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This paper explores the policing of vices and offers a critical inquiry into the affective politics of policing practices seen through police and state ethnography, political anthropology, and the ‘affective turn’ in social and cultural theory. It shows how the moral worlds of policing sex work and performing raids in the red-light ‘milieu’ are constituted in the making of boundaries through visual, olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory sensations, which can be understood as normative performances in the realm of morality. Police officers do not engage in a neutral gaze but transform the sensuous into sensations that enact these normative distinctions between the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’ – the morally questionable red-light ‘milieu.’ These practices can be read in regard to a morality that is conveyed in and through the officers’ sensational performances in an observingly affective and somatic manner. Morality not simply is but is being done—and performing affects and sensations plays a significant role in the making of moral worlds in the realm of policing. Raiding the red-light ‘milieu’ is a performance on disorder and order, on what is normal and what is not, and thus a deeply political practice that reveals how order- and boundary-making operates through basic sensations and feelings, of the sensuous, the aesthetic, and the somatic.
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ISSN: 2535-3241!Vol. 4, No. 1 (2020): 22-44!
On the Sensory Policing of Vices
Morality at Work in a German Vice Squad
Julia Leser
Leipzig University
This paper explores the policing of vices and offers a critical inquiry into the affective pol-
itics of policing practices seen through police and state ethnography, political anthropolo-
gy, and the ‘affective turn’ in social and cultural theory. It shows how the moral worlds of
policing sex work and performing raids in the red-light ‘milieu’ are constituted in the
making of boundaries through visual, olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory sensations,
which can be understood as normative performances in the realm of morality. Police offi-
cers do not engage in a neutral gaze but transform the sensuous into sensations that enact
these normative distinctions between the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal’ – the morally ques-
tionable red-light ‘milieu.’ These practices can be read in regard to a morality that is con-
veyed in and through the officers’ sensational performances in an observingly affective
and somatic manner. Morality not simply is but is being done—and performing affects and
sensations plays a significant role in the making of moral worlds in the realm of policing.
Raiding the red-light ‘milieu’ is a performance on disorder and order, on what is normal
and what is not, and thus a deeply political practice that reveals how order- and bound-
ary-making operates through basic sensations and feelings, of the sensuous, the aesthetic,
and the somatic.
ethnography, policing, sensations, affects, order, sex work, red-light milieu, vices,
discretion, morality, practice
On a summer day in July 2015 in a German mid-sized city, shortly after 11 am, an
unmarked police car approached the location of a walk-in brothel in the city’s in-
dustrial area. Detective Chief Superintendent Fuchs and his 10 colleagues just fin-
ished the morning meeting at the police station, producing the plan and the
schedule for the day’s operation, distributing car keys and cars, and finally leaving
the station to start the controls. It was a warm and sunny morning when the first
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
of the three cars, which included Officer Fuchs, Officer Mueller and me, arrived
at the initial ‘milieu object’ on West Street. Officer Fuchs parked the car in front
of a multi-story apartment building in one of the underprivileged neighborhoods
of the city. This apartment building was a known address to the officers, it ac-
commodated mostly Bulgarian sex workers who were offering their services, but it
also housed a few Thai women. Officer Fuchs and Officer Mueller got out of the
car. That day, I was accompanying the officers as part of my ethnographic re-
search with the city’s local vice squad. Wearing a bulletproof vest the officers had
provided me with, I was sitting in the back of the police car, and since the rear
door could only be opened from the outside, Officer Fuchs had to unlock it to let
me out as well. Together, we walked towards the building that had multiple en-
trances with open doors. There were no signs whatsoever that would indicate that
particular services were being offered here, just plain yellowish walls, windows,
and a plethora of satellite dishes. The two officers greeted the caretaker, standing
in front of the building, in a way that suggested familiarity. Another car arrived
with three riot police officers (POs) in it. They joined us. We—at this stage five po-
lice officers and me—were entering the building, and the officers started to sys-
tematically perform one of the regular control measures in the city’s red-light mi-
lieu; a practice that was also called a raid.
Officially, the vice squad officers legitimized these raids as a search for evidence of
human trafficking. Yet, as I have shown elsewhere (Leser 2018), the vice squad’s
raids can be understood more broadly as a conglomerate of governmental tech-
niques aimed at policing and control of migrant women engaged in sex work. A
raid includes techniques of identification, registration, and classification of ‘prob-
lematic’ subjects, and draws on particular logics of performing control, maintain-
ing order, data acquisition and knowledge production in order to make those sub-
jects of control more manageable.
On that day in July 2015, the police officers went into every apartment of the
walk-in brothel on the West Street and checked the passports of every single sex
worker they encountered. As the officers systematically inspected one apartment
after the other, they eventually entered Mona’s apartment on the second floor.
