States Try to Reform Prostitution Laws—for Better and Worse
State lawmakers in at least six states have recently introduced bills related to sex work. Some of these measures would decriminalize prostitution, while others would stipulate stronger criminal penalties for prostitution.
States considering the former have the right idea. Decriminalizing prostitution has been linked to an array of positive outcomes, from lower rates of sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections overall to less violence against sex workers. It means fewer law enforcement resources wasted on policing consensual activity between adults, freeing up time and money for stopping and solving serious crimes. It’s supported by organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, and the World Health Organization. It’s also in line with what sex workers around the world say they need.
Lawmakers in Hawaii, New York, and Vermont have recently introduced measures that would decriminalize prostitution for both sex workers and their customers. And a group of Rhode Island lawmakers are pushing measures to protect sex workers and prostitution customers who report crimes.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts and Tennessee have introduced legislation that would provide some protections for sex workers while simultaneously strengthening or leaving alone laws related to people who pay for sex.
Here’s a brief overview of the prostitution measures percolating in these states.
In Hawaii, Senate Bill 1204 would decriminalize prostitution between consenting adults. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Carol Fukunaga (D–Manoa), would repeal a section of Hawaii law criminalizing prostitution (which is defined as engaging, agreeing to engage, or offering to engage in “sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee or anything of value”) and a section criminalizing “commercial sexual exploitation,” which is defined as providing, agreeing to provide, or offering to provide “a fee or anything of value to another to engage in sexual conduct.”
It would also repeal laws that criminalize “promoting prostitution,” “loitering for the purpose of engaging in or advancing prostitution,” “promoting travel for prostitution,” “street prostitution,” and soliciting prostitution near schools or parks.
Sex trafficking—that is, “compelling or inducing a person by force, threat, fraud, or intimidation to engage in prostitution,” profiting from such conduct, or advancing or profiting from the prostitution of a minor—would still remain a Class A felony.
Senate Bill 1204 would also increase civil remedies available to victims of sex trafficking.
Another measure introduced by Fukunaga (Senate Concurrent Resolution 99) would establish a working group to “study the effects of New Zealand’s model of decriminalizing prostitution on sex workers, their clients, and the broader community; consider the potential impacts of decriminalizing prostitution in Hawaii,” and “make recommendations for amending Hawaii laws to decriminalize prostitution, including any necessary changes to health and safety regulations, criminal penalties, and labor laws.”
In New York, state Sen. Julia Salazar (D–Brooklyn) recently introduced the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act (SVSTA, a.k.a. S4396), a prostitution decriminalization bill that has attracted eight co-sponsors so far. The bill would repeal all parts of state penal law “that make sex work between consenting adults illegal,” per a Senate summary. The bill would also repeal other statutes related to consensual adult prostitution.
“Presently, New York state law has more than two dozen anti-prostitution penal codes,” notes the nonprofit advocacy group Decriminalize Sex Work. “About half of these codes target sex work between consenting adults, and the other half focus on trafficking, the exploitation of minors, and coercion into commercial sex. SVSTA upholds all felony anti-trafficking statutes that are designed to hold traffickers accountable.”
“Trying to stop sex work between consenting adults should not be the business of our criminal justice system,” states the justification section of SVSTA. “Criminalization drives sex work into the shadows in an underground illegal environment where sex workers face increased violence, abuse, and exploitation, and are more vulner
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