmann, 2022: 159). Moreover, it did so as couples and thus on the homonormative condition of privatising sexuality and care within the family (Stychin, 2003: 103). Heterosexuality was certainly contested, therefore, yet the main tenets of its amative and productive sexual ethic still determine the new sexual respectability on which LGBTI rights are premised.

This excludes sex work, in light of the recreational sexual ethic that it epitomises. In fact, the exclusion of sex work as recreational is what enables the inclusion of amative homosexuality in such terms by establishing the limit in relation to which sexuality can be commodified without jeopardising the demarcation between sex and the economy that neoliberalism needs to privatise sexuality and the costs of social reproduction within the family in the context of proliferating consumer logics (Smith, 2020: 81). As Nicola Smith (2020; 112) argues, that the heteronormative family is central to capitalism and has historically relied on homophobia for its creation does not mean that capitalism is necessarily homophobic: if ‘gay and lesbian couples are willing and able to participate in the very institution that props up the sexual division of labour’, that is, the nuclear family, which enables capitalism’s most lucrative enterprise, that is, the appropriation of unpaid reproductive labour, ‘then it makes sense for capitalism to tolerate, and even embrace, homosexuality’. The same is not the case with sex work. To cite Zatz (1997: 290), if sex work is so integral to neoliberalism and patriarchy, then how come it is ‘not a culturally exalted and legally sanctioned industry’? The exclusion of sex work from the EU’s LGBTI policies as recreational sex ultimately disciplines sexuality in line with heteronormativity’s amative sexual ethic and is thus constitutive of the homonormative sexual respectability that structures it.

The 2010s: be who you are, love who you want and protection from hate

The 2010s witnessed the consolidation of LGBTI rights on the EU’s agenda despite the fact that no binding legislation was adopted. Still, the issue was increasingly addressed alone, linked to the political identity and founding values of the EU and defended through symbolic actions (Eigenmann, 2022: 70). In terms of policy, two main texts were adopted that intensified the trends identified in the former phases regarding the disciplining of political subjectivity and sexuality in line with neoliberalism and heteronormativity. The first was the EP’s (2014b) ‘Report on the EU roadmap against homophobia and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity’, which included an even broader set of issues and subjects, now covering education, healthcare, freedom of expression and association, and the rights of transgender and intersex persons. Still, the report limits its demands for legally binding legislation to the mutual recognition of same-sex partnerships across member states and, innovatively, the inclusion of homophobia and transphobia within the EU’s hate-crime legislation. In addition, the report was based on an EP study that defined discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the field of employment as a problem leading to unemployment, in turn, identified as a ‘burden on the state’ (EP, 2012: 23). Discrimination is depicted in neoliberal terms as a problem not of injustice, therefore, but of ‘people taking away from society’s wealth instead of contributing to it’ (Eigenmann, 2022: 142).

The second key policy text adopted in this phase was the EC’s (2015) ‘List of actions to advance LGBTI equality’. Similarly to the EP’s study, it pays unprecedented attention to LGBTI families and hate speech and crime (EC, 2015). The list was followed by an audio-visual campaign in 2016. After the first slide stating, ‘I dream of …’, the video shows LGBTI persons in different scenarios around signs saying, ‘buying our own home’ (as two men holding hands enter a house), ‘winning the cup’ (as a group of girls celebrate winning a football game), ‘having a good job’ (as a man in a suit is cheered by work colleagues), ‘being more relaxed’ (as two women hold hands on a beach) and ‘saving lives’ (as two people work in an ambulance). The video finishes with the slide, ‘no matter who we love and who we are we all share the same dreams!’ (EC, 2016). This campaign perfectly reflects the neoliberal and homonormative sexual respectability that structures the EU’s LGBTI policies, presenting LGBTI persons as depoliticised, de-sexualised and consumerist, yet linking these features to freedom and self-realisation within the market and the family.

Finally, this phase witnesses the consolidation of the focus on hate that Eigenmann (2022: 170) argues is counter-neoliberal. References to violence, bullying and hate speech and crimes are used to justify further EU action on LGBTI rights, as they are depicted as preventing LGBTI persons from being who they are, loving who they want and, hence, living productive and fulfilling lives. According to Eigenmann (2022: 171), this ascribes to the EU a duty of care towards LGBTI citizens, which reinstates ‘the idea that LGBTI people are subjects with vulnerabilities and needs rather than just workers and consumers’. It is here that Eigenmann (2022: 22) locates the potential of the focus on hate to ‘contradict neoliberal narratives that focus on successful self-management and productivity’.

