Paying for sex remains such a charged topic, many don’t want lawmakers to even study it.
After sex workers and academics mobilized at a State House hearing earlier this week on a proposal for a legislative study commission on sex trade laws, opponents pushed back, saying decriminalization will lead to human trafficking, exploitation and misery.
“Decriminalization grants impunity to pimps and traffickers, transforming them into reputable businessmen and sex buyers into respectable clients and customers,” wrote Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One, a sexual trauma counseling organization in Providence, wrote to the House Judiciary Committee. “The thought that by decriminalizing prostitution, sex work would be a safer occupation is completely false.”
“I have studied sexual exploitation of women and girls for almost 30 years,” wrote Donna Hughes, a professor of gender studies and criminology at the University of Rhode Island. “I have never discovered anything but harm to the victims, families and communities. I personally know many women who were trafficked and prostituted. I never once heard one of them say they were empowered by the experience.”
Darlene Pawlik of New Hampshire, where a similar study commission has been proposed, wrote to The Journal that lawmakers “were manipulated into believing that decriminalizing the practice of the selling people for sex would be compassionate. In reality, sex should never be called work, and compassion calls for protection.”
Both legalization advocates and opponents say their aim is to protect vulnerable people from exploitation.
Decriminalization proponents say when commercial sex is illegal, the trade is driven into the shadows, making it more dangerous for the typically low-income people providing the service, who also bear the brunt of contact with law enforcement.
Opponents say legalization expands the sex industry and allows traffickers to act with impunity.
Few see a political path to legalization anytime soon, but last year’s federal crackdown on websites advertising sex has brought the topic into the spotlight and raised tensions between the two camps.
On Friday, Bella Robinson, executive director of decriminalization group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) responded to the pro-legalization backlash and an editorial in The Journal.
“We know criminalization fuels violence and exploitation against sex workers, because predators can threaten to snitch on them, get them arrested, get them evicted and get their children taken away without any proof that they are bad mothers,” Robinson, a former sex worker, wrote in an email.
She cited FBI statistics showing prostitution arrests in Rhode Island at a 30-year low and the vast majority of prostitution arrests are teenage runaways, not foreign migrants being trafficked.
“98% of all Rhode Island sex-trafficking cases are just runaway teens who are engaging survival sex because the state has created so many barriers that they can’t access safe shelter and other resources,” she added. “So stalking grown spa workers doesn’t do anything to help teenagers. What Coyote recommends is creating LGBT halfway houses and youth drop-in centers so teenagers won’t have to engage in survival sex.”
The bill that would create a 12-member House study commission on commercial sex laws was held for further study in the Judiciary Committee.