Upon entering, Officer Fuchs looked for a place that provided ‘some light,’ as he
As a part of the research project Institutionalising Human Trafficking: A French-German Comparison
(2014–2017) funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and ANR (Agence nationale de
la recherche) and supervised by Rebecca Pates and Mathilde Darley, I conducted ethnographic
research within a vice squad police department in a middle-sized German city for six months in 2015
and observed their raids in sex trafficking operations within that period. Both the city and the parti-
cipants of this study will remain anonymous for ethical reasons—the names of all persons and locations
have been changed. The German city that I conducted my research in had about 250.000 inhabit-
ants; the department for sexual offences was about the size of 12 officers. I was spending six months
doing intensive ethnographic fieldwork within this police department, and I was spending another six
months doing particular observations on certain days, for example for round table meetings or at an
anti-prostitution congress. I further accompanied the vice squad officers to press conferences and
met with them at the police station to discuss current and ongoing investigations, complementing my
field protocols with 25 qualitative semi-structured interviews with various policing agents, administrative
officials, and social workers who work in specialised counselling centres for ‘victims of human traffick-
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
said, because it was always ‘so dark’ in these apartments. In all the places con-
trolled by the team during the raids, from brothels to apartments of sex workers,
Officer Fuchs, carrying a clipboard with forms and responsible for writing down
relevant data, always looked for a place that provided some light to see better what
he was writing down. Most of the sex workers’ apartments on West Street had a
kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a working room. The living room in
Mona’s apartment, as in most cases, was furnished in a more personal way, as the
working room was in a professional manner. Fuchs was looking around and
breathing in through his nose audibly. He wrinkled his nose and said that it
smelled ‘horrible’ in here. The riot police officer suggested opening a window to
let in some fresh air, and Officer Mueller replied, ‘Why? So that flies would come
in?’ He took a moment—as to take it all in—and then expressed in a sarcastic
tone, ‘This is how Joe Public would imagine the red-light milieu, just like he knows
it from TV.’ The officers laughed at Mueller’s remark. Officer Fuchs meanwhile
started to write down the personal data of Mona on one of his control sheets,
standing near a window in the kitchen. As Mona placidly intended to light a cig-
arette, waiting for the officers to finish their routine, Fuchs snapped at her that she
should, ‘please,’ refrain from smoking right now.
As I was accompanying the vice squad officers on their raids in a German city
over the course of six months in 2015, I started to notice that they continuously
expressed particular reactions to certain stimuli they perceived in a sensuous man-
ner. They did not only articulate how they felt about them, but also performed
particular bodily reactions and behaviors. At first, this did not seem relevant to
me, but as these instances kept repeating during my observations, it became ap-
parent that these articulated perceptions of and expressed reactions to certain
stimuli followed a pattern. They revealed something crucial about the relation be-
tween the vice squad and the red-light ‘milieu’ and its inhabitants, the sex workers.
Sensations are something so basic to people’s everyday experiences that they do
not appear as a matter that needs to be paid attention to in regard to questions of
order and politics, of morality and security. But is this really so? What do the
things we feel, smell, taste, see, and hear have to do with the practices of bound-
ary-making, ordering, othering, moralizing or realizing? First and foremost, ‘a sen-
sation is how a body is in contact with a world,’ and as such, it ‘is not an organized
or intentional response to something’ (Ahmed 2017, 22). Yet this state changes
when sensations become a matter of articulation and/or performance. In particu-
lar, the articulation of sensations that are perceived as negative, bad, funny, weird,
or ‘horrible’—as in the case of Officer Fuchs’ reaction to the odor of a sex work-
er’s apartment—in most cases implies that the sensuous experience in question is
different to the experiences one is used to. Or, more precisely, the sensuous experi-
ence is perceived as not normal. Then, a sensation turns into something sensational.
This paper illustrates that the ‘moral worlds’ (Fassin 2018, 177) of policing sex
work and performing raids in the red-light ‘milieu’ are constituted in the making
of boundaries through visual, olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory sensations
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
that apply to normative performances in the realm of morality. Police officers do
not engage in a neutral gaze but transform the sensuous into sensations that enact
the normative distinctions between the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal,’ morally
questionable ‘milieu.’ These practices can be read in regard to a morality that is
conveyed in and through the officers’ sensational performances in an observingly
affective and somatic manner. Morality not simply is but is being done—and per-
forming affects and sensations do play a significant role in the making of moral
worlds in the realm of policing. Raiding the red-light ‘milieu,’ as I will show in this
paper, is a performance on disorder and order, on what is normal and what is not,
and thus a deeply political set of practices and processes that explains how order-
and boundary-making operates on the grounds of basic sensations and feelings, of
the sensuous, the aesthetic, and the somatic.
The ‘Turn to Affect’ in Studying the Intersections of State,
Policing, and Morality
What we have learned from mainstream theories of the modern state is that the
idea of rationality is inherent to it. The rationalization of administration through
its detachment from emotions ensures impartiality and establishes the legitimate
rule of state bureaucracies, according to the Weberian narrative. Until today, the
dichotomy of rationality and emotionality persists (Illouz & Finkelman 2009), and
affects have been largely disregarded by both political theory (Sauer 1999) and
political anthropology (Laszczkowski & Reeves 2015). There are, of course, excep-
tions: Hochschild’s The Managed Heart (1983) has become a canonical work that
explores the invasion of rationality into emotional domains, coining the terms
‘emotional labour’ and ‘feeling rules.’ But in general it seems that ‘the dominant
line of reception from Weber, Durkheim and Marxism via Parsons and Haber-
mas, but also Foucault or Bourdieu, has been a systematically anti-affective one [...
which] is related to an identification of modernity with rationality and with over-
coming the affects’ (Reckwitz 2012, 243).
