September 15, 2023
The Rhode Island special legislative commission to study ensuring racial equity and optimizing health and safety laws affecting marginalized individuals has released a report documenting its findings and recommendations. The commission’s key findings recognize human trafficking as distinct and different from consensual adult sex work and that between 1980 and 2009, when indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, there was a significant decline in sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assaults. When prostitution was again criminalized in 2009, the decline ended.
The commission recommends critical reforms to Rhode Island’s sex work-related laws, including decriminalization. Its final report states that “[the legislature should] consider a Rhode Island law to restore the pre-2009 landscape, such that private, consensual sexual activity remains out of the reach of criminal laws.” The report also recommends a number of incremental legislative measures that Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) champions around the country, including a law that would provide limited criminal immunity to sex workers and survivors of trafficking who are victims of or witnesses to a crime and the repeal of RI’s “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” law. The report also recommends passage of a bill that would establish a “patient bill of rights.” As sex workers often face stigma and discrimination while seeking health care, this protection is critical in ensuring health and safety. The bill which provided that “a patient shall not be denied appropriate care on the basis of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, source of income, source of payment, or profession” became law in RI shortly before the release of the report.
The study commission was formed following the unanimous passage of House Resolution 5250, which proposed a special legislative commission to study ensuring racial equity and optimizing health and safety laws affecting marginalized individuals. The bill, as passed, delineated who should sit on the commission, which includes 13 members, including individuals with lived experience. Other members of the commission include two legislators, a member of COYOTE RI, a representative from Amnesty International, two representatives of organizations serving populations disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of commercial sex, the director of the Department of Health, an attorney from the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office, the Rhode Island attorney general, or designee, a representative from the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and the president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, or their designee.
The study commission met eight times starting fall of 2021 with experts from both within the commission and outside of it testifying at each meeting. In her capacity as legal director at DSW and with over 20 years of experience representing and advocating for the legal rights of consensual adult sex workers and survivors of human trafficking, Melissa Sontag Broudo testified in April 2022 about the devastating consequences of the conflation of consensual adult sex work and human trafficking. She helped to draft the legislation proposing the study commission as she believes that public policy should be informed by research and evidence. In April 2023, Broudo and Henri Bynx, DSW’s community engagement consultant, testified together, providing recommendations to the commission. Bynx has testified on the impacts of criminalization on their life as a consensual adult sex worker. A leading advocate for sex worker rights, Bynx spoke powerfully about the critical need for decriminalization — the vital step that would allow individuals marginalized by criminalization to live with less fear and more dignity. In June 2022, Bynx provided testimony on the intersection of sex work and LGBTQIA+ rights.
DSW advocates for the creation of study commissions focused on evaluating prostitution laws, addressing trafficking concerns, and identifying better ways to create support systems for both sex workers and trafficked people.
Read our fact sheet on study commissions to review existing laws and address trafficking and exploitation.
In August 2023, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek vetoed two bills that would establish similar study commissions in Oregon. Read more here: With 2 quiet vetoes, Gov. Tina Kotek pushed back on drive to decriminalize sex work in Oregon
DSW Newsletter #49
March 22, 2023
DSW Staff Attorney Rebecca Cleary traveled to Rhode Island to testify in support of three important bills making their way through the Rhode Island legislature. DSW is working towards the ultimate goal of the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work and advocating for incremental measures that states can take to reduce exploitation and violence perpetrated against sex workers and survivors of trafficking. If passed, these bills introduced in RI would bring immediate health and safety benefits to individuals engaged in sex work. Rebecca was joined by Tricia Newalu, founder of the Erotic Laborers’ Association of New England (ELA-ONE), who testified that since an immunity law was enacted in her home state of New Hampshire, sex workers have been able to share critical information about violent individuals with law enforcement.
H6140, currently being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee, grants immunity from prosecution for commercial sexual activity to any victim or witness of a crime if they report the offense to law enforcement, seek or receive health care services as a result of their involvement or witnessing the offense, or assist or attempt to assist in the investigation and prosecution of the offense. Importantly, this protection is honored even if they later withdraw their cooperation. S402 is currently being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and would offer similar vital protections around immunity as the House bill.
