By Guy Page and Flora Scott
A proposed ordinance to decriminalize prostitution came under fire from local and regional opponents of sex trafficking at a Burlington City Council meeting Oct. 25, much to the surprise of proponent Councilor Perri Freeman, the New North End progressive councilor who introduced the measure.
Several opponents testified against the proposed ordinance change. Maggie Kerrin, Vermont Chair of New Englanders Against Sexual Exploitation (NEASE) read excerpts from a letter to the City Council, which also was signed by a retired Burlington police officer, former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan, and several anti-trafficking activists.
Kerrin (speaking 4:27:55 on the Town Meeting TV video) warned, “The misguided promotion of full decriminalization of commercial sex would expand the market for sex trafficking and turn Burlington, Vermont into a sex tourism hub.” She urged the city council to “reject idealistic policy that will have severe unintended consequences for the city and vulnerable people in New England, because sex trafficking is a regional phenomenon, not contained in one city or state.”
Sex trafficking is inherently dangerous and cannot be made safe by either regulated legalization or decriminalization–as the evidence shows where both have been tried, Kerrin said.
“The evidence that decriminalized prostitution fails to produce its purported benefits is overwhelming. Both full decriminalization (eliminating prostitution from the criminal code) and legalization (establishing prostitution as a specific type of regulated business) have been tried in the United States and in dozens of other nations and have never produced the benefits promised by advocates,” Kerrin said. “The relaxation or elimination of criminal restrictions on prostitution have reliably produced the opposite effects–increasing the size of the commercial sex and sex trafficking markets, and increasing the risks and harms experienced by all of those in these markets.”
Fellow letter-signer Michael Shively, Senior Adviser on Research and Data Analysis, National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), testified in person (3:00 on video) that the over 100,000 studies he has reviewed in his long research career belie advocates’ claims that decriminalization or legalization “will somehow improve the situations of those who are exploited for commercial sex.”
“When you look at the weight of the evidence, it is extremely clear that the claims of the advocates for decriminalization of prostitution never ever happen,” Shively said. “It never works that things are suddenly better, that the stigma disappears, that they’re treated better. And it’s also not true that law enforcement turns its attention from the ‘petty crime’ of prostitution and diverts all of its resources to stamping out sex trafficking.”
Nolan, the highly regarded former U.S. Attorney, spoke against the proposed ordinance in an interview with WCAX-TV, saying decriminalization would hinder law enforcement efforts to stop human trafficking. “If they don’t have the ability to investigate prostitution, they will not be able to uncover human trafficking and there will be victims in the shadows that we cannot rescue,” she reportedly said.Ax
According to the WCAX report, Nolan’s opposition came as a surprise to Freeman, who was elected to the City Council in March, 2019. Freeman earned notoriety last year when she proposed police not carry any weapons while on patrol.
“Decriminalizing sex work is ultimately much safer–safer for communities broadly and specifically for folks doing sex work,” Freeman claimed in the WCAX interview.
* * * * * *
H268, a bill to decriminalize prostitution, has been introduced into the Legislature. A law providing immunity against prosecution for prostitutes who give evidence against customers or pimps was passed earlier this year.
Proponents of decriminalization and/or legalization contend that when it involves consenting adults, it is equivalent to any other contractual relationship where there is an exchange of money for a service and that it is a woman’s right to sell sex as an aspect of self-governing.
Those who are in support of prostitution being normalized are split into one of two approaches: legalization (with government regulation) or decriminalization (no government regulation).
Nevada legalized prostitution practices and regulate everything from zoning requirements and advertising restrictions to mandatory tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Nevada also has the the highest rate of human trafficking. Sweden uses a partial decriminalization system called the Nordic Model, under which the sale of sex is legal, but its purchase is not. In terms of violence, it is having a positive effect in that sex workers feel safe in reporting the abuse of facilitators (buyers, pimps and brothel owners ), a strategy which reportedly keeps facilitators on their best behavior.
Rachel Foster, attorney, activist and co-founder of the largest anti-trafficking coalition in the nation, World Without Exploitation (WWE), also attended the Oct. 25 City Council meeting.
Foster supports the Equality Model similar to Sweden’s Nordic Model. This model allows people in prostitution to be protected from the violence of buyers and exploiters. She recognizes the sex trade cannot be separated from sex trafficking. One is the end result of the other. She argues for exit services and strategies for sex workers.
WWE believes harms are caused by systems of power rooted in violence and exploitation. While HRW operates on the notion that sex work is voluntary, Foster contends that rarely does a woman of legal age and without trauma in her life (usually sexual) decide to engage in sex work. Rather, they are typically underage girls and trans people of color from marginalized communities who are lured into “the life” by much older white men whom “the system” protects. The vulnerable are trapped in a lifestyle that is crippling and hard to escape.
All proposed ordinances require voter approval, which typically occurs at the City Meeting in March.