The concept of human dignity and its use in legal and political discourses on commercial sex

  • Stewart Cunningham

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Using post structural discourse analysis (Laclau and Mouffe 1985), this thesis explores the use of the concept of dignity in jurisprudence on commercial sex, as well as in the discourses produced by abolitionist activists and sex worker rights activists who campaign for (different) legal reforms in this area. Rao’s (2011) taxonomy of dignity is deployed as a framework for the analysis of both textual sources and empirical data gathered through interviews with activists. Two principal forms of ‘dignity talk’ are identified: ‘fundamentally incompatible’ discourses, which argue that prostitution is always and inherently a violation of dignity; and ‘dignity as workers’ discourses, which propose that dignity is promoted through the social and legal recognition of commercial sex as a form of work. Where these discourses converge is in their emphasis on the ‘intrinsic dignity’ of people who sell sex as a way to highlight the potential harms that they face, even while the source of these harms are framed in radically different ways. Beyond this, there is clear divergence, with those who propagate ‘fundamentally incompatible’ discourses relying on a version of dignity that is principally designed to uphold communitarian norms, while those who use ‘dignity as workers’ discourses deploy a concept of dignity focused on social recognition. An awareness of the stigma faced by sex workers informs the analysis, and the connections between stigma, dignity and dehumanisation are explored. It is argued that the notion of dignity is strongly associated, in current times, with prevailing ideas of what it means to be a human being. Framing commercial sex, therefore, as a practice that violates dignity, represents it as ‘beneath humanity’, which may serve to reinforce stigma by positioning sex workers as dehumanised subjects. ‘Dignity as workers’ discourses, meanwhile, help to challenge stigma by representing sex workers as complex and agenticagentic subjects , but these risk reifying existing economic structures, a situation which may perpetuate inequalities within the sex industry. The thesis concludes with thoughts on ways forward for using 'dignity talk'™ in discourses on sex work while avoiding the potentially harmful consequences identified.
Date of Award25 Oct 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SupervisorJane Scoular (Supervisor) & Mary Neal (Supervisor)

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