People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice or by force, fraud, or coercion, often are victims of violent crime and exploitation, but frequently don’t report crimes perpetrated against them due to fear of arrest. When abusers are not reported to law enforcement, they are able to continue acts of violence and exploitation with impunity. Immunity allows sex workers and trafficked people to safely report crimes and seek medical care without the fear that they themselves will be criminalized. They equip law-enforcement entities with an increased ability to identify, investigate, and convict perpetrators of violence and trafficking. Immunity laws directly protect victims and witnesses of violence and they ultimately benefit all communities by allowing law enforcement to better detect criminal activity.
Read more about the importance of immunity laws, also referred to as Good Samaritan Laws, and states that have enacted them here.
S0372, in front of the Senate Judiciary committee, establishes criteria for the criminal offense of sexual assault when the victim is in the custody of a peace officer. It provides that a person convicted of custodial sexual assault would face imprisonment for not more than 3 years. Forty states have laws making sexual interaction between a law-enforcement agent and a person in their custody illegal.
As Clearly wrote:
While I am writing as an advocate for sex workers, this is an issue that affects a much wider swath of community members. Police sexual violence is the second-most prevalent form of police violence behind excessive force, but because victims are often hesitant to report their experience, there are likely exponentially more cases than have been documented. Sexual assault is, of course, already illegal; however, victims are understandably reluctant to report an assault to the same law enforcement entity that caused their victimization. They may fear that they will face retaliation, that they won’t be believed, or that the offender will claim the encounter was consensual. A law explicitly prohibiting sexual assault of someone in law enforcement custody is necessary to ensure these crimes don’t go unreported.
Custodial sexual assault can affect anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement, but sex workers and trafficking survivors are especially vulnerable to police sexual violence. The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Addressing Sexual Offenses and Misconduct by Law Enforcement Executive Guide even acknowledges that “predators select victims based on vulnerabilities and a perceived lack of credibility, and therefore, victimization is often higher among certain populations including … individuals in prostitution and/or the commercial sex industry.” Offenders take advantage of the stigma surrounding sex work and can exploit their authority to coerce victims into unwanted sexual contact by threatening arrest.
Read DSW’s publication on Police Sexual Violence Laws here.
Staff Attorney Rebecca Cleary testifying before the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee.
Tricia Newalu and Rebecca Cleary pose with RI House representatives following the House Judiciary Committee hearing.
DSW Newsletter #46 (March 2023)
January 1, 2022
Although legislators are increasingly recognizing the harms of criminalizing sex work, as this year’s legislative session opens, lawmakers continue to propose bills that endanger the rights, health, and safety of sex workers across the country. These laws increase criminal penalties, present new criminal categories around commercial sex, increase surveillance, or propose to decriminalize the sale, but not the purchase of sex work. Below is an explanation of several pieces of legislation which, if passed, would have a significant impact on sex workers’ ability to survive.
There are currently three different state bills that propose to decriminalize the sale of sex but maintain penalties for purchasing sexual services. S940/H1761 in Massachusetts, S6040/A7069 in New York, and S771 in Rhode Island propose this model known as the “Entrapment Model,” the “End Demand Model,” or the “Swedish Model” of criminalization. The bill introduced in Rhode Island is slightly different in that it does not remove all criminal penalties from prostitution but rather makes it a civil offense with fines attached.1 This mode of criminalization promotes the belief that sex work is inherently exploitative, painting all sex workers as victims and all clients and third parties as abusers. Not only is this a false and dangerous assumption, but the policy is ineffective. By focusing on demand, the model aims to abolish commercial sex altogether. While it may seem appealing to those who object to prostitution, in reality, the entrapment model does nothing to impact demand. Where and when it has been implemented, sex workers experience an increased risk of violence and assault and heightened stigmatization and unease.
In Wisconsin, SB836 is a bill proposed to regulate adult-entertainment establishments. In effect, the bill prevents trafficking survivors and sex workers from working at or owning such establishments by prohibiting people who have been convicted of certain offenses (including prostitution-related crimes) from owning or working at strip clubs. The bill also prohibits adult-entertainment establishments from having employees who have been the victim of certain trafficking offenses. It requires establishments to post a human trafficking poster created by the Department of Justice in a prominent location for employees to view. The bill also mandates that these businesses furnish a list of their employees, operators, and owners to local law enforcement officials upon request. This law not only violates the privacy of employees but it infringes upon the rights of survivors of trafficking and sex workers and their ability to earn a living.
