Bills to Decriminalize Sex Work Gain Traction in State Houses

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Photo by Blemished Paradise via Flickr

Legislators across the U.S. are reconsidering how to handle prostitution, as calls for decriminalization are gaining momentum, the New York Times reports.

Decriminalization bills have been introduced in Maine and Massachusetts; a bill is expected to be introduced to the City Council in Washington, D.C., in June; lawmakers in Rhode Island held hearings last month on a proposal to study the impact of decriminalization.

Democrats in New York state will propose a comprehensive decriminalization bill that would eliminate penalties for both women and men engaged in prostitution, as well as the johns whom they service.

“This is about the oldest profession, and understanding that we haven’t been able to deter or end it, in millennia,” said Sen. Jessica Ramos, one of the plan’s backers. “So I think it’s time to confront reality.”

The idea of decriminalization has amassed a growing coterie of prominent supporters, suggesting that it might gain traction. The debate is polarizing, even among advocates for sex-trafficked and abused women who fear that creating a legal path for prostitution will not eliminate, but rather actually encourage, underground sex trafficking.

An Urban Institute report in 2017 argued that police and the courts need to dramatically change the way they deal with prostitution, beginning with treating sex workers and trafficking victims as individuals who need counseling and help to remake their lives— rather than as criminals.

“The criminalization of prostitution and, more generally, negative interactions with the police discourage the reporting of, and therefore investigation of and response to, violence and exploitation,” declared the report, entitled “Consequences of Policing Prostitution.”

Decriminalization is facing intense pushback in state capitals from opponents who call the measures naïve and potentially dangerous. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)  became the first presidential candidate to endorse decriminalization, an idea also floated by another contender, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“When you’re talking about consenting adults, I think that yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long no one is being harmed,” Harris said.

Supporters of decriminalization see their efforts as part of a larger, decades-long liberalization of mores, like lifting Sunday bans on selling alcohol and legalizing marijuana. Prostitution is legal only in a few counties in Nevada.

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