Prostitution; An Abolitionist Perspective

Alexandra Mackenzie

Prostitution is often referred to as the oldest profession when it is more accurately the oldest oppression. As a society, we have failed to question or even acknowledge the patriarchal norms that allow men to use and discard women’s bodies for their pleasure. We ignore the race, gender, and economic inequalities that create and perpetuate prostitution and trafficking. As a result the most marginalized women and children are left voiceless and unprotected.

Abolition is a movement that recognizes prostitution as violence against women and a direct deterrent to gender equality. Abolitionists challenge the systemic inequalities that result in the unchecked male demand for paid sex. Racism, colonialism, male dominance and poverty have produced a “class of women that can be legally segregated from society to be used as instruments of male pleasure and sexual commodities” (Raymond, 2001). Abolitionists are strongly against full legalization of the sex trade and advocate instead for the Nordic model of prostitution law.

Nordic Model:

Media discourse around prostitution laws in Canada have centered on the debate between complete legalization and criminalization while neglecting to discuss the Nordic model of prostitution law which has been successfully implemented in Sweden, Norway, Iceland and several other countries (Ekberg &Wahlberg, 2011). In this model of law prostituted women are completely decriminalized and given access to various exiting resources including rehabilitation, affordable housing, and job training. However, men who purchase or attempt to purchase sex are fully criminalized. A widespread ad campaign by the government that explains prostitution as a form of exploitation that will not be tolerated accompanies the legislation. Swedish human rights lawyer Gunilla Ekberg (2011) state, “The Swedish law emphasizes that prostitution is a serious form of male violence against women, one that targets the economically, racially, or ethnically marginalized and that it is a serious barrier to gender equality; the law considers prostitution as both harmful to victims and to society at large.”

An independent 2010 evaluation of the Nordic model in Sweden revealed these laws to be effective (Ekberg & Wahlburg, 2011). Since the law was implemented in 1999 street prostitution has decreased by fifty percent with no increase in indoor prostitution. In neighbouring countries such as Denmark and Norway there was a significant rise in street-level and indoor prostitution. Also notable is the considerable decline of human trafficking into Sweden from organized crime.

MYTH #1: Prostitution is a choice

It is often assumed that prostitution is simply a “choice”. We are often presented with a false dichotomy between prostitution and trafficking. That is, women who chose prostitution and women who are forced. The vast majority of those prostituted are disadvantaged women and children who are coerced in to the sex trade by poverty, pimps, addiction, and abuse. This is not a choice. Farley et al. (2004) argue, “In prostitution the conditions that make consent genuinely possible are absent: physical safety, equal power with customers and real alternatives.”

A 2004 study of prostituted women in nine countries (Canada, Columbia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, United States, Thailand, Turkey, and Zambia) found that 49% of participants entered the sex-trade while under the age of eighteen. 89% of the women surveyed reported wanting to exit prostitution but did not believe they had any real alternatives(Farley et al.).A 2005 study of prostituted women in Vancouver found that 82% were sexually abused as a child, while 72% endured physical abuse. 54% of the participants reported entering prostitution while under the age of consent. In addition 86% were currently or previously homeless. 95% of participants wished to exit prostitution but did not feel as though they had any other viable option (Farley et al.).

Most importantly however, it is imperative that we begin a dialogue about male choice to purchase sex. We need to ask ourselves and each other: Why are men allowed to buy sex?

MYTH #2: Legalizing prostitution will make it safer and easier to regulate

Perhaps the most widespread myth regarding prostitution is that through legalization it will be more safe and easier to regulate. However, no country has successfully legalized prostitution without substantial growth of trafficking, organized crime, and under-age prostitution. Legalization also normalizes men’s ability to buy and sell women like commodities. Similar to a McDonald’s menu, men are allowed to select women based on age, hair color, race, ethnicity, fetish, body type etc.

In 2007 the Mayor of Amsterdam called the legalization of prostitution an “abysmal failure” due to a significant increase in organized crime, human trafficking, and drug trafficking. A 2008 study by the National Dutch police estimated that between 50-90% of the women in the legal brothels were “working involuntarily” (Ekberg & Wahlberg, 2010).  In Victoria, Australiathe illegal brothels outnumber the legal brothels at a ratio of approximately 4:1 (Sullivan, 2007). In Germany the vast majority of those prostituted are impoverished and under-aged women trafficked in from Lithuania, The Ukraine, and Russia (Day and Ward, 2004). In a study by the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs (2007) one-third of the German police said that legalization made it more difficult for them to prevent trafficking, abuse, and under-age prostitution.

There is little to no evidence that legalization has improved the health or safety of prostituted women particularly in illegal brothels (Jeffreys, 2010; Farley et al, 2003; Farley, 2007). Women are still subjected to devastating verbal abuse, physical assault, and rape. Prostitutes in both illegal and legal brothels have reported preferring street prostitution as brothel owners will often not allow them to turn away clients or refuse certain sex acts/fetishes ( Farley et al, 2004; Farley et al, 2007).


Our current prostitution lawsdisregard the human rights of the most marginalized women and children. We must challenge and eradicate patriarchal ideologies that commodify women’s bodies and fuel the male demand for paid sex. The freedom and human dignity of our most vulnerable sisters depend on this.

“Those of us concerned with global human rights must address the social invisibility of prostitution, the massive denial regarding its harms, its normalization as an inevitable social evil that can be moved far from the neighbourhoods of nice people, and the failure to educate students of law, psychology, public health, and criminal justice. Prostitution and trafficking can only exist in an atmosphere of public, professional, and academic indifference” (Farley et al., 2004).

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