From the perspective of queer theory, however, this appeal to the state as protector is not counter-neoliberal but, rather, aligned with the punitive interest of neoliberal states in governing newly disenfranchised populations through crime. Vulnerability, moreover, as a key signifier of the lack of self-determination and self-ownership, plays a central role in turning vulnerable subjects into the antithesis of the entrepreneurial self and, as such, portraying them as both at risk and a risk if left unaddressed, given their inability to self-govern and take responsibility for themselves and others. This is what justifies the use of individualised risk-management and responsibilising techniques against vulnerable subjects themselves, aimed at fostering their desistance from the types of behaviour deemed risky, or else (Rubio Grundell, 2022). This explains why sex workers, as the epitome of vulnerable subjects in neo-abolitionist terms, are not addressed with rights but through existing measures aimed at rebuilding their (legitimate) entrepreneurial selves. Vulnerability becomes a technology of government allowing neoliberal states to expand their social and punitive control, albeit in the name of protection and autonomy (Scoular and O’Neill, 2007). Demanding that sex work be decriminalised on the grounds of its definition as a bounded yet legitimate choice and thus as work challenges this neoliberal logic. Hence, its exclusion as such, especially through the logic of denial, the metonymic displacement of selling sex into selling oneself and the notion of vulnerability, is constitutive of its very operation.

The latest text adopted as part of the EU’s LGBTI policies is the ‘EU LGBTIQ equality strategy’ of 2020. It consolidates the aims of enabling LGBTI persons to be who they are and love who they want and protecting them from hate as EU priorities. Indeed, the strategy has fostered the proposal of two legally binding instruments that prioritise such issues for the first time since the mid-2000s. The first one is the EC’s proposal for a Council decision extending the list of EU crimes to hate crime and hate speech (EC, 2021: 1). While it does not target homophobia and transphobia exclusively but rather alongside racism and xenophobia, it still devotes significant attention to the specific predicament of LGBTI persons. The second proposal adopted as a result of the EU’s (2020) strategy is the EC’s (2022) ‘Proposal for a Council regulation on parenthood recognition’, which wants to guarantee the recognition of parenthood relations across member states. As the EC (2022: 2) puts it, its objective is to ensure that ‘if you are a parent in one country, you are a parent in every country’. Again, the proposal does not exclusively target LGBTI families, but it is overwhelmingly concerned with them.

Conclusions

In conclusion, from this empirical analysis, it becomes clear that the EU’s LGBTI policies exclude sex work in various ways and that such exclusion is constitutive of them, especially when sex work is framed in neo-abolitionist terms. In particular, the exclusion of sex work in neo-abolitionist terms is constitutive of the neoliberal and homonormative sexual subject of rights and new sexual respectability that structure the EU’s LGBTI policies, as it is indispensable to disciplining political subjectivity and sexuality in line with neoliberalism and heteronormativity in such terms. Concretely, it is through the exclusion of sex work as the epitome of harmful, public and thus intolerable sex that homosexual sex between consenting adults in private is constructed as inoffensive and thus tolerable. In addition, it is through the exclusion of sex work as the embodiment of sex as a practice that sexual practices can be reified into de-sexualised, unequivocal and stable identities. In turn, it is through the exclusion of sex work as fundamentally unfree that the inclusion of LGBTI persons as entrepreneurial subjects is enabled, as it delimits the entrepreneurial choices regarding sexuality that are deemed legitimate and establishes the limit in relation to which sexuality can be commodified without threatening the demarcation between sex and the economy that neoliberalism needs in order to privatise social reproduction in the family in the context of proliferating consumer logics. Finally, it is through the exclusion of sex work as the archetype of recreational sex that amative homosexuality can be included within the realm of legitimate sexuality and thus afforded recognition and rights.

Ironically, then, the recognition of sex work as work and its full decriminalisation might yield more radical outcomes in the contestation of heteronormativity, neoliberalism and the relation between the two than might contemporary mainstream LGBTI politics. Whether this is where the current alliance between LGBTI and sex worker activism is heading and what conceptions of political subjectivity and sexuality will take us there, however, need further research. Indeed, the central limitation of this article is that it focuses exclusively on the EU’s LGBTI policies. To fully understand the renewed intersection between sex work and LGBTI rights would also require analysing how both LGBTI and sex work organisations, both independently and together, articulate such an intersection and to what extent this transforms the assimilationist strategy that current mainstream LGBTI organisations, in particular, have prioritised to date (Paternotte, 2016). Lastly, it would also require looking beyond Europe and its prodigious neoliberal nature, both at the international and national levels, as well as other regional domains. Hopefully, this article will encourage such research by attesting to the political and academic relevance of researching LGBTI rights and sex work together.

