What does it mean to be an abolitionist? Are you comfortable describing yourself as an abolitionist? In yet another example of the complexity one can find in the anti-human trafficking community, this word is troublesome for many, well, abolitionists.
The use of the word “abolitionist” is alarming to some who see the word as either implying a religious connotation to their stance against slavery, or they link the word with an entirely different subject; the abolition of prostitution. While writing my book The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking and modern slavery, I have been questioned about my use of the word, and in the past have met many individuals who–thought deeply committed in the fight against slavery–prefer to avoid being labeled an abolitionist.
A search of several dictionaries repeatedly offer the same definitions of “abolitionist:” someone who is opposed to a law or practice, or someone who opposes (or opposed) slavery.
While the first definition can be applied to someone supporting the abolition of prostitution, this linkage doesn’t appear in several dictionaries I examined. Neither does a link between religion and abolition appear. So what is the source of this confusion?
During the American debate on slavery in the decades leading to the Civil War, many abolitionists used Christian values and Bible verses to support their stance. At the same time, there were self-described abolitionists who based their arguments against slavery on constitutional grounds, or moral grounds without invoking religious beliefs. Both secular and spiritual abolitionists fought to end slavery then, just as both sectors do so today.
The linking of the word “abolitionist” to the abolition of prostitution appears mostly in academic circles, where a mutual understanding among those discussing the topic exists. A web search of these words together will lead to articles on this subject. Coincidentally, those who have asked me if my use of the word implies a stance on prostitution have always come from the academic sector. This is a narrow use of the term, and one not usually recognized by the pubic.
In my book I address the question, What is a “modern-day abolitionist”? Today’s forms of slavery–and its victims–differ from the slavery of the antebellum United States. Today we address two broad forms of trafficking (labor and commercial sex), while also recognizing the many types of victims; women, children, men, persons of color, domestic and foreign national, native populations, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ, and others.
Today’s abolitionist is opposed to all forms of slavery, and seeks justice for all victims. It is actually pretty simple: If you oppose slavery, the best term to describe yourself is “abolitionist.” Be comfortable using the word, because it is a good–and the proper–word. I’m an abolitionist, are you?