Are You an Abolitionist?

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 IMG_0531atrafficking 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?

5 thoughts on “Are You an Abolitionist?

  1. Joy

    Thanks for this post, John! I’ve recently begun referring to myself as an abolitionist. My reason is because the term “anti-human trafficking” bothers me. What we do is so life and human affirming, that “anti-human” – even though not meant that way in this context – shouldn’t be associated with the people who labor against slavery or with the work we do. An abolitionist is one who works to abolish something, usually a social evil. This definitely applies to fighting modern-day slavery. I’m proud to follow in the footsteps of our abolitionist forefathers.

  2. John Vanek Post author

    Good point, Joy. One of the problems with the term “human trafficking” is what to call yourself if you oppose it! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. FightSlaveryNow!

    So is it your view that you can be an abolitionist sex worker who views the work as just another form of labor? Or a brothel owner? Or an investor in the pornography industry? I ask, not to be snide, but to seek clarification.

    I call myself an abolitionist because I advocate changes in society that address the root cause of human-trafficking, including sex trafficking. That certainly includes a a cultural landscape where women are not objectified and sex is not commodified. Humans should not be bought or sold. That is a fundamental precept of abolitionist creed.

    I support the Nordic model approach to prostituted people and to prostitution, viewing it as a largely exploitative industry that does much harm, mostly to women. The Nordic model does not punish prostituted people or those who have chosen to prostitute themselves, but offers incentives and support to help people leave the industry. At the same time it does criminalize buying sex, putting the onus where I believe it rightfully belongs, on those who create the demand.

    What you do with your own body may be entirely your own affair. What you do to the bodies of others involves questions of informed consent and absence of coercion, physical, economic, psychological or other. And here the state may assert an interest, just as it does when it prohibits slavery.

    I am an abolitionist because I want to abolish slavery, the conditions that give rise to it, and the institutions that perpetuate it.

    Peace, Justice and Freedom…

    1. John Vanek Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you are touching on the same point I addressed in my post: The term abolitionist has more than one use, but it is the best word to use for the person who stands against slavery.

      You, correctly, illustrate how a person might be opposed to one form of slavery, yet support (or even engage in) other aspects of potential exploitation. In my post, make the point that today’s abolitionist should not avoid using the term simply because a segment of academics and others view the term as linked to abolition of prostitution, or having a religious connotation; neither of these are specific elements of the word’s definition. I encourage the use of the word “abolitionist” because it is the best word to describe one who opposes slavery. How others’ use the word is up to them. I promote the term “modern abolitionist” to reflect someone who understands the differences between slavery as practiced prior to 1865 in the United States and the more complex nature of modern human trafficking, along with recognizing that many different types of victims exist.

      The discussion of the sex trade by those engage in it voluntarily does come up, but I view this as a separate topic from human trafficking. (Yes, I realize the topics can be related, but my focus is on slavery.) I’ve been challenged many times while speaking or training others about human trafficking. My response is usually something like this: “I’m talking today about people who, through force, fraud, or coercion are forced to do something they don’t want to do, whether that be commercial sex or other forced labor or services. If this doesn’t apply to you, fine. But at this moment I’m focusing on those who are enslaved.”

      Thanks, again, for taking the time to comment on my post.

  4. Frank

    I don’t think I could disagree with you more.

    As I pointed out to you in a prior post, if it were not for prostitution, there would never been a TVPA – no matter how much other “labor trafficking” there were. You somewhat agreed with me (but not entirely). And if there were no TVPA, there would have been no federal funding given to local police departments “to fight trafficking” and I doubt you would be writing this book – even if you personally doubt that “trafficking” is all about prostitution.

    All you have to do is look at the tiny handful of people who started this whole “anti-trafficking” movement back in the 1990’s and it won’t take long for you to see that their raison d’être is prostitution. But since they couldn’t win the prostitution debate in a truthful way on its own merits they had to invent the word “trafficking” (along with a lot of other lies, such as bogus statistics which you unfortunately quoted in your last post) to mask their true intentions.

    Because slavery and “trafficking” are used interchangeably – and because “trafficking” is simply a front word for prostitution, when you use the word “abolitionist” you mean a ban on prostitution – whether that is your intention or not
    And no, I am not an abolitionist.


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