However, in contrast to the orthodox Weberian interpretation of the modern bu-
reaucrat who is free of personal feelings and moral judgements, Du Gay (1994),
among others argued that this understanding of bureaucratic rationality needs to
be ‘unpacked.’ Herzfeld (1998) highlighted the indifference and hostility of bu-
reaucrats and thus shed light on the realm of bureaucracy using affects as analyti-
cal tools. Scholars have emphasized the interwovenness of rationality and affects
in regard to the logics of organizations and bureaucracies (e.g. Fineman 2000), in
particular in relation to the emotion management techniques that bureaucrats use
to manipulate a client (e.g. Graham 2002; Penz & Sauer 2016). Stoler (2007) ar-
gued that states are inherently affective, and Navaro-Yashin (2012, 31) observed
that ‘institutions and administrations, modes of governance, and legal practices
[are] capable of inducing, and being charged with, affect.’ Fassin argued that ‘[i]n
addition to legal and organizational rationalities usually invoked to account for
their [the bureaucrats’] activity, there also exist judgements and feelings which under-
lie them. The police are no exception’ (2015, 94).
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
However, only few attempts have been made to research affects and emotions in
policing practices. Loyens (2015) and Mainsant (2010) considered, in developing a
state ethnographic approach in the tradition of Lipsky’s ‘street-level
bureaucrats’ (1980), how police officers developed certain strategies to cope with
emotionally challenging situations. In his edited volume At the Heart of the State,
Fassin (2015) examined the moral framework of police officers’ practices that justi-
fies interventions against populations deemed ‘dangerous’ or ‘unwanted.’ There is
only a handful of authors who have explored the moral dimensions of policing
practice (Fassin 2015, 2018; Herbert 1996; Johnson 2010, 2012; Muir 1977), and
as Fassin noted, the word ‘moral’ ‘is certainly not the adjective most commonly
associated with the idea of law enforcement’ (2015, 93). Recently, Fassin (2018)
conceptualized the moral dimensions and ‘moral worlds’ of the police profession.
Still, the domain of affects and ‘moral sentiments’ (Throop 2012) in policing prac-
tices appears under-researched, although it holds the potential for developing con-
cepts that could further our understanding of the affective constellations of state
practices such as policing. This article offers a critical inquiry into the affective
politics of policing practices through the lenses of police and state ethnography, of
political anthropology, and of the ‘affective turn’ in social and cultural theory
(Clough 2007; Gregg and Seigworth 2010). The actions of officers are analyzed in
the light of the practical workings of governance, and the ways in which ‘the state’
is performed in everyday routines of state agents. ‘The state’, here, is regarded as
performed (Passoth & Rowland 2010), and as an effect of practices (Mitchell
1991). Focusing on the discretionary practices of vice squad police officers, I argue
that affective politics are deeply enmeshed with the project of governing a particu-
lar population, and that affects are a significant part of the state’s performativity in
regard to social problems.
Affective Politics of Order-making in the Realm of Police
The police are usually regarded as an institution that produces, maintains, and
defines order and security. Reiner summed up this common assumption in the fol-
lowing way: ‘the police are a functional prerequisite of social order so that without
a police force chaos would ensue’ (2010, 3). Despite the institutional novelty and
short history of the police, its institutional form maintains the capacity of order-
making and security-keeping—i.e., the police as a carrier of the state’s monopoly
of legitimate force—and has become a certainty that is not challenged. However,
this assumption tends to overlook the inherent politics of policing projects. Early
sociological and ethnographic studies on policing have repeatedly shown that the
police role is more complex and more fragmented than what the term law en-
forcement is able to capture (Banton 1964; Bittner 1974; Skolnick 1966), and that
police officers have ‘substantial discretionary power’ (Ericson 1982, 202). In his
For detailed and comprehensive discussions on ethnographic studies of policing, especially the sem
inal police ethnographies from the 1960s and 1970s, see Manning (2014) and Reiner (2015).
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
observations of the police institution, Bittner (1967, 715) has characterized the
work of the patrol officer as ‘playing by ear’ as ‘he is making his decisions while
being attuned to the realities of complex situations about which he has immensely
detailed knowledge.’ This concerns the police officer’s sphere of discretion, i.e.,
the sphere between the law and its application (Lipsky 1980), or, according to
Skolnick (1966), the space an officer moves within before he puts anything into
writing. This discretionary realm is not only guided by informal rules (Bierschenk
2016, 156) and informal norms (Skolnick 1966, 15)—that are often contentious
with formal rules and principles—but it is further a space in which the ‘politics of
policing’ (Reiner 2010) become manifest. For the discretion of officers allows them
to choose what to order and what to leave unordered, to decide who to suspect
and who to trust, and to ‘decide who to arrest and whose behavior to
overlook’ (Lipsky 1980, 13). The discretionary realm is decidedly political. Many
recent ethnographic studies on police discretion have investigated how police offi-
cers make their decisions and how these inevitably include the making of distinc-
tions and boundaries (e.g. Beek 2012, 2016; Fassin 2013, 2015; Kyed & Albrecht
2015; Schneider 2014). For instance, Beek has argued that police practices can es-
sentially be examined in terms of boundary work and boundary shifting(2012, 554).