Notes

1

The term ‘sex work’ was coined in the 1970s to refer to different consensual exchanges of sexualised and sexual services for money or other material gain among consenting adults, including not only prostitution but also escorting, erotic dancing, stripping, porn, webcam and phone sex, and so on. Hence, I use the term ‘prostitution’ to refer to the phenomenon before the term ‘sex work’ was coined and when referring to legal and policy texts, as well as the discourses of actors that use the term instead of ‘sex work’.

2

The LGBTI abbreviation has been criticised for privileging identity as the ground to claim sexual rights and lumping together highly diverse groups (Richardson and Monro, 2017: 17–18). However, it is the term currently used at the EU level, both in its policies and by civil society organisations, hence why I use it in this article. Still, it is important to stress that the EU’s LGBTI policies have only recently started to include intersexual people and hence to use the full abbreviation. Moreover, they do not address all letters equally but focus mainly on gays and lesbians, followed by trans persons, to the detriment of bisexuals and intersexuals. The same can be said of both queer theory and the literature on the EU’s LGBTI politics. Following Sabsay (2013: 80), I understand mainstream LGBTI politics to be defined by their institutionalisation in state, supranational and international organisations and the defence of an identity-based and rights-centred agenda.

Funding

This work was supported by the Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions under Grant Agreement 847635.

Acknowledgements

This article has been over two years in the making and has gone through multiple iterations and revisions. I want to thank the participants of the ‘Gender and Sexuality in the EU and Beyond’ panel at the 2021 University Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Conference, my colleagues at the Gender and Politics Research Group (GEYPO) and the members of the Atelier Genre(s) et Sexualité(s) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles for their critical feedback and encouragement on earlier drafts. I also want to thank the four anonymous reviewers, whose enthusiasm and detailed, constructive critiques contributed significantly to improving this final version.

Author biography

Lucrecia Rubio Grundell is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions MSCA-COFUND-UNA4CAREER Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a member of the Institute of Feminist Research of the same university.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Kollman, K. (2009) European institutions, transnational networks and national same-sex unions policy: when soft law hits harder, Contemporary Politics, 15(1): 3753. doi: 10.1080/13569770802674204

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kramer, S. (2017) Excluded within: The (Un)Intelligibility of Radical Political Actors, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Laing, M., Pilcher, K. and Smith, N. (2015) Being, thinking and doing ‘queer’ in debates about commercial sex, in M. Laing, K. Pilcher and N. Smith (eds) Queer Sex Work, London: Routledge, pp 19.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lamble, S. (2014) Queer investments in punitiveness: sexual citizenship, social movements and the expanding carceral state, in J. Haritaworn, A. Kuntsman and S. Posocco (eds) Queer Necropolitics, London: Routledge, pp 15171.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mos, M. (2014) Of gay rights and Christmas ornaments: the political history of sexual orientation non-discrimination in the Treaty of Amsterdam, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 52(3): 63249. doi: 10.1111/jcms.12094

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Murib, Z. (2023) Terms of Exclusion: Rightful Citizenship Claims and the Construction of LGBT Political Identity, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. (2016) The NGOization of LGBT activism: ILGA-Europe and the Treaty of Amsterdam, Social Movement Studies, 15(4): 388402. doi: 10.1080/14742837.2015.1077111

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. (2018) Coming out of the political science closet: the study of LGBT politics in Europe, European Journal of Politics and Gender, 1(1–2): 5574. doi: 10.1332/251510818x15272520831175

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. and Kollman, K. (2013) Regulating intimate relationships in the European polity: same-sex unions and policy convergence, Social Politics, 20(4): 51033. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxs024

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Richardson, D. (1998) Sexuality and citizenship, Sociology, 32(1): 83100. doi: 10.1177/0038038598032001006.

