Across the country, sex workers and advocates are leading efforts to improve their health, safety and wellness, and some of those efforts are the remove criminal penalties for commercial sex. While efforts to decriminalize are one very important step, it is also only one step in the fight to divest from violent systems and invest in communities and people. Pulling laws off the books should be seen within this larger context. Changing laws is not the end goal: Changing lives is.
“If you’re a young woman of color who’s worked in immigrant rights, reproductive justice, or labor spaces, you already get it.”
Nina Luo, NYC-based activist and member of DecrimNY
Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for consenting adults participating in the sex trades, including sellers, purchasers, third parties/peer/managers and spaces. Under legal models of decriminalization, criminal penalties remain on the books for trafficking and violence, and civil and/or criminal penalties remain for exploitative labor practices. Thus far, only New Zealand and the province of New South Wales currently have a decriminalization approach for citizens. In 2012 New South Wales was declared as having the healthiest sex industry in the world, which is in line with the many public health officials who globally advocate for decriminalization. Neither locations have seen an increase in trafficking or exploitation, and New Zealand has seen a slight decrease in the size of the industry.
Articles and Reports:
- Prostitution Law Reform in New Zealand. Report of the New Zealand Parliament. 2012.
- Fraser Crichton. Decriminalising sex work in New Zealand: its history and impact. OpenDemocracy, 21 August 2015.
- G. Abel. A decade of decriminalization: Sex work ‘down under’ but not underground. Criminology and Criminal Justice 14(5):580-592. Nov 2014.
Current US Campaigns
In 2019, Washington D.C. held the first legislative hearing on a decrim bill with the City Council.The Sex Workers and Advocates Coalition is a Black and trans-led effort to decriminalize sex work in Washington. D.C.
In 2020 Louisiana became the first Southern state to introduce a decrim bill.Women with a Vision, a Black-led reproductive justice organization, is leading the fight in LA.
Fighting for Decrim
Every time there has been criminalization and policing of sex work, there has been resistance and resilience. Sex worker activists are part of a long story of fighting state violence and oppressive systems.
The history of imposing laws has also been met with a history of resistance, whether it be protests, community groups, underground harm reduction, art or just fucking busting out of jail. Policy change is just one form of that resistance that sex workers have attempted to improve their lives. Below is an incomplete history of sex workers-led efforts to repeal criminal penalties for trading sex. (Is something missing? Let us know.)
1976, COYOTE v Roberts: [Litigation] The Rhode Island chapter of COYOTE (Call of Your Old Tired Ethics), a sex worker rights group, filed a law suit in the state of Rhode Island, challenging the prostitution law as unconstitutional. In 1979 the case had made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the state, which was looking at a number of factors. That year, the legislature was also looking at re-writing the state’s prostitution code. Because of advocacy with legislators, the state re-wrote the law, downgrading the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor, and deleting the portions that the case had pointed to as unconstitutional. In doing so, the legislature effectively removed the criminal penalty for indoor commercial sex, but left public solicitation on the books. The deletion made Rhode Island the only state with decriminalized, indoor, independent prostitution until 2009 when the code was re-written. COYOTE was found to have standing, and was awarded legal fees, even though the case was not decided.
2004, Ballot Initiative introduced in Berkley, CA: With support of local politicians, SWOP founder and sex worker Robyn Few introduced a ballot initiative in Berkley, CA to decriminalize prostitution. The ballot initiative did not pass, but catalyzed more debate and organizing locally – which was the point. “The point is to start a groundswell and a dialogue,” Robyn said. “This thing didn’t start in Berkeley and it won’t end in Berkeley.”
2008, Sex workers introduce Prop K to decriminalize San Francisco: Bay Area sex workers include Robyn Few and Carol Leigh, the inventor of the term “sex work”, introduced Prop K, a ballot initiative to decriminalize sex work in San Francisco. See fliers from the Prop K campaign, the campaign’s website and ballot language. The campaign highlighted the way sex workers remain unsafe when criminalized, and utilized personal stories. As Carol noted on an NPR piece on the issue, “I certainly wouldn’t feel the police would help me in any way, because they were the enemy.”
2011, WWAV files a law suit against Louisiana: One of the first laws on the books in the United States to be used against sex workers is the Louisiana “Crimes Against Nature” statute. The broad law was separate from the state’s prostitution law, but due to a 1982 change to the law, carried significantly higher penalties, including a sex offender registry requirement. In Louisiana, use of the laws often fell along racialized lines, and Black women and femmes were more likely to face the harsher CANS penalties. After forming a coalition to push back in 2008, Women with a Vision, a New Orleans-based group, filed a law suit against the state for its disparate impact. The legislature responded by re-writing the statute to equalize and lower penalties, and the following year the litigation resulted in people who had been convicted to be removed from the registry. Discussion of the case by Andrea Ritchie, an attorney who worked on the case, former director of both the Sex Workers Project and Streetwise and Safe. Discussion of the case and its relationship to Black feminist resistance from Laura McTighe, an ally and academic, and Deon Haywood, Director of WWAV. Read about the campaign and the fight for decrim in Louisiana from its Program Director Christine Breland Lobre and Director of Reproductive Health Lakeesha Harris.
2017, SWAC introduces a bill to decriminalize commercial sex in DC: The Sex Workers and Allies Coalition, a Black and trans led group, introduces Reducing Criminalization to Promote Public Safety and Health Amendment Act. The bill received a 19 hour hearing with the City Council, but has not yet been passed.
2019, DecrimNY introduces the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act (A.8230/S.6419): The bill would decriminalize the sex trades in the state of New York. The bill is introduced in both houses of the state legislature and has not yet passed.
2020, WWAV makes Louisiana the first Southern state to introduce a bill: On March 3’s International Sex Worker Rights Day WWAV introduces a bill to decriminalize the sex trades in Louisiana.