Bill in Vermont would decriminalize prostitution

A Vermont lawmaker hopes to make prostitution safer and remove the stigma that often prevents sex workers from seeking police protection and health care

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- A Vermont lawmaker hopes to make prostitution safer and remove the stigma that often prevents sex workers from seeking police protection and health care.

A bill introduced last month by Rep. Selene Colburn and headed to the House floor Thursday would decriminalize prostitution, while the state would maintain its laws against sex trafficking. The bill also calls for the creation of a panel to make recommendations on modernizing Vermont’s prostitution laws.

Colburn, however, thinks a related proposal will have a better chance at movement this year. It would give immunity to people who were victims of or witnessed a crime while engaged in prostitution or sex trafficking so they can report it to law enforcement.

“Right now sex workers really feel that they cannot access police protection,” said Colburn, a Progressive from Burlington. “There are tons of statistics about the violence, the high levels of violence, and sex assault that people who engage in sex work experience.”

The push in Vermont is part of a small but growing movement to decriminalize prostitution that advocates say will bring sex work above ground, and help prevent sex workers from being assaulted, exploited and trafficked and keep them from facing punishment for breaking the law.

Advocates see the bills as starting a discussion and say that with more education there's a possibility for additional states and jurisdictions to propose decriminalizing prostitution.

"A lot of people doing sex work are trading sex out of circumstances: they’re homeless, they’re experiencing disabilities, they’re trans and they’re experiencing discrimination in the workplace,” said Nina Luo, an organizer with Decrim NY, a group working to decriminalize the sex trades in New York City and the state.

Currently, prostitution is legal only in Nevada, where it's permitted in licensed brothels in eight counties.

In New York, where a decriminalization bill was introduced last year, advocates are pushing for a repeal of criminal penalties for loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution. They say is often used to harass people based on their appearance and that transgender people are often charged.

"It’s a stepping stone to reclaiming back our identity, our voice,” said TS Candii, of New York City, a transgender woman and former sex worker. “This is a stepping stone to be able to walk outside and not have to worry about so much ... profiling from the police.”

The New York Police Department has said it “shifted focus” to target traffickers and those who promote or solicit prostitution. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week called for passage of the repeal.

A proposal to decriminalize the buying and selling of sex in Washington, D.C., stalled last year. And proposals in Maine and Massachusetts in recent years have not had traction .

Changing the laws around the buying and selling of sex is an uphill battle. In New York, the group Not on My Watch! said the decriminalization bill, if approved, “would open the floodgates for sex establishments who want to set up shop in New York."

"They’re framing it under decriminalization of ‘sex work’ but all it means is legalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying," wrote the group's founder, Rev. Dr. Que English in an editorial.

The National Organization of Women is against full decriminalization, and instead supports removing criminal penalties for those who are prostituted and criminalizing the purchasers of sex and others who benefit financially from the sale of other people for sex. The World Health Organization supports decriminalization.

In Vermont, the chairwoman of the Vermont Republican Party declined to comment on the proposal. An email was sent to the Republican minority leader in the Vermont House seeking comment. A phone message was left with Vermont Interfaith Action.

Colburn, the sponsor, said she believed it was time to start talking about the issue in Vermont.

The question is: “Is there a reason that we need to criminalize adult consensual sex between people on any terms?" she said.