Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Individual or Structural Inequality? Access and Barriers in Welfare Services for Women Who Sell Sex

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Abstract:  It is often taken for granted that women who sell sex are vulnerable, that welfare services can and should alleviate this vulnerability, and as such, being defined as ‘vulnerable’ can be beneficial and associated with special rights that would otherwise be inaccessible. At the same time, ongoing debates have demonstrated that establishing individuals and groups as vulnerable tends to mask structural factors in inequality and has negative consequences, among them an idea that the path to ‘non-vulnerability’ lies in changing the ‘afflicted’ individuals or groups, not in structures or in addressing unequal access to resources. In this article, we take this as a starting point and discuss challenges for the welfare state in meeting the varied and often complex needs of sex sellers. Based on qualitative research with service providers in specialised social and health services in Norway, we examine access and barriers to services among female sex sellers as well as how vulnerability is understood and shapes what services are available. An important feature of modern prostitution in Norway, as in the rest of Western Europe, is that sex sellers are predominantly migrants with varying migration status and corresponding rights to services. This has influenced the options available to address prostitution as a phenomenon within the welfare state and measures that have previously been helpful for domestic women in prostitution are not easily replicated for the current target population. A starting point in a theoretical understanding that considers vulnerability to be a human predicament (rather than the exception to the rule or a deficit in individuals or groups) allows for a discussion that highlights the centrality of structural conditions rather than a need for change in the individual. In order to understand the limitations of the welfare state in addressing modern prostitution as such, it is highly relevant to look at the structural origin of vulnerabilities that may look individual.

Keywords:  human trafficking; migration; prostitution; service access; vulnerability; welfare



© Anette Brunovskis, May-Len Skilbrei. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.