The sanctions of justice: a comparative study of the lived experiences of female sex workers in Scotland and New Zealand

Ryan, Anastacia Elle (2019) The sanctions of justice: a comparative study of the lived experiences of female sex workers in Scotland and New Zealand. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Full text available as:
Download (1MB) | Preview
Printed Thesis Information:


Female sex workers have become marked as women in transgression, viewed as bad or fallen, depending on the discourse applied to the wider institution of prostitution. Bad women, if motivated to sell sexual services by self-interest, and fallen women, if prey to malicious male violence and abuse. Be they agents or victims, the construction of female sex workers in the public imagination is enmeshed with historical, political and social anxiety related to women’s transgression from appropriate norms of femininity, sexuality and good citizenship. Female sex workers are distinguished from “virtuous women” by the associated stigma of being a “whore”. Furthermore, political functions of the whore stigma serve to render female sex workers as “othered” and thus, they face oppression globally, yet disavow governance responsibilities for the injustices they face. In the advanced capitalist society, a whole range of liberties can be seen to be rendered as incompatible with female legitimacy.

This thesis examines how the historical, social and political meanings attached to prostitution/sex work affect the practices of governance in this area, inquiring into their implications for sex work policy, and their effects on sex working women’s lives in the comparative legal settings of Scotland and New Zealand. The overarching research aim driving this thesis is: to compare ways in which sex work laws, policies and frameworks in Scotland and New Zealand enable or constrain sex workers’ access to justice. This thesis adopts a participatory feminist methodological approach that centers women’s voices and experiences in addressing the research aims, in the endeavor to engage with social justice as both a task and a process.

Tasked with the desire to facilitate subjective accounts of women’s experiences, an overall qualitative approach to collating and analysing data was taken, with in- depth narrative style interviews and ethnographic-informed fieldwork observations being utilised to seek women’s own understandings of their lived experiences. To gain additional context to these experiences, semi-structured interviews were also conducted with key informants, identified as being people whose everyday work involved a translation of policy to practice and an operalisation in some sense of the laws and policies on sex work in each context. Fieldwork took place over a twelve-month period between the comparative contexts of New Zealand (mainly Wellington and Auckland) and Scotland (mainly Edinburgh and Glasgow). No fixed geographical boundaries were put in place in the research in acknowledgement of the transient and often mobile nature of women’s work in the sex industry. Sampling strategies were tailored to each research context, with the intention to reach women who were involved or in contact with local services and collectives and also women who were not in contact with such possible gatekeeping organisations. Thus, a sampling through gatekeepers alongside a snowball sampling technique arose in both contexts, with the later proving more effective in Scotland where a quasi-criminalised legal framework was found to make female sex workers work in more hidden and clandestine ways.

Over the five months spent in New Zealand, thirteen interviews with sex workers were conducted (with four repeated during follow up interviews), two interviews with managers and three interviews with those involved in the provision of service to sex workers. Additionally, over 150 hours of observation was collected in field notes, which ranged from time spent in the base of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), time spent accompanying NZPC workers to outreach, collecting litter, such as used prevention commodities and their packaging, from the street, meeting with other agencies and organisations, and spending time in a sex working premise with sex workers and management. In Scotland, twelve sex workers were interviewed, of which three were interviewed for a second time. Six sex workers were approached through the national Charity, SCOT-PEP, and three were approached through the social media advertisement of other sex workers who were involved in the formation of Umbrella Lane. Three sex working women were recruited through charity outreach to a sex working premise, and around 150 hours of ethnographic- informed observational field notes were recorded from online forums, during face-to-face sex worker meetings, in organizing spaces, and in a sex work premise.

The material effects of the comparative laws and policies on sex work on women’s lived experiences in Scotland and New Zealand were explored through thematic analysis of the data collated. Emergent themes of agency, risk, engagement, stigma and violence allowed for these experiences to form the basis of a critical analysis of structural forces at play. This impacted on women’s entry into sex work, occupational health and safety, sex workers engagement with health and other support services, experiences of stigma, and recourse to justice in cases of violence. Whilst the legal frameworks were not the only structural factor at play, decriminalization was experienced to enhance women’s agency and autonomy in their choosing of how to do sex work, with a prioritisation of their safety being supported by occupational health and safety (OHS) frameworks in place. These OHS frameworks also enabled the New Zealand based participants to minimize perceived risks to their safety, and further provisions in the Prostitution Reform Act allowed sex workers to access justice in cases where their rights were violated concretely through exploitation, abuse or violence, and more subtely in their development of resilience and resistance to stigma. Furthermore, women in New Zealand felt empowered to access essential support services extending beyond basic harm reduction services. In Scotland, under a somewhat paradoxical setting whereby the legal framework criminalises the way sex workers work, alongside a policy context that pivots on an understanding of prostitution as commercial sexual exploitation, women experienced less agency than their New Zealand counterparts in choosing how and where to work, increasing their risk to exploitative working conditions and violence, as their priotisation of avoiding state attention and criminalisation was experienced to override their safety concerns and yet felt comparatively more stigmatised and marginalised from services, including health, social and justice based service provision.

By reading empirical research with comparative policy, law and theory, this thesis contributes to the development of an ‘agenda for change’ for sex workers (McGarry and Fitzgerald, 2018). Such an agenda promotes a paradigm shift in rethinking the relationship between knowledge, discourse, and legal and policy governance, to explore women’s lived experiences in relation to social justice. By making visible the injustices enacted and perpetuated towards women, in this study, and assessing the role of the legal and policy frameworks in supporting, subverting or interrupting injustice and oppression of female sex workers, a politics of justice is envisaged in conclusions that make pertinent three points.
Firstly, the urgent need for engagement with the New Zealand Model of decriminalisation of sex work as a task of promoting a politics of recognition to enable female sex workers the institutional rights necessary to minimise their occupational health and safety risks and enhance their access to formal justice in cases of exploitation, abuse and violence. Secondly, the required task for the development of a politics of redistribution in both comparative contexts that renders visible the structural injustices faced by female sex workers by prioritising the facilitation of sex working women’s’ voices and experiences, in such justice claims, to avoid misrepresentation and misframing of these economic injustice concerns, which appear to dominate current redistribution justice understandings in the Scottish context. And finally, a renewed commitment of status equality to sex working women in policy frameworks that allows for social justice concerns. The exploration of women’s economic, political and social vulnerability to influence discourse, and subsequent policy objectives that are not causing further harm, marginalisation and exclusion of sex workers from vital support services and legal recourse to justice as further evidenced in the Scottish context.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Sex work, prostitution, New Zealand, Scotland, sex workers, justice, policy, legal framework, feminism.
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences
Supervisor's Name: Deeley, Dr. Susan
Date of Award: 2019
Depositing User: Ms Anastacia Ryan
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-41136
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 Apr 2019 10:25
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2020 21:27
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.41136

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Downloads per month over past year