Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sex work, utopia, and what we can learn from prison abolitionism

Groups calling for the abolition of prostitution are not, despite what they might think, following in the best traditions of abolitionism. To merit the title they must strive for far more transformative reform.

Kathi Weeks
14 March 2016
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International day against violence against sex workers protest in San Francisco (2010). Steve Rhodes/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd).

The abolitionist stance on prostitution sounds like a radical position. But I’m going to argue that it doesn’t actually merit the label abolitionist.

Certainly there are resemblances between the kind of arguments and proposals typified by abolitionists in the sex work debates and those advanced by what I will go on to identify as the true standard bearers of the abolitionist legacy. Most notably, in keeping with the longer tradition of abolitionist theory and practice, groups like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) – self-described as “the world’s leading abolitionist organisation” – are committed to structuralist analysis and anti-reformist politics, albeit in markedly limited ways.

When describing abolitionists as structuralists, I refer to the way they situate individuals and their choices in the context of the social structural forces – social, political, and economic institutions and ideologies – that shape them. To understand the prostitution exchange, for example, prostitution abolitionists insist – rightly it seems to me – that one must take into account the inequalities along the lines of gender, class, race, and nation that affect the terms and experience of the encounter. As anti-reformists, abolitionists affirm the value of utopian ideals rather than only narrowly pragmatic demands. For their part, prostitution abolitionists would likely point out that altering the current practice of prostitution by instituting state regulation is not, in itself, an adequate goal. Here, too, I would agree. We need to set our sights higher than any one reform.

However, as those of us familiar with the sex work debates have learned, there are significant problems with the ways prostitution abolitionists develop these otherwise laudable structuralist and anti-reformist impulses. These include tendencies towards a kind of social determinism that reduces human subjects to passive pawns – always reproducing and never disrupting the social hierarchies to which they are supposedly held hostage. It includes as well a tendency to limit the field of concern – for example, on the issue of trafficking – to a narrowed constituency centred on girls and women in prostitution. There is also the odd incongruity of these ostensibly anti-reformists becoming politically fixated on a single – and decidedly non-utopian – reform: the criminalisation of the demand for prostitution.

If we were to follow in the footsteps of the most radical figures of the movement to abolish slavery, I think we would necessarily find ourselves on a very different path. We would be walking alongside today’s prison abolitionists and theorist-activists like Angela Y. Davis. The prostitution abolitionists’ support for the criminalisation of clients presents the most dramatic departure from this legacy. In this respect, they bear a closer kinship to those carceral feminisms that seek law and order responses to gender oppression than to what I would recognise as feminist abolitionism.

Lessons from prison abolitionism

But the differences between the two abolitionist discourses go further. There are two key elements of the kind of abolitionism Angela Davis advocates that I think can be particularly instructive for sex work activism. The first of these is a more robust model of structuralist analysis, in this case, one that links the prison to a larger set of social ecosystems. The concept of the prison-industrial complex is one tool of this critical practice that attends to the ways the prison system supports and is supported by a host of other institutions and ideologies, from the exclusions enacted by the wage system and immigration policies under the conditions of neoliberalism, to the failures of the educational system and the institutional racisms that are the living legacies of slavery. The second strength of this model of the abolitionist project is its affirmation of a politics that, while pursuing substantive reforms, also always keeps its eyes on the utopian prize. The prison abolitionist agenda is unabashedly ambitious: the prison system requires not minor reform but a radical overhaul of the political, economic, and cultural forces that sustain it.

Because of these twin commitments to an expansive critique of social structures and the longer time frame necessary for radical social change, abolitionist politics are inescapably coalitional. If, for example, the prison system is sustained through a variety of rationales and interests, then the struggle against it must be waged from a variety of angles and positions. There is no one architect of the system, no single route into prison, and no sole victim of its apparatuses. Here again, prison abolitionists like Angela Davis are exemplary practitioners of the abolitionist method, committed as they are to forging common cause among anti-prison, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, immigrant rights, and economic justice campaigners, among others.  

So if, as I claim, the advocates of prostitution abolitionism do not warrant the label, what would a truly abolitionist approach look like? Put differently, how might we draw on the methodologies of contemporary prison abolitionism to think about how to orient the politics of sex work? First, I argue, in keeping with many – or perhaps even most – of those activists and academics involved in these issues, that it would require that we call into question any analysis of contemporary sex work that considers it in isolation from other forms of income-generating work. Sex work must be understood in relation to the political economic system of which it is a part. Like prison abolitionist work, this approach to the politics of sex work insists on forging broad alliances with other struggles for justice among workers struggling against precariousness and for autonomy.

A particularly resonant example of this agenda was offered by another author who used the language of abolition, Martin Luther King, when he called for the abolition of poverty as a long-term vision, and a guaranteed basic income as a demand that could move us in that direction. A guaranteed basic income, at least in those versions of the demand I would support, is a minimal livable income paid unconditionally to all individuals. Access to a basic income would function to partially alleviate the economic compulsion that tethers most workers, not just sex workers, into existing forms of work – many of which, and again not just sex work, are produced by and reproduce hierarchies of gender, race, class, and nation.

Granted, a guaranteed basic income is only a reform, not a revolutionary vision. But it has the potential to serve as both a transformational demand – one that could provide workers with more power to decide when, and under what conditions, they would enter into an economic exchange – and a coalitional demand, around which different groups of working people and people excluded from work could find common cause.

The ultimate goal of this politics of sex work, one that draws on the vibrant legacies of abolitionism past and present, would not be to abolish prostitution per se, but rather to agitate for a reconfiguration of the relationship between work and life for all workers.

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