The boundaries that constitute the order the police are dealing with are thus con-
stantly ‘at work,’ as Kyed and Albrecht emphasize,
[…] boundary-work is central to policing, and is directly related
to its relational dimensions. Policing actors are continuously pre-
occupied with enacting and negotiating boundaries, not only of
particular territorial spaces and populations, but also between
order and disorder, right and wrong, and between who is a crim-
inal and who is not […]. The boundary-work of policing does
not always explicitly challenge any one particular order or body
of rules, but it is integral to continuous ways of making and un-
making rules and categories (Kyed & Albrecht 2015, 15–6).
As I argue in this paper, the distinctions and boundaries police officers draw within
the discretionary realm, and the decisions they make that rest upon their ‘intuitive
grasp of situational exigencies(Bittner 1970, 46), cannot solely be conceived as ratio-
nal, objective or neutral. The discretionary realm of police officers is affected by
their senses in particular situations, their (gut) feelings (Leser et al. 2017), their
normative ideas about social morality (Fassin 2018; Johnson 2010; Reiner 2010),
and their moral experiences—which, according to Throop, are ‘through and
through, sentiment-based affairs’ and structured by ‘the ways we are conditioned
to move, balance, see, touch, hear, taste, and smell, to feel particular emotions,
sentiments, motives, and moods’ (Throop 2012, 158).
Thus, if institutions do not only think, but ‘likewise judge and feel’ (Fassin 2018,
177), and if the discretionary realm of police officers allows them to do so, we
need to consider the order- and boundary-making properties of affects and ‘affec-
tive practices’ (Wetherell 2012). In this regard, the ‘turn to affect’ in the cultural
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
and social sciences provides relevant conceptual devices. As Sara Ahmed argued
in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), affects play a crucial role in the making
and distinguishing of worlds. Drawing on the philosophy of Judith Butler (1993),
Ahmed suggests that different worlds and bodies do not only materialize through
the discursive repetition of norms but additionally through affective dynamics in
which ‘subjects become invested in particular structures emotions show us how
power shapes the very surface of bodies as well as worlds’ (Ahmed 2004, 12).
Ahmed understands emotions, in particular fear, hate, pain, and disgust, ‘as a form
of cultural politics or world making’ (ibid.). Understood in this manner, affects are
a central, though largely neglected, force in regard to the politics of boundary-
and order-making.
Drawing on Ahmed’s ideas, policing practices in the discretionary realm can be
understood as a matter of affective and sensory politics. In my ethnographic ob-
servations of the raids conducted by the local vice squad in a German city, bound-
ary-making took the form of spontaneous and situational performances of feelings
and sensations, i.e., of things the officers saw, smelled, or felt and that consequent-
ly became the topic of a normative enactment. Through and in these practices,
and in these interactions between the vice squad officers and their objects of con-
trol, the ‘moral world’ (Fassin 2018, 177) of the red-light ‘milieu’ was continuously
at work, and normative distinctions were drawn between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
‘normal’ and ‘deviant’, and ‘above and below’—as Ahmed puts it,
Lower regions of the body—that which is below—are clearly
associated both with sexuality and with ‘the waste’ that is literal-
ly expelled by the body. It is not that what is low is necessarily
disgusting, nor is sexuality necessarily disgusting. Lowness be-
comes associated with lower regions of the body as it becomes
associated with other bodies and other spaces. The spatial dis-
tinction of ‘above’ from ‘below’ functions metaphorically to sep-
arate one body from another, as well as to differentiate between
higher and lower bodies, or more and less advanced bodies. As a
result, disgust at ‘that which is below’ functions to maintain the
power relations between above and below, through which ‘aboveness’
and ‘belowness’ become properties of particular bodies, objects and spaces
(Ahmed 2004, 89).
The affective politics of policing, and the ‘moral worlds’ the officers engage in
making and maintaining, are decidedly particular and historically embedded when
it comes to the policing of sex and sex work. In this regard, Johnson (2012, 32) has
shown that ‘police officers are understood to occupy a particular standpoint in re-
spect of sexual morality’—a standpoint that ‘is aligned with socially normative
ideas about sex and sexuality.’ The relation between the police and sex work has
been shaped and formed over time. Within the (short) genealogy of the police in-
stitution, its development and differentiation, the attendance to the problem of
prostitution has always been a focal point. As criminal police departments within
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
major German cities professionalized and specialized around the turn of the 20th
century (Gross et al. 2008, 13), differentiated institutions of the criminal police
evolved according to the localization and the exclusive policing of particular fields
of crime. Among these specialized criminal police departments, the Sittenpolizei
(morality or vice squad) was assigned to policing prostitution. In the European
context, historians and sociologists have shown how this particular relationship
between prostitution and its governance has been shaped by discourses and ideas
about the norms and normativities of sex and sexuality (e.g. Agustín 2008b;
Walkowitz 1980). In this regard, Agustín argued that ‘[t]he word prostitution is nei-
ther a precise job description nor the designation of unequivocal or definite acts
but rather an idea loaded with ambiguities and moral judgements’ (2008a, 73). As
Foucault has shown in The History of Sexuality (1976), sex became a discursive ob-
ject inseparably intertwined with power and knowledge in the emerging field of
science that was taking an increasing interest in those kinds of sexualities that were
considered ‘perverse’ or ‘abnormal’ during the 18th and 19th centuries. In this con-
text and time, ‘[t]he formation of the modern state and developments in medical
and social science meant that prostitution was increasingly cast as a “distinctive”
bio-political problem’ (Scoular 2015, 31).
