Abolition vs. Prohibition

I’ve noticed on this board and elsewhere that various people have been referring to the pro-criminalization of prostitution position as the abolitionist position. However, I contend that the pro-decriminalization of prostitution position is actually the abolitionist position because we’re working to abolish repressive policies against prostitution. The pro-criminalization side represents the prohibitionist position because this side promotes prohibitionist policies against prostitution.

10 Responses

  1. All the antis that I’ve seen (in my limited exposure), universally wish to do away with all sex work completely — abolish it. I think that’s where the terminology comes from.

    You’re welcome to try and get them to change their terminology!

    XX

  2. Even if the anti’s call their agenda an abolishionist agenda, that doesn’t mean we have to conform to their rhetoric. We can decide for ourselves how we use launguage rather than letting the anti’s define our use of language for us.

  3. Its a very strategic use of the term “abolitionist”, drawing on the historical use of that term for the anti-slavery movement. The implication being that all prostitution is slavery.

    Then again, implicit claims like this are simply what movements do when they name themselves. “Pro-life”, “pro-choice’, and “sex-positive” are similarly contentious self-designations.

  4. Good point, Iamcuriousblue. The use of launguage is a very important advocacy tool and the term abolition has the connotations that you mentioned, at least in the U.S. That’s one of the reasons why I find it important to reframe how the term is being used as it relates to prostitution. I contend that criminalizing all prostitution does nothing to abolish or decrease slavery, and actually seems to be encouraging slavery and slave-like working conditions in the sex industry.

  5. Well, it also needs to be pointed out that a lot of abolitionists claim that the only thing that they’re trying to increase criminalization of is buying sex, pimping, and trafficking, but that they would actually decriminalize selling sex. Whether this “Swedish model” represents any kind of real decriminalization is what needs to be challenged.

  6. If they’re trying to criminalize people just for paying for sexual services without commiting any other crimes in the process, then that’s still a criminalized system of prostitution. There are different types of criminalized models of prostitution. The Swedish model is one example of a criminalized system of prostitution and policies in most of the U.S. which criminalize both prostitutes and clients is another example of a criminalized system of prostitution. Both are different examples of criminalized systems of prostitution and and both of the models mentioned above prohibit sex in exchange for payment. Thus, the Swedish model of criminalizing just the clients is still a prohibitionist model rather than a decriminalized system of prostitution.

  7. The use of framing and choice of terminology are very important in debates. As has been pointed put, ” abolition” (confusing as it is – abolish what?) fits very conveniently into extending racial slavery to the concept of ‘sexual slavery’. Much was made of this in the UK this year, where it is the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of slavery. In the melodrama of those dedicated to the ‘abolition’ of prostitution, derived from the White Slave Trade, the anti-trafficking movement is depicted as heroic unselfish rescuers of victims who are powerless to defend themselves.

    Prohibition however describes the situation much better. It is prohibition of commercial sex that is sought, and it carries with it all of the negative implications of that word – ineffective, suppression of pleasure, encouraging crime etc. No, CATW will not change its mind anymore than the use of ‘sex work’ , but in public debate it is important to switch the terms and explain why.

    This brings me to the second point on terminology. It is very convenient to compartmentalise the regulation of sex work into criminalised, legalised and decriminalised. In practice it does not work that way, because many states have partial models and penal codes don’t match implementation. Also if you decriminalise sex work it becomes a business and therefore subject to civil law, including occupational health and employment standards, that is it becomes regulated, which is where decriminalised and legalised overlap. That means it is important to define exactly what you mean. This terminological slip allows CATW to make inappropriate comparisons when combatting any liberalisation.

    For legislation that specifically addresses terminology, see the Prostitution Amendment Bill (Western Australia), which replaces all of the old words with new neutral business terminology.

    The Swedish model is perhaps also an inappropriate term – the Swedes would like it to be a model, and falsely claim other countries like Finland have adopted it (they have not). It has an intuitive appeal to women voters – punish men, but its aim is the same the ‘abolition’ of sex work. It is perhaps best described as symbolic law, and even the Swedes admit that -‘ we are sending a message’. It is a ‘feel good’ law. However it fits neatly into the ‘abolition’ campaign, because it allows them to put forward an alternative when opposing any liberalisation.

    Another interesting terminological issue is how CATW bill themselves. When you see phrases like ‘human rights’ or ‘social justice’ groups, beware, that is CATWspeak. Human rights and social justice groups advocate for sex workers not against them. They also trot out their ‘experts’ and ‘studies’ which is fraudulent.
    Michael

  8. Actually, the term “Swedish model”, like the term “abolitionist”, is derivative as well. Google the term “Swedish model”, and you’ll find that was mainly used a for a period a few decades back when social democracy was the predominant type of government in Western Europe, and Sweden was praised to the skies as the most successful example of liberal social democracy, one which other West European governments sought to imitate and social democrats throughout the world pointed to as the shining example of the kind of system they wanted. And among the things that was seen as exemplary was Sweden’s liberalization of laws around prostitution and pornography.

    Sweden’s reversal of its earlier decriminalization of prostitution and liberal attitudes toward porn are now pointed to as the new “Swedish model” that proper liberals everywhere should get behind. Though, ironically, the biggest proponents internationally for this “Swedish model” are the Bush administration and its neoconservative backers.

  9. I think its definitely important to look at how the “abolitionists” are framing this issue so as to effectively be able to respond to it. Basically, at lest the more “feminist” wing of the prohibitionists are claiming that they don’t want the act of selling sex criminalized at all, but that they do want buying sex criminalized. This allows them to frame the issue in terms of freedom vs restriction of (mostly) male customers, a group who they’ve largely succeeded in demonizing. Basically, they turn it into an argument over male privilege.

    The problem is, the strongest arguments the anti-prohibitionists have been advancing is that criminalizing sex workers for selling sex further victimizes already-marginalized individuals. The prohibitionists now claim that they no longer want to criminalize sex workers and in fact want to offer them help.

    I think a weak point in anti-prohibitionist arguments has been that these arguments and this framing have largely gone unchallenged, or simply met with variations on “you’re just trying to make sex workers into criminals”, which is something the prohibitionists will immediately deny.

    In other words, what needs to be stated more explicitly is, from the standpoint of sex workers, what are the problems with having the customers criminalized? (From a libertarian/consenting adults point of view, the problems are obvious, but many left/liberals, social conservatives, and feminists alike are rather obtuse to such arguments.) And also, what is the track record of “abolitionism” in actually decriminalizing the selling of sex?

  10. “Another interesting terminological issue is how CATW bill themselves. When you see phrases like ‘human rights’ or ’social justice’ groups, beware, that is CATWspeak. Human rights and social justice groups advocate for sex workers not against them.”

    Definitely have a look at this recent posting at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women website:

    Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights Around the World

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