AB139/SB26 was also proposed in Wisconsin. The bill is a penalty increase for individuals convicted of patronizing or soliciting a prostitute, pandering, or keeping a place of prostitution. Under the proposed law, a $5,000 surcharge would be imposed to be used for treatment and services for sex-trafficking victims and for investigative operations relating to internet crimes against children. Most state crime fees in Wisconsin are $67 per count for misdemeanors and $92 per count for felonies. While the creation of resources for survivors of sexual exploitation seems positive, the method of collecting these funds creates complications. The bill imposes a disproportionately high charge on misdemeanor crimes which would have a deleterious impact on the lives of indigent offenders, putting many in debt to the court system. It is also clear from the language of the bill that it conflates consensual adult sex work and human trafficking, meaning that many of the funds created to service the needs of human trafficking survivors might in reality be used to create mandatory programming for sex workers who have been convicted of prostitution. This not only wastes resources, but the criminalization of poverty in the United States perpetuates cycles of criminalization and victimization.
Another bill that increases penalties for crimes related to commercial sex was introduced in Florida. HB521/S760 provides criminal penalties for receiving value from human trafficking, using labor or services, or commercial sexual activity of an adult. The law also prohibits facilitating or enabling prostitution, lewdness, or facilitating or enabling any person to remain in a location for such purposes and increases criminal penalties for specified prohibited acts relating to prostitution, lewdness, or assignation. While on its face, the legislation is an anti-trafficking bill, in reality, its motives are prohibitionist. The law aims to discourage prostitution by increasing the criminal penalties for many common third-party activities used by sex workers to make their work safer, thus putting them at risk.
Many of these bills are proposed with the intention of helping survivors of human trafficking escape exploitation and rebuild their lives. However, because of the deep-rooted conflation between human trafficking in commercial sex and consensual adult sex work, these laws create unintended harm for both sex workers and survivors. If you are a resident of any of these states and want to protect the rights of sex workers and related communities, please reach out to your representative and ask them to oppose these bills.
1 One positive attribute of the Rhode Island bill is that it repeals the authority to detain a defendant in the event they test positive for venereal disease.
DSW Newsletter #32 (January 2022)
January 1, 2022
Bills to decriminalize sex work are being considered in New York (S3075/A849), Massachusetts (H1867), Vermont (H630), and Missouri (H2388). Several other pieces of legislation to improve the health, safety, and human rights of sex workers and related communities have been introduced around the country.
Massachusetts also saw the introduction of S947, proposed by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz. The bill would support survivors of trafficking and abuse by increasing eligibility for expungement and the sealing of records. If passed, survivors would be eligible for expungement for all crimes they were compelled to commit as a result of their exploitation. This bill is similar to the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act, enacted in New York last year. The New Jersey Senate also recently passed S3433 which would similarly provide a process to vacate and expunge the convictions of human trafficking survivors. The governor signed the bill into law this month.
New York and Rhode Island have both proposed Good Samaritan Bills [also known as immunity]. These laws are critical to the health and safety of sex workers and broader communities. Because of criminalization, sex workers often do not report crimes committed against them for fear of arrest and prosecution. Good Samaritan laws, as proposed, provide limited immunity from prosecution for individuals engaged in prostitution who are victims of or witnesses to a crime, allowing them to come forward without risking prosecution.
Rhode Island has two other important bills that have been introduced this session to protect sex workers’ rights. The first, H6049/S249, criminalizes custodial sexual assault of defendants in the custody of a peace officer. An offense under this law would be subject to imprisonment for up to three years. There is a pattern of sexual abuse of sex workers at the hands of law enforcement across the United States. Vice divisions have used criminalization to coerce sexual favors from sex workers. A 2019 Johns Hopkins University study also found that abusive police interactions with sex workers increase the likelihood of violence at the hands of clients. These findings are reflective of the general stigmatization directed at sex workers, encouraging tacit acceptance, and sometimes even perpetuation, of violence against them by law enforcement.
H5464, also introduced in Rhode Island, would establish non-discrimination standards for healthcare providers in the state. The bill mandates that any patient seeking services “shall not be denied appropriate care on the basis of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, source of income, source of payment, or profession.” Sex workers are commonly subjected to discrimination and stigma when seeking healthcare which results in inadequate care and nondisclosure. Discrimination may stop sex workers from seeking services at all. If passed, this bill will create important protections for sex workers and other marginalized communities when accessing life-saving care.
