Research Handbook on Gender, Sexuality and the Law
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Research Handbook on Gender, Sexuality and the Law

Edited by Chris Ashford and Alexander Maine

This innovative and thought-provoking Research Handbook explores not only current debates in the area of gender, sexuality and the law but also points the way for future socio-legal research and scholarship. It presents wide-ranging insights and debates from across the globe, including Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Australia, with contributions from leading scholars and activists alongside exciting emergent voices.
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Chapter 25: Vulnerability, victimhood and sex offences

Sharon Cowan and Rebecca Hewer


In this chapter we focus on the ways in which vulnerability has been operationalised in the criminal justice process, particularly with respect to sex offences. After setting out a brief review of recent conceptual debates about the analytical and political utility of vulnerability as a concept, we show, in three case studies – prostitution policy; vulnerable witnesses in sexual assault trials; the criminalisation of trans men for sexual assault – how different sexual offence contexts give effect to the concept. Through these case studies, we show how the state plays a role in producing vulnerability, even as it attempts to (or purports to) address or alleviate vulnerability, intensifying the vulnerability of some while neglecting the vulnerability of others. Accordingly, although frames of vulnerability seem open to challenge when scrutinised in their operational contexts, we would caution all to remain cognisant of the ‘danger’ posed by vulnerability’s vulnerability to resignification, and attuned to the normative political commitments which invariably play some role in translating our thoughts about vulnerability into practice.

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