  • Richardson, D. (2005) Desiring sameness? The rise of a neoliberal politics of normalisation, Antipode, 37(3): 51535. doi: 10.1111/j.0066-4812.2005.00509.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Richardson, D. and Monro, S. (2017) Sexuality, Equality and Diversity, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Roseneil, S., et al. (2013) Changing landscapes of heteronormativity: the regulation and normalization of same-sex sexualities in Europe, Social Politics, 20(2): 16599. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxt006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubin, G.S. (2002) Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality, in R.G. Parker and P. Aggleton (eds) Culture, Society and Sexuality, Routledge, pp 14378.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubio Grundell, L. (2021) The EU’s approach to prostitution: explaining the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the EP’s neo-abolitionist turn, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 28(4): 42539. doi: 10.1177/1350506821994611

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubio Grundell, L. (2022) The rise of neo-abolitionism in Europe: exploring the role of the neoliberalism–vulnerability–security nexus in the prostitution policies of the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Ireland, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 29(3): 103456. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxab018

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2013) Queering the politics of global sexual rights?, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 13(1): 8090. doi: 10.1111/sena.12019

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2016a) Abject choices? Orientalism, citizenship and autonomy, in E. Isin (ed) Citizenship after Orientalism: Transforming Political Theory, London: Springer, pp 1733.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2016b) The Political Imaginary of Sexual Freedom: Subjectivity and Power in the New Sexual Democratic Turn, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scoular, J. and O’Neill, M. (2007) Regulating prostitution social inclusion, responsibilization and the politics of prostitution reform, British Journal of Criminology, 47(5): 76478. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azm014

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Slootmaeckers, K. (2017) The litmus test of pride: analysing the emergence of the Belgrade ‘ghost’ pride in the context of EU accession, East European Politics, 33(4): 51735. doi: 10.1080/21599165.2017.1367290

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Slootmaeckers, K., Touquet, H. and Vermeersch, P. (2016) The co-evolution of EU’s Eastern enlargement and LGBT politics: an ever gayer union?, in K. Slootmaeckers, H. Touquet and P. Vermeersch (eds) The EU Enlargement and Gay Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 1944.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, N.J. (2020) Capitalism’s Sexual History, Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Smith, N.J. and Laing, M. (2012) Introduction: working outside the (hetero) norm? Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) sex work, Sexualities, London: SAGE Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stychin, C.F. (2003) Governing Sexuality: The Changing Politics of Citizenship and Law Reform, Oxford: Hart.

  • TGEU (Transgender Europe) (2016) Sex Work Policy, TGEU, https://tgeu.org/?s=sex%20work%20policy.

  • Thiel, M. (2015) Transversal and particularistic politics in the European Union’s antidiscrimination policy: LGBT politics under neoliberalism, in M. Lavinas Picq and M. Thiel (eds) Sexualities in World Politics: How LGBTQ Claims Shape International Relations, London: Routledge, pp 91107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turner, B.S. (2008) Citizenship, reproduction and the state: international marriage and human rights, Citizenship Studies, 12(1): 4554. doi: 10.1080/13621020701794166.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Verloo, M. (2005) Mainstreaming gender equality in Europe. A critical frame analysis approach, The Greek Review of Social Research, 117: 1134.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Waites, M. (2009) Critique of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ in human rights discourse: global queer politics beyond the Yogyakarta Principles, Contemporary Politics, 15(1): 13756. doi: 10.1080/13569770802709604

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ward, E. and Wylie, G. (eds) (2019) Feminism, Prostitution and the State: The Politics of Neo-abolitionism, London and New York, NY: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warner, M. (2000) The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Weeks, J. (1985) Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, 1st edn, 2nd reprint, London: Routledge.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Kollman, K. (2009) European institutions, transnational networks and national same-sex unions policy: when soft law hits harder, Contemporary Politics, 15(1): 3753. doi: 10.1080/13569770802674204

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kramer, S. (2017) Excluded within: The (Un)Intelligibility of Radical Political Actors, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Laing, M., Pilcher, K. and Smith, N. (2015) Being, thinking and doing ‘queer’ in debates about commercial sex, in M. Laing, K. Pilcher and N. Smith (eds) Queer Sex Work, London: Routledge, pp 19.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lamble, S. (2014) Queer investments in punitiveness: sexual citizenship, social movements and the expanding carceral state, in J. Haritaworn, A. Kuntsman and S. Posocco (eds) Queer Necropolitics, London: Routledge, pp 15171.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mos, M. (2014) Of gay rights and Christmas ornaments: the political history of sexual orientation non-discrimination in the Treaty of Amsterdam, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 52(3): 63249. doi: 10.1111/jcms.12094

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Murib, Z. (2023) Terms of Exclusion: Rightful Citizenship Claims and the Construction of LGBT Political Identity, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. (2016) The NGOization of LGBT activism: ILGA-Europe and the Treaty of Amsterdam, Social Movement Studies, 15(4): 388402. doi: 10.1080/14742837.2015.1077111

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. (2018) Coming out of the political science closet: the study of LGBT politics in Europe, European Journal of Politics and Gender, 1(1–2): 5574. doi: 10.1332/251510818x15272520831175

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Paternotte, D. and Kollman, K. (2013) Regulating intimate relationships in the European polity: same-sex unions and policy convergence, Social Politics, 20(4): 51033. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxs024

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Richardson, D. (1998) Sexuality and citizenship, Sociology, 32(1): 83100. doi: 10.1177/0038038598032001006.