Still, the relation between the world of the vice squad and the world of vice, a.k.a.
the ‘milieu,’ pertains to a normative order that is actively shaped by the everyday
work practices of the vice squad. In the practice of the raid, two co-dependent
and co-constitutive worlds are continually ‘at work,’ the vice squad on the one
hand and its ‘shadowy but constitutive Other’—the world of vices, the ‘milieu’—
on the other (Valverde 2003, 16). The raid as a ‘traditional’ practice employed in
vice squad policing (Farrell & Pfeffer 2014), as I will demonstrate, is not a mere
technical or rational procedure of law enforcement, but also a performance on
disorder and order, on what is normal and what is not, and thus a deeply political
set of practices and processes that reveals how order- and boundary-making oper-
ates on the grounds of basic sensations and feelings—as, in Ahmed’s words,
‘“aboveness” and “belowness” become properties of particular bodies, objects and
spaces’ (Ahmed 2004, 89).
Boundary-making Through Sensations
‘Milieu,’ as the vice squad officers were using the term, was like a biotope where
offences and crime flourish. It formed an ‘outside’ to the world of their depart-
ment. The ‘milieu’ had to be met with police forces and measures of control be-
cause, to them, it was inherently disorderly and dubious. To the officers, it was a
blind spot in the state’s vision, and an obnoxious stain in the city’s social fabric.
The officers were using the term ‘milieu’ as if to refer to another world—a some-
how strange underworld that had its own rules and a particular kind of inhabi-
tants—a world that was hidden, dark, clandestine, and potentially dangerous. The
‘milieu’ was positioned within what Manning (2003, 212) calls a ‘moral topogra-
phy of a city’ that was constituted through the officers’ ‘mental partitioning of
space, differentiated into “good” and “bad” areas.’ During the raids, the vice
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
squad officers not only came into touch with the ‘milieu,’ but the boundaries be-
tween the two moral worlds—the vice squad and the world of vices—were made
visible and tangible. In taking a closer look at the ethnographic material, four di-
mensions of ‘boundary-making through sensations’ can be distinguished: visual,
olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory.
The first dimension, that of vision and the visual, constituted the underpinning
principle of the raid. In my first meeting with city Y’s vice squad in February 2015,
Officer Fuchs explained the objective of the raid in the following manner: ‘In per-
forming our controls regularly, we make an effort to keep an overview […].’ More
precisely, he instructed the riot POs at the beginning of the raid with the words,
As soon as we’re in the apartment, the first thing we do is securing the status quo.
That means, we’ll have a look into all of the rooms.’ The desire for making the
unknown known is innately tied to the matter of visibility, of vision, and of mak-
ing something visible. This is why the first thing the officers did upon entering a
sex worker’s apartment or a brothel was having a look around.
In a brothel. Officer Grohl goes straight behind the bar, shines
his flashlight in every corner, proceeds doing that in the room
behind the bar, and reappears a few moments later with a piece
of paper in his hands that he obviously found in the back room.
Grohl asks Fuchs, ‘Here, these are records with amounts of
money. Do you want to take a picture?’ Fuchs says, ‘No.’ After a
while, the officers proceed to the upper oor. There are five or
six rooms. Grohl goes into one room, comes out, goes into the
next, and, in this manner, is having a look at all of these rooms.
The riot PO Schneider comes up the stairs. He asks me if we
already had a look into all of these rooms. Grohl comes out of
the last room, wrinkles his nose, and says, ‘Woah, this is so nasty
(field notes, 2015).
During the initial procedure of ‘having a look around,’ it was in most cases the
darkness that the officers complained about and tried to avoid, although it was
never so dark as to conceal certain items that attracted the attention of the offi-
cers. What they saw and what entered their field of vision was frequently a matter
that the officers deemed necessary to point out either to the present sex workers or
to their colleagues. The former often received admonishing and condescending
comments in regard to their indecent dress or their ‘sloppiness.’ While with the
latter they shared impressions and joked around.
The officers are standing in Monica’s apartment. Officer Grohl is looking
Grohl: ‘[addressing Monica] You could do some cleaning.’
Monica: ‘Yes.’
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
Grohl: ‘Now, no clients, so, time to clean.’
Monica: ‘I did.’
Fuchs: ‘When? Last week?’
Monica: ‘Just now.’
Schneider: ‘Just now? Sure.’
Grohl: ‘No no no, here, the toilet is still dirty. See?’
Another apartment. The officers are standing in the kitchen. Officer Grohl
and Officer Fuchs are eyeballing the room, the furniture, and the food on the
stove and are mocking the perceived state of disorder.
Fuchs: ‘[ironically] This is the dream of every housewife or actu-
ally every woman. Isn’t it nice! Aah, delicious!’
Grohl: ‘But with your cold, you can’t smell that much, can you?’
Fuchs: ‘Well I can smell that!’
Grohl laughs. Fuchs is blowing his nose.
Fuchs: ‘I’m looking for a trash bin to throw my hankie in, but it
doesn’t seem to matter where I’ll throw it, if I look at the mess in
here’ (field notes, 2015).
