Editor’s note: This story includes discussions of sexual assault.
Outside of a few counties in rural Nevada, in-person consensual sexual acts for payment are illegal across the United States. But there’s no federal law banning them. Under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it’s up to each state to regulate commercial sex as it sees fit.
Under Oregon law, it’s a crime to buy or sell in-person sex acts. Now, a coalition of advocates led by sex workers is trying to change that.
The Oregon Sex Workers Human Rights Commission held a public hearing Thursday to talk about why they believe decriminalization will protect sex workers from violence, decrease health risks and help to protect BIPOC and transgender communities.
It featured testimony from a panel of a dozen experts, as well as testimony from dozens of past and current sex workers, advocates and allies. Many of them chose to keep their identities anonymous because, despite choosing to do this work consensually, buying or selling sex is a class A misdemeanor in Oregon, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $6,250 (penalties are steeper if a person compels or promotes sex work, or if it involves a minor).
Dr. Angela Jones, an associate professor of sociology at Farmingdale State College, State University of New York, studies sexual commerce with a focus on marginalized communities. Jones has written extensively on the topic.
“Decades of research unequivocally shows that criminalization only makes sex workers less safe, contributing to violence, poor health outcomes, banking and housing discrimination, stigma. And driving exploitative third parties underground only makes catching them harder, and more expensive,” Jones said at last week’s hearing.
Researchers, activists and civil rights groups have argued for years that decriminalizing commercial in-person sex acts would be a win for sex workers’ human rights. Last year, the ACLU published a brief looking at more than 70 empirical studies on the subject, concluding that “full decriminalization would result in improved conditions for those who engage in sex work, particularly those most marginalized, and would help to reduce the crisis of police violence and mass incarceration in the U.S.”
There is historical precedent as well: New Zealand decriminalized payment for in-person sexual acts in 2003. A 2007 report funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Ministry of Justice concluded that there had been “few, if any, negative consequences in terms of the health and safety of sex workers post-decriminalization.”
The main focus of this week’s event in Oregon was to give people who willingly engage in paid sexual activities the platform to speak in their own voices.
A woman who gave the name Brandi shared how doing sex work as a single mother was a conscious choice to protect her family.
“Consensual sex work has been a game changer and the only opportunity to put me into a position to pay my rent,” she said. “My work life does not overlap with my home life. I’m able to buy food, my kids’ school supplies, buy them presents on Christmas morning.”
Many experts on the panel argued that the push for decriminalization relies on a distinction between consensual sex work and sex trafficking. Elle Stanger, a certified sex educator and sex worker in Oregon, outlined the distinction.
“A sex worker is a person who engages in sexually relevant labor,” Stanger said, “usually in exchange for money. A sex trafficking victim or survivor is a person who is forced by another person or entity to perform sexually relevant labor.”
Law enforcement doesn’t draw this distinction. Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she’s brought the question to Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, but hasn’t received answers.
“I’ve said, ‘Can you actually unpack for me what is adult behavior and what is people being pushed into prostitution against their will? Can you disaggregate that for me?’” Hardesty said. “Because I can’t find it on my own, and I’m pretty smart: I’m really good at looking for data, and unpacking data, and I can’t find it.”
The organizers said the push toward decriminalization isn’t intended to diminish the horrors of sex trafficking.
“I pretty much felt like I couldn’t go home, I had no option,” said Kara Alexander, who was coerced into sex work and trafficked in her teens. “I was raped several times, I was assaulted. The police did nothing, because I was a prostitute.”
Alexander did eventually escape at the age of 21, but her criminal record followed her as she tried to get her life back on track.
“I could not get a job anywhere. I am a certified sex trafficking victim in New York state and I would bring my paperwork to Wawa [a convenience store chain], to Family Dollar, and they still would not hire me,” she said. “I’m not a felon. I have only misdemeanor charges from being trafficked. But yet, no one would hear it.”
Samantha Evans is also a survivor of sex trafficking. Years later, after a marriage that ended in domestic abuse, she began doing consensual sex work on her own terms.
She said the difference was life changing.
“I have reclaimed my confidence, identity and my life, due to sex work,” Evans said. “To go from being targeted and trafficked at age 14, to now being uplifted and valued by the people I work with and my clients has been uplifting, and made my life worth living.”
Advocates said this is the crux of the issue: Both survivors of sex trafficking and consensual sex workers are penalized by a legal framework that doesn’t give them the autonomy to make their decisions.
During the hearing, several people quoted the words of advocate Priscilla Alexander: “The right to be a prostitute is as important as the right not to be one.”
Vanessa Warri, a community-based researcher and advocate on behalf of Black transgender people, said decriminalization would give sex workers of all backgrounds a chance to report their experiences safely to the police when needed.
“It does mean the most marginalized members of our society, who are criminalized simply for their existence, are not discriminated against simply for trying to survive,” Warri said.
The Oregon Sex Workers Human Rights Commission meeting was a first step in a lot of ways. Oregon Democratic state Rep. Rob Nosse introduced a bill to decriminalize commercial in-person sex acts in the state Legislature this year, but it failed to find widespread support. Members of the commission said they’re focused on educating the public to help future efforts. Eventually, they hope to either support a bill that would decriminalize commercial sex-related offences, or a ballot measure where Oregon voters could pass the law.
In the meantime, the group is focused on reducing the stigma that continues to follow anyone who engages in sex work, or has in the past — people like Nicole Gililland.
She’s engaged in an ongoing Title IX lawsuit with Southwestern Oregon Community College, where she says she was discriminated against for her former sex work. Since then, she’s gotten a full ride to law school.
But Gililland still wishes people understood sex work can build essential human connection for people who need it.
“You don’t know how many people out there just need to be touched, need to be connected with another person,” Gililland said, “Just the way therapists help people, sex workers are helping people. They’re stopping a lot of people from breaking; they really are.”