  • Richardson, D. (2005) Desiring sameness? The rise of a neoliberal politics of normalisation, Antipode, 37(3): 51535. doi: 10.1111/j.0066-4812.2005.00509.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Richardson, D. and Monro, S. (2017) Sexuality, Equality and Diversity, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Roseneil, S., et al. (2013) Changing landscapes of heteronormativity: the regulation and normalization of same-sex sexualities in Europe, Social Politics, 20(2): 16599. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxt006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubin, G.S. (2002) Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality, in R.G. Parker and P. Aggleton (eds) Culture, Society and Sexuality, Routledge, pp 14378.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubio Grundell, L. (2021) The EU’s approach to prostitution: explaining the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the EP’s neo-abolitionist turn, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 28(4): 42539. doi: 10.1177/1350506821994611

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rubio Grundell, L. (2022) The rise of neo-abolitionism in Europe: exploring the role of the neoliberalism–vulnerability–security nexus in the prostitution policies of the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Ireland, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 29(3): 103456. doi: 10.1093/sp/jxab018

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2013) Queering the politics of global sexual rights?, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 13(1): 8090. doi: 10.1111/sena.12019

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2016a) Abject choices? Orientalism, citizenship and autonomy, in E. Isin (ed) Citizenship after Orientalism: Transforming Political Theory, London: Springer, pp 1733.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sabsay, L. (2016b) The Political Imaginary of Sexual Freedom: Subjectivity and Power in the New Sexual Democratic Turn, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scoular, J. and O’Neill, M. (2007) Regulating prostitution social inclusion, responsibilization and the politics of prostitution reform, British Journal of Criminology, 47(5): 76478. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azm014

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Slootmaeckers, K. (2017) The litmus test of pride: analysing the emergence of the Belgrade ‘ghost’ pride in the context of EU accession, East European Politics, 33(4): 51735. doi: 10.1080/21599165.2017.1367290

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Slootmaeckers, K., Touquet, H. and Vermeersch, P. (2016) The co-evolution of EU’s Eastern enlargement and LGBT politics: an ever gayer union?, in K. Slootmaeckers, H. Touquet and P. Vermeersch (eds) The EU Enlargement and Gay Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 1944.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, N.J. (2020) Capitalism’s Sexual History, Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Smith, N.J. and Laing, M. (2012) Introduction: working outside the (hetero) norm? Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) sex work, Sexualities, London: SAGE Publications.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stychin, C.F. (2003) Governing Sexuality: The Changing Politics of Citizenship and Law Reform, Oxford: Hart.

  • TGEU (Transgender Europe) (2016) Sex Work Policy, TGEU, https://tgeu.org/?s=sex%20work%20policy.

  • Thiel, M. (2015) Transversal and particularistic politics in the European Union’s antidiscrimination policy: LGBT politics under neoliberalism, in M. Lavinas Picq and M. Thiel (eds) Sexualities in World Politics: How LGBTQ Claims Shape International Relations, London: Routledge, pp 91107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turner, B.S. (2008) Citizenship, reproduction and the state: international marriage and human rights, Citizenship Studies, 12(1): 4554. doi: 10.1080/13621020701794166.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Verloo, M. (2005) Mainstreaming gender equality in Europe. A critical frame analysis approach, The Greek Review of Social Research, 117: 1134.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Waites, M. (2009) Critique of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ in human rights discourse: global queer politics beyond the Yogyakarta Principles, Contemporary Politics, 15(1): 13756. doi: 10.1080/13569770802709604

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ward, E. and Wylie, G. (eds) (2019) Feminism, Prostitution and the State: The Politics of Neo-abolitionism, London and New York, NY: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warner, M. (2000) The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Weeks, J. (1985) Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, 1st edn, 2nd reprint, London: Routledge.

  • Zatz, N.D. (1997) Sex work/sex act: law, labor, and desire in constructions of prostitution, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 22(2): 277308. doi: 10.1086/495157

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
Lucrecia Rubio Grundell Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

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