The officers did not just see and perceive the world they were entering, but they
turned raw impressions into expressions of normativity, and sensuous impressions
into sensations. These recurring expressions-as-performances conveyed certain
moral judgements about the ‘milieu’ and its inhabitants (e.g. uncleanliness, dirti-
ness, disorder, or indecency) that the officers pointed out and emphasized in their
interactions, as a matter to joke about, to blame the sex workers, or to pity them.
However, what these expressions and enactments of seemingly basic sensations
also did was to establish the relationship of order between the vice squad officers
and the sex workers. This practice took the form of an asymmetrical power rela-
tion. In essence, these interactions were about policemen telling women to clean
their apartments and put some clothes on. In combination with the officers shin-
ing their flashlights and trying to illuminate ‘darkness,’ their articulations of visual
sensations could be read as a control technique that established a difference, a
boundary, and a hierarchy and that enacted relations of status and power.
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
Fig. 1 Outside of a walk-in brothel, Germany, image by author, 2015.
Boundary-making sensations were not only occurring in the dimension of the vis-
ual, but also in olfactory, somatosensory, and auditory dimensions:
We arrived in front of a walk-in brothel. After the officers were finished
writing down the number plates of every parked car in front of the building
in their form sheets, and after they took a picture of every car with their cam-
era (this takes a few minutes), we entered the building through the entrance
door that was closest to us (there are three entrances to the building) and rang
the doorbell to the first apartment on the ground floor. A Thai woman opened
the door and greeted all the entering policemen with a friendly sounding ‘hel-
lo.’ Officer Fuchs asked her, ‘Do you have your ID? Passport?’ She replied,
‘Yes, one moment, please.’ She was in her 50s, wearing casual working
clothes. She went into another room to get her passport. Meanwhile, Officer
Grohl and Officer Schneider were having a look in all of the rooms.
Grohl: ‘Is anybody else here?’
Fuchs: ‘If he’s not standing behind the door, then no.’
In of the rooms, there was a TV and next to it another screen showing the
stream of a surveillance camera installed outside above the apartment door.
In a wide-angle shot, the staircase was visible.
Fuchs: ‘So, concerning the crystal meth: sometimes it is lying
around in a bowl or on the ground, so pay attention.’
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
The officers were looking in the bowls standing around and inspecting the
floor. The apartment was cut in a weird way; there were a lot of rooms, and
it was difficult to oversee it all. In addition, the apartment was fully fur-
nished, generously decorated, and scattered with an abundance of all kinds
of things. The woman was living here permanently, I figure, as opposed to
the majority of sex workers who were renting a furnished apartment for a
week and then moving on to a different city.
Schneider: ‘Thousands of doors, here.’
Officer Schneider and Officer Grohl were, again, not containing themselves in
commenting the state of the apartment regarding cleanliness and odor, saying
that they ‘don’t want to touch anything’ etc. The woman returned with her
passport, and Fuchs copied the data. He asked her for her name and pseu-
donym, surprised by her year of birth (‘1958!’), and then he said, ‘That’s a
really long name.’ Slowly reading out loud the syllables of her name from the
passport, he wrote it down into the form sheet. Her pseudonym, however, was
much shorter: ‘Lola’ (field notes, 2015).
The field notes above exemplify that the officers were bothered by odors that they,
again, did not simply perceive during raiding apartments but accentuated either
through an articulation or a demonstrative bodily reaction, e.g. nose-wrinkling.
Corporeal performances were enacted in regard to the sensation of touch, too.
The officers suggestively avoided ‘milieu’-to-skin-contact on numerous occasions,
including the covering of their hands with shirt sleeves or using rubber gloves. The
officers’ refraining from touch was distance-creating, stabilizing and reinforcing
boundaries. They also reacted to temperature in the same demonstrative manner
as they did to odors and sight. Many of the sex workers’ apartments were judged
as too warm; the officers would complain that the heating was turned up too high,
and sometimes they admonished the women to turn the heating off. The warm
temperatures suited the women in lingerie but were bothersome to the fully
dressed policemen in leather jackets. In reaction to noise, the officers often com-
mented on the barking of dogs that belonged to the sex workers, avoiding them as
well as hushing them up.
The sight and odor of the ‘milieu’ were enacted as unruly, their inhabitants consti-
tuted as out-of-the-norm, their apartments as too warm, and their dogs as too
loud. The constitution of the ‘milieu’ through boundary-making practices of sen-
sations was aligned with the moral standards of the officers—moral standards that
were made visible and present through the performances of what was right and
what was wrong, what did not smell right, what did not look proper, and what
should not be touched. The boundary-making therefore moved within a sphere of
morality; the sensuous that was turned into sensation—performed by the offi-
cers—was coding morality regarding acceptable forms of sexuality and the proper
behavior of women in society.
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
Fig. 2 Entering the apartments. Image by author, 2015.
In noting, explaining, complaining, or commenting on the absence or presence of
basic perceivable stimuli, such as light, heat or odors, the officers were essentially
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
expressing their ‘gut feelings,’ i.e., visceral affective reactions to perceivable ab-
sences and presences of highly particular properties. By transforming the sensuous
into the sensational, the officers were enacting the normative. They performed
their ‘common sense’ of what was the ‘normal’ and the ‘right’ reaction to the de-
viant and the morally wrong. As the officers acted ‘naturally’ in accordance with
the perceived situation, these reactions could be termed ‘vice policing instincts.’
