Can sex worker advocates impact legislative changes to bring about full decriminalization?
Fresh off of the first New England Sex Work Summit (NESWS), J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly [pronouns: they, their, them] feels energized by how well and smoothly the inaugural event went.
“It was really, really powerful,” says J., community organizer and researcher with The Ishtar Collective that they co-founded and co-direct with Henri June Bynx in 2020. Named for an ancient Sumarian goddess, a sacred figure considered by historians to be the first prostitute, The Ishtar Collective is the first Vermont-based anti-trafficking and sex worker rights organization.
“After a couple of years of being so disconnected and not being able to meet in person, it was really evidence that this was terribly needed,” they continue about the summit held on November 19 and 20, 2022. “We needed at that time to come together and actually have an in-person experience instead of a virtual one.”
They estimate an attendance of more than 100 people, which is “pretty great for a first-time conference.” The tentative plan is to hold the summit every two years. They also plan to post the recorded version of the event that I will include the link for in an upcoming newsletter. They wanted time to edit the recording to protect the privacy of survivors who did not want their stories told publicly.
J., a trans woman, said the intention of their team at Ishtar along with collaborating hosts, ELA-ONE, allies, volunteers, and sponsor New Moon Fund was to gather sex workers and their allies for a weekend of networking, learning, and celebrating. The two-day event featured three distinct events: Saturday daytime focused on skills development for advancing policy reform as well as self-care and wellness for sex workers. Open to the public, the evening centered around “a raucous fundraiser” with live burlesque and musical acts. Sunday morning served as a private community brunch held in honor of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
New Hampshire served as a logical location for the summit because, for J. and many others in the sex worker rights movement, New England and Oregon stand at the forefront of legislative reform. Although they live in New York, J. founded The Ishtar Collective in Vermont because of its well-earned reputation as a hotbed of liberal, progressive politics. They know the bulk of their demanding and often contentious fight to establish decriminalization for consensual adult sex work will happen state by state, so building a forward base in Vermont made sense.
“We testified with local city councils and removed prostitution language from the city charter and ordinances in Burlington, and changes to the city ordinance in Montpelier just happened last summer,” J. says of their seminal work in the Green Mountain State.
At this point progressions can be minor. For instance, the changes in Burlington approved by Gov. Phil Scott in June 2022 removed outdated language that sex work advocates believed perpetuated stigmatization about sex work from the city’s charter. The change repeals City Council’s power to “restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith.” However, being a sex worker and soliciting sex work are still misdemeanor crimes throughout Vermont, except in “Good Samaritan” cases when a sex worker is reporting a crime.
The bill was introduced after 69% of Burlington’s citizens voted in favor of the charter revision on Town Meeting Day.
“That was the first time in U.S. history that’s ever been done by a ballot measure,” according to J.
J. also knows that such legal progressions can take a long time. It took 19 years to get the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act (GENDA) passed by New York State’s legislature in 2019, they point out. The amendment added gender identity and expression as a protected class to the state’s Human Rights Law, which was the first civil rights law in the country in 1945.
“That’s a concrete example of places that people think are pretty progressive and are going to be at the forefront with a sex work decriminalization bill, but really they are not,” J. says. “I’ve been advocating for that bill for years, but it’s a very conservative legislature. We only got marijuana legislation a year and a half ago, and the reality of that is it’s still not regulated yet because they can’t agree on the committee.”
Significant changes do happen, though, even in New York. In February 2021, NY’s lawmakers repealed a law enacted in 1976 regarding a loitering for the purposes of prostitution statute that, as J. explained, was colloquially termed the Walking While Trans Ban, since it “overwhelmingly targeted trans women and immigrants of color.”
“We had the votes to pass that in June 2020,” J. recalls. “But our Speaker of the House, who is a woman of color, refused to put it on the floor for a vote for probably eight months because it wasn’t politically expedient.”
Still, J. emphasizes, “New England is really wear decriminalization is happening in the U.S.”
Rhode Island became the first state to decriminalize indoor prostitution on a statewide level. Accidentally. During the ‘80s, as a response to growing pressure to get street-based prostitutes out of the public eye, the state legislature had written reform laws to prohibit outdoor prostitution. For nearly 30 years no one noticed that they had forgotten to include indoor prostitution. In the early 2000s, when a group of indoor massage parlor workers were arrested and charged, their lawyer adeptly caught the mistake that there was no law on the books in Rhode Island against indoor prostitution, so his clients were acquitted.
Embarrassed by their glaring omission, Rhode Island’s legislature did recriminalize the activity in 2009. However, a couple of economists from the National Bureau of Economic Research took the opportunity to study any implications of the period of 2003 to 2009 when indoor sex work was decriminalized. Their results indicated that rates of reported rapes dropped 40% and gonorrhea 30%.
Worldwide, researchers and human rights advocates – including the World Health Organization – cite the Rhode Island study in their advocacy for the full decriminalization of sex work. J. says the researchers were one of the lead organizers for the November sex worker summit in Manchester.
Additionally, New Hampshire passed a “Good Samaritan” law in June 2021 that protects any sex workers who witness crimes from being prosecuted for prostitution. The state has also proposed a “Bill of Rights for Sex Workers,” with the advocacy of The Ishtar Collective and its sister organization, Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England (ELA-ONE). Actually, 2021 marked a fairly successful effort for the sex workers rights movement.
Ready to take a break from their intensive research, writing and filmmaking efforts in support of decriminalizing sex work, J. looked forward to a month-long sabbatical in December when we last spoke. They remain optimistic that once the dominoes start to fall when he firs major decriminalization legislation gets passed – with friendly East Coast/West Coast bets, J. says with a laugh, that it will either happen in Oregon or Vermont – then similar statutes will begin to be enacted nationally.
Recognizing that there is common ground, especially in vacatur laws that recognize that victims of trafficking are not responsible for the crimes they are forced to commit so they can expunge their records or Good Samaritan laws that enable sex workers to report crimes without recrimination, J. is anxious to engage in discussions with proponents on the opposite side of the issue, too.
“We have to move this forward and stop looking at each other as enemies,” J. says. “The enemy is poverty, misogyny, homophobia, racism, sexism, and transphobia. Those are our enemies.”
I had a great conversation with J., a dynamic and clearly passionate advocate, who led me deeper into their world as a seasoned sex worker and the goals, aspirations and hopes of sex workers to attain more freedom to work along with limited stigmatization and enhanced protections to be safer. I look forward to our future discussions. We have much more ground to cover, including bringing several key representatives from both sides together for a much- anticipated online community forum in the spring.
Next Up: Alison Phillips, Co-Founder, Human Trafficking Training Center in Kansas City, Missouri.