In New York, A8281 was recently introduced in the State Assembly to remove unauthorized or unlicensed practice of massage therapy, and aiding or abetting unauthorized or unlicensed practice of massage therapy, from the criminal statute of unauthorized practice. This legislation is intended to put an end to the routine harassment and abuse of the largely immigrant population working in massage parlors in certain counties by NYPD’s vice division. Vice routinely conducts stings at massage parlors in certain neighborhoods under the guise of “rescuing” women from trafficking rings. Undercover officers request sex acts at the end of an appointment. If the masseuse agrees, they are arrested for prostitution, and if they say no, the officer can still charge them with unlicensed massage under the Unauthorized Practice of a Profession statute (ED 6512). Immigrant women of Asian descent have been disproportionately targeted for these arrests. Between 2015 and 2019, 93.3% of unlicensed practice of a profession arrests were of Asian-identified individuals, increasing by 2700%. 91 percent of the 2016 cases were against non-citizens.
The Gender Identity Respect, Dignity, and Safety Act (S6677/A7001), also introduced in New York, would amend the state’s corrections law. The bill “requires that incarcerated people in state and local correctional facilities who have a gender identity different from the person's assigned sex at birth be addressed and have access to commissary items, clothing, and other materials that are consistent with the person's gender identity.” It also mandates that individuals be placed in correctional facilities with people of the gender that they most closely align with, with the freedom to change their placement. This bill creates essential protections for transgender, non-conforming, and non-binary (TGNC/NB) community members. When TGNC/NB are placed in the wrong prison or jail, many are subjected to violence, harassment, psychological distress, or blocked from medical care.
DSW will continue monitoring and reporting on bills, such as these, which are important to the rights of sex workers and related communities. We urge readers who are residents of states with active legislation to reach out to their representatives and ask them to support these bills.
Visit https://decriminalizesex.work/advocacy/take-action-your-state/ to send letters in support of decriminalization to your legislators.
(SWARM Collective, 2013)
DSW Newsletter #32 (January 2022)
November 16, 2021
A commission to study the health and safety impact of laws related to sex work met for its first official hearing at the Rhode Island Statehouse. Officially called the “Commission to Study Ensuring Racial Equity and Optimizing Health and Safety Laws Affecting Marginalized Individuals,” the meeting was enabled by the passage of H5250 last session. The bill, sponsored by State Representative Anastasia Williams, created the commission to “make a comprehensive study and provide recommendations on the health and safety impact of revising laws related to commercial sexual activity, identifying the methods of human trafficking and exploitation to develop strategies to reduce these activities, and ensuring accountability in the treatment of marginalized and targeted communities by [the] police.”
DSW’s J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly is serving on the commission along with Henri Bynx, representing the Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England, and Melissa Broudo, Legal Director of DSW is one of the organizers. Representative Anastasia Williams is the Chair, Representative Edith Ajello is the Vice-Chair and other members include Bella Robinson, Executive Director of COYOTE RI; Robyn Linde, Legislative Coordinator for Amnesty International; Justice Gaines, an organizer for the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrSYM); Jocelyn Foye, Executive Director of The Womxn Project; Dr. Philip Chan, representing the Department of Health; Attorney Michael DiLauro, from the Public Defender’s Office; Attorney Kathryn Sabatini, from the Attorney General’s Office; Elena Shih from the Brown University Center for Slavery and Justice; and, Sidney Wordell from the Rhode Island Police Chief’s Association.
At this initial meeting, Representative Williams introduced the members and responded to questions, such as one from Dr. Chan around the availability of data around human Trafficking. “There is data,” replied Williams, “but hopefully no one is too squeamish or self-righteous to listen to the actual conversation. We just need to feel comfortable being uncomfortable because here we come.” Gaines and Oshiro-Brantly also spoke about the importance of using inclusive and clear language when talking about sex work issues. “For public testimony, it’s very important that we get comfortable with talking about the issues in our society and not hiding behind language that seems more appropriate or more innocent. And that’s especially true when we’re dealing with populations — women, trans folks, queer folks, people of color — who often don’t get to see themselves in the language that’s used in many of these spaces,” said Gaines. “I want to make sure that as we’re talking about people in the sex industry we’re also talking about … clients of sex workers and … partners of sex workers — that are also impacted by criminality,” added Oshiro-Brantly.
DSW is encouraged by this initiative to craft data-driven policy around sex work and human trafficking. The Commission will meet regularly and begin to examine existing research on these topics, and how these laws impact the health and safety of our communities, particularly those who are most marginalized.