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

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.

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