This instinctive form of knowledge is practical and ‘embedded in local experience’
(Scott 1998, 320). It is part of the vice squad police officers’ skill set and resembles
Scott’s concept of mētis, i.e., ‘a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelli-
gence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human
environment’ (1998, 313). Scott explained:
Any experienced practitioner of a skill or a craft will develop a
large repertoire of moves, visual judgements, a sense of touch,
or a discriminating gestalt for assessing the work as well as a
range of accurate intuitions born of experience that defy being
communicated apart from practice (Scott 1998, 329).
These ‘instincts’ constitute affective forms of knowledge that are, according to
Valverde, ‘creative, dynamic, hybrid, open-ended’ and thus quite characteristic for
vice squad policing (2003, 22). After all, the world of vice is legally speaking a
rather ‘shadowy realm’ to govern, as ‘there is no exhaustive list of indicators of
vice, much less a clear checklist of indicators of virtue, order, and
decency’ (Valverde 2003, 16, 22). Due to the lack of technical knowledge on how
and where to draw the boundary, it was merely rational that the vice squad officers
applied different forms of knowledge that were instinctive, intuitive, and sensuous-
ly affective—thus, they were coming to know the ‘milieu’ affectively.
‘Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite’ – Performing Disgust
During one of the raids I was observing, I was listening to a conversation between
the older and raid-experienced Officer Grohl and the younger riot PO Schneider,
who accompanied the vice squad’s raid in his first years in the field after recently
having finished his master’s degree. Bonding during a short period of waiting, they
stood in the hallway of the raided sex worker’s apartment, chatting about bed-
bugs. The officers did not actually see or find a bedbug, but they conjured the idea
of a bedbug infestation while standing in a sex worker’s apartment, waiting for
their squad leader to finish his writing. Officer Grohl said, ‘In the case of a bedbug
infestation, you’re supposed to heat the room to more than 60 degrees for some
hours. You’re bringing home bedbugs real easy.’ And the younger Officer Schnei-
der replied, ‘With your shoes and stuff ?’ Grohl said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘So what will you do
about this later?,’ asked Officer Schneider, and Grohl said, ‘I’ll get rid of all my
clothes and put them in the laundry.’ ‘And your shoes?’, asked Schneider. ‘Disin-
fect them,’ said Grohl. And theoretically,’ Schneider continued his inquiry, ‘you
have to do that every time?’ Grohl replied, ‘For our controls, I always carry anoth-
er set of clothes. If I know I have a control, I always bring a change. It’s totally
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
gross.’ He laughed. Schneider then said, ‘You always believe that it won’t be that
bad. But now, I really feel it itching everywhere. I never put that many thoughts
into it.’ And Grohl, still laughing, said to him, ‘It’s super gross. Bed bugs—Google
it, it’s awesome!’
Officer Fuchs approached the two officers. Apparently, he was finished. Fuchs
asked the officers where the sex worker had gone. Standing in the hallway, they
were looking into the kitchen, just in time to see her picking something up from
the floor. Bending down, her butt was showing. Grohl said, ‘There she is.’ And the
three of them were looking at her and making grimaces, i.e., squinting their eyes
and making noises such as ‘mmh’ and ‘ugh’ by which they were expressing that
they find the sight of her back repulsive. Fuchs asked for her telephone number
(field notes, 2015).
Apparently, the need to address the issue of bedbugs was not the result of tangible
(raid) experience but it was brought up by Grohl because he recently read an arti-
cle on the topic. Nonetheless, it was not accidental that the officers chose this top-
ic, for them it appeared related to the setting they found themselves in. Simultane-
ously, they enacted the properties of that setting as disgusting, dirty, and potential-
ly infested. This enactment was not limited to verbal expressions, but also bodily
enacted: a suspicious look at the carpet, an extra set of clothes carefully washed
and disinfected after the raid, or the sensation of itching on Officer Schneider’s
skin. When the raid that day was interrupted by the event of taking someone back
to the station, the first thing the officers did was announce that their hands needed
to be washed; they washed them immediately. Likewise, at the beginning of the
raid, Officer Schneider jokingly asked everyone if all of them remembered to take
rubber gloves.
The bedbugs discussion illustrates how the feeling of disgust materialized in the
practices of the officers. Disgust was not only performative but also functional.
Imogen Tyler argued in this respect that the performance of disgust in the realm
of politics is linked to the processes of making abject. Performing disgust unfolds
in its boundary-making capacity, i.e., it is used in the endeavor of ordering in the
sense of establishing and re-establishing the boundaries between those below and
those above. Practicing and performing disgust affirmed the moral order that the
vice squad and the world of vices constituted. As the officers were careful ‘not to
touch anything,’ protecting their skin with rubber gloves, washing their hands,
separating ‘raid clothes’ from ‘normal workday clothes,’ and conjuring the horrors
of a bedbug infestation, they distanced themselves from the ‘milieu’ in regard to its
dirty and disgusting properties. Practices of distancing occurred in the proximity
of directly interacting with the ‘milieu’ during the raid.
