Abolition: Punishing Pimps and Johns

The Ideology of Abolition

Abolitionism is often described as a middle ground between prohibitionism and legalization. The abolitionist ideology, like prohibitionism, indicates a desire to eradicate prostitution. However, as the abolitionist ideology stems from the view of prostitutes as ‘victims’, it aims to eradicate prostitution without punishing the prostitutes themselves.

Believing that most (if not all) prostitutes are exploited and controlled by pimps, brothel keepers, and/or johns, countries with abolitionist laws penalize these oppressors rather than the prostitute. Making these related activities (brothel keeping, pimping, etc.) illegal effectively criminalizes prostitution, as it is ‘virtually impossible’ to have prostitution without any of the other crimes.

It is important to note that while abolitionism is not meant to discipline the prostitutes, some sex workers and other advocates claim that criminalizing the buying of sex or placing the onus of the crime on the buyer makes it harder for sex workers to make a living, thereby further harming vulnerable women.

Present-Day Examples

Abolitionist regimes are becoming more common. Currently, abolitionist countries include Northern Ireland, England, Canada, Sweden, and (most recently) France.

Northern Ireland

Prostitution itself is not an offense under Irish law. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act of 1993 was interduced in order to provide the government with power to deal with street prostitution, brothel keeping, and pimps. It prohibits soliciting or importuning another person in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution (this offence applies to prostitute and client). It also prohibits loitering for the purpose of prostitution, organising prostitution by controlling or directing the activities of a person in prostitution, coercing one to practice prostitution for gain, living on earnings of the prostitution of another person, and keeping a brothel or other premises for the purpose of prostitution.

Ireland's laws have changed very little over recent decades, theoretically continuing to target women who sell sex. Yet not only are pimps criminalized, in practice they are targeted more than prostitutes. The prostitutes punished are often streetwalkers as the laws are addressed as matters of public order and nuisance. [1]


Support for the abolitionist legislation recently passed in France. French Abolition Sign, Yann Boha, 2016, AP Images.


In April 2016, France followed Sweden's example, passing a law that would penalize those who pay for sex, but not penalizing the prostitutes themselves. Sex workers will also no longer be jailed/fined for public solicitation. The legislation will treat the sex worker as a victim rather than a criminal. It will also make it easier for foreign sex workers, many of whom are illegally in France, to acquire a temporary residence permit if they embark on a program to find other work.

The law will requires custormers to pay a fine attend awareness classes on the harms of the sex trade and will repeal prior laws banning public solicitation. [2]



Sweden enacted the Sex Purchase Law to criminalize the behavior of johns (purchasers of sex). The ultimate goal of this law is to end prostutuin by eliminating the demand for it.

The Swedish Model therefore centers on the belief that even if some prostitutes enter the industry completely of their own volition and maintain control of their client interactions, the constant victimization of the majority of prostitutes (prior to and after becoming prostitutes) negates assertions of autonomy. Prostitutes are not independent actors but rather victims of a society that forces women to submit their bodies to male domination under the pretense of basic economic theory.

Thus in Sweden, the sale of prostitution is legal, but the purchase of sexual services is banned through The Swedish Law that Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services, enacted in 1988. [3]



[1] Turn off the Red Light. 2009. "The Situation in Ireland." [Blog Post]. Retrieved April 24, 2016.

[2] Yan, Holly. 2016. "France: Prostitution now legal, paying for sex illegal." CNN. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

[3] Kelly, Liz, Maddy Coy, and Rebecca Davenport. 2008. “Shifting Sands: A Comparison of Prostitution Regimes Across Nine Countries.” Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, pp. 5-62.