A Feminist Definition of Abolition (2008)

By Lee Lakeman

Our feminist plan is to identify prostitution and trafficking as violence against women. Obviously then, those harmed by prostitution and trafficking should not be criminalized. If we understand that they are coping with very limited choices and they are victims of violence they deserve to get support and help in the form of exit services and transitional assistance to escape this growing form of slavery.

Abolition of prostitution for our society also requires all the actions and resources from both government and community that will establish the substantive equality of women and safety of children. Then women will have real choices.

When we see prostitution as violence, it is clear that we should simultaneously make it illegal for anyone to profit from prostituting others. Press our government to enforce the laws against anyone who purchases or rents the body of another for sex or who colludes and profits from anyone else doing so by pimping, procuring or running a bawdy house. 

Our efforts must be for all the women of the world who are rendered vulnerable to prostitution/trafficking by the violence of individual men especially through incestuous violence or rendered vulnerable by poverty especially through the migrations forced on women by the exploitation of their homelands and their communities: colonialism and multinational capitalism.

Abolition is the act of formally repealing an existing legal practice, either by making it illegal, or simply no longer allowing it to exist in any form.

Where the term comes from: Abolitionism was a political movement of the 18th and 19th century that sought to make slavery illegal, particularly in the United States, the West Indies and Canada where it had been legally established. 

Beginning during the period of the Enlightenment in Europe, Canada and the United States, the movement attracted many followers and had significant political results. It succeeded in making slavery illegal in the British Empire (including Canada), the French colonies and the United States.

Today, child and adult slavery are illegal in most countries. It is also against international human rights law. Slavery still exists, with an estimated 27 million people enslaved worldwide. So many of those (an estimated 4 million women and girls are bought and sold every year worldwide) have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation that a new international abolitionist movement has recently emerged. Feminist abolition of prostitution is part of that struggle.

A similarity of splits then and now: In the Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to NAACP, James M McPherson describes two types of abolitionists prior to the American Civil War:

  • On the Right "antislavery" or "free soil" (which desired only the containment of slavery and was ambivalent on the question of equality).
  • On the Left "abolition" (which demanded unconditional emancipation and usually envisaged civil equality for the free slaves).

Today, there are those who want to tolerate prostitution or sexual slavery by decriminalizing the sex industry, not just those prostituted. They think they can tame it or soften its horrors with local health regulations. Some say no government intervention or regulation is necessary. They would leave it to the global market place: laissez faire economics. 

Feminist abolitionists see ourselves as progressives: we want freedom for all from any slavery. We believe the government has a role to play in our security and in sharing our basic provisions. We therefore insist on the social, political, economic and legal interventions needed at every level of community and government to end prostitution and trafficking and to establish women’s full rights, liberty and life.