Disgust is described as a ‘moral sentiment’, a direct expression of the moral order
it is situated in (Throop 2012, 150). Disgust is also linked to the governmental
mode of abjection (Tyler 2013), and as Ahmed argued, disgust ‘involves a relation-
ship of touch and proximity [… and] [t]hat contact is felt as an unpleasant intensi-
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
ty: it is […] the proximity of the object to the body [that] is felt as
offensive’ (Ahmed 2004, 85; see also Walby & Spencer 2011, 114). The perfor-
mance of disgust mediates, makes, and maintains a moral order. Within the prac-
tice realm of the raid, performing disgust affirmed the boundaries between the
‘aboveness’ of the vice squad and the ‘belowness’ of the ‘milieu’ as the world of
However, the ‘aboveness’ and ‘belowness’ were, in this study, effects stemming
from practice. None of the participating vice squad officers in this ethnographic
exploration would actively articulate themselves as being on ‘higher’ moral
grounds, above their subjects of control, the sex workers. When the officers talked
about sex workers in interviews conducted at the police station, they were decided-
ly compassionate. The relation between the vice squad and the ‘world of vices’
was neither dialectical nor one-directional—yet diving into this complex relation-
ship would exceed the scope of this paper. However, most officers saw the red-light
‘milieu’ as a rather ‘shadowy realm’ to govern, an underworld that was difficult to
know and understand. The policing of vices might differ from other research on po-
lice morality (e.g. Feldman 2018; Herbert 1996; Muir 1977), but it should be
stressed that the police officers in this study did not make their moral judgements
out of thin air. Rather, and similarly to what Johnson argued in regard to the
policing of sexual offences,
‘Public morality’ should […] be seen as a dynamic resource that
is used by police officers to reach judgments about the behav-
iours they police. Police discretion, in this sense, should be seen
as the outcome of individual moral decisions made in relation to
socially dominant ideas about particular types of conduct (John-
son 2010, 414).
The moral worlds of policing sex work and performing raids in the red-light ‘mi-
lieu’ are constituted in the making of boundaries through visual, olfactory, so-
matosensory, and auditory sensations which are to be understood as normative
performances, belonging to the realm of morality. Through seeing, demonstrating,
and pointing out, the officers were concerned with ‘the anomalous which is
marked and transposed to a different register of visibility’ (Brighenti 2014, 25).
The ‘police gaze’ is thus a decisive factor within the discretionary realm of police
officers, and the officers’ field of view is affected—what they see, what strikes
them, what they notice, and what they need to point out is structured, in fact, by
their professional pursuit to look for anything that deviates from the norm (Finstad
2000). Yet it is not only the ‘police gaze’ that forms and informs practices of dis-
cretionary boundary-making, but also the ‘police nose,’ the ‘police ears,’ and the
‘police touch.’ In this regard, Cook and Whowell argued that, for further research
on policing practices in their capacities of order- and world-making, ‘it is impera-
tive that we understand how other senses [than vision], such as sound, taste, touch
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
and smell, are infused in the production and consumption of ‘acceptable’ and
‘unacceptable’ bodies, signs and spaces’ (2011, 618).
In the ethnographic material presented in this paper, the officers transformed the
sensuous into sensations that enacted the normative distinctions between the
‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal,’ morally questionable ‘milieu.’ In the vice squad offi-
cers’ practices and performances, morals, affects, and sensations came to be un-
derstood as deeply intertwined and nearly impossible to separate. As Reichlin em-
phasizes, ‘moral properties are not real properties of the world’ (2012, 603), but, as
has been illustrated, properties being made in an ongoing process and maintained
through the repetition of situational performances that make morality in a senso-
ry-affective manner. Morality not simply is but is being done. The vice squad and the
‘milieu’ were co-constituted in these practices, set in relation to each other and
ordered, ‘“aboveness” and “belowness” become properties of particular bodies, objects and spa-
ces(Ahmed 2004, 89, emphasis in original). The ‘milieu’ was (co)produced as a
space that was dark, odorous, and too hot and inhabited by objects that were in-
decent, smelly, loose, and vicious. It was a performance on disorder and order, on
what is normal and what is not, and thus a deeply political set of practices and
processes that explains how order- and boundary-making operates through basic
sensations and feelings, of the sensuous, the aesthetic, and the somatic.
Author Bio
Julia Leser is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Leipzig University and a researcher
affiliated with the BMBF-funded project ‘Strangers in Their Own Land?’ (Leipzig
University), the BMBF-funded project ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling’ (TU Darmstadt,
HAWK Hildesheim/Holzminden/Göttingen), and the DFG-funded project ‘Insti-
tutionalizing Human Trafficking – A French-German Comparison’ (Leipzig Uni-
versity). Leser studied Political Science and Japanese Studies at Waseda University
(Japan) and Leipzig University (Germany), where she obtained her PhD degree in
2019. Her research interests relate to understanding the politics of policing and
the politics of affects, and further include national security and migration control,
nationalism, populism, political ethnography, and state theory. Her PhD thesis
Feeling Blue: Affective rationalities in vice squad policing is an ethnographic study of police
raids in the sex work sector that focuses in particular on emotion management
techniques in policing agencies. She is also a member of COST Action IS1209
‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of
Governance’ (ProsPol).
This work was supported by the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsge-
meinschaft, DFG) and the French National Agency for Research (Agence nationale de la
recherché, ANR) under Grant 246481356, ‘Institutionalizing Human Trafficking. A
French-German Comparison’ (2014–2017).
Julia Leser – On the Sensory Policing of Vices
I am very grateful to the editors of the special issue and to the anonymous review-
ers for their important and constructive comments.
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Full-text available
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