Slavery, Sex Work and the Paradox of Fugitivity 

The African Centre for Migration & Society and Wits Department of Political Science cordially invite you to a seminar by Professor Julia N O’Connell Davidson (Professor in Social Research, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol) titled Slavery, Sex Work and the Paradox of Fugitivity.

The prostitute-slave analogy has long figured in the rhetoric of those who, albeit for different reasons, stand opposed to female prostitution, and the assumptions and claims about sex work that inform it have been extensively critiqued by scholars and activists who approach prostitution as an earning strategy and seek to protect and promote the human, civil and labour rights of those who choose to sell sexual services. However, less attention has been paid to the fact that the analogy also rests on a very particular reading of ‘the slave’ and a very partial appeal to histories of Atlantic World slavery. Taking this observation as its starting point, this presentation considers whether more careful engagement with the literature on slavery could shed a different light on sex work. In particular, it asks whether the concepts of marronage and fugitivity that feature in more recent analyses of slavery and its afterlives could also have theoretical purchase with regard to the contemporary experience (both positive and negative) of sex workers.


Julia has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life that started from a concern with the variability of capitalist employment relations which she explored in her 1993 book, Privatization and Employment Relations: The Case of the Water Industry (Cassell) and a number of journal articles and book chapters on the restructuring of work and employment in privatised utilities and the use of franchising in milk distribution. In the mid 1990s, she started to research prostitution as a form of non-standard work and to address questions about what, precisely, is exchanged in the prostitution contract and the diversity of prostitution in terms of its social organisation and the power relations it involves (both globally and nationally). She has also undertaken research on sex tourism, on child prostitution (Prostitution, Power and Freedom, 1998, Polity; Children in the Global Sex Trade, 2005, Polity), and on child migration. In 2001, she was PI on an ESRC funded project examining the markets for migrant sex and domestic workers in the UK and Spain. This research has informed a number of publications that explore that definitional problems associated with the term ‘trafficking’, critique dominant discourse on ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ and challenge the framing of ‘trafficking’ as a problem of transnational crime as opposed to a migrants’ rights issue.

At a theoretical level, Julia has been concerned to link her research on prostitution, sex tourism, ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ to critiques of dominant liberal fictions about contract, freedom, citizenship, human rights, and childhood, as well as to questions of power, especially the question of how we can critique those theoretical traditions that approach power as domination without slipping into the relativism and subjectivism of much post-modern and post-structuralist theory. These themes were further developed in her book, ‘Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, and the Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship she held from 2013-16.

Julia currently holds an ERC Advanced Grant for a project titled ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’. The project asks whether histories of marronage and enslaved people’s flight and fugitivity, as well as other strategies employed by enslaved people in an effort to move closer to freedom, and whether histories of slave states’ efforts to prevent flight and marronage and otherwise restrict the freedoms of the enslaved, can shed light on the experiences of marginalised and rightless people today.

Date: Monday 13 February 2023

Time: 12:30 – 13:30

Venue: ACMS Seminar Room 2163, South East Wing, Second Floor, Solomon Mahlangu House, University of the Witwatersrand East Campus