Montpelier, VT Repeals Prostitution Ordinance

August 24, 2022

Montpelier has become the second city in Vermont to repeal its antiquated prostitution ordinance in the past year. Last summer, the Burlington City Council voted to repeal that city’s prostitution ordinance and voters subsequently chose to strike discriminatory and archaic language on sex work from the city charter.

Montpelier’s Police Review Committee recommended that the ordinance be repealed as its stigmatizing and discriminatory language was harmful to both consensual adult sex workers and individuals experiencing exploitation. They suggested that law enforcement should concentrate on combating human trafficking, instead of on prohibiting consensual acts between adults. The committee also noted that most municipalities in Vermont do not have ordinances banning prostitution and that repealing the language would bring Montpelier in line with the rest of the state. Though bills proposing to decriminalize prostitution were introduced during the past two legislative sessions, they did not advance and prostitution remains criminalized at the state level.

The Montpelier City Council held two public hearings on the proposal to repeal the ordinance before unanimously voting in favor of striking it. Both hearings were well attended and individuals in favor of and against repealing the ordinance testified passionately. Members of The Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of exploitation or trafficking, asked the City Council and their neighbors to recognize them as equals deserving of dignity. They said the immensely dehumanizing language of the ordinance, which did nothing to support the health and wellbeing of residents, perpetuated stigma around sex work, and made them feel unwelcome in the place they call home. Henri Bynx, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, reminded council members and others in attendance that sex workers are vital and integral members of the community.

Opponents of the repeal were mostly from out of state. Morally opposed to consensual adult sex work, they urged the council to keep or replace the ordinance with even more punitive language. Their attempts at fear mongering — and admonishments that repealing the ordinance would lead to individuals having sex in public and an increase in trafficking, particularly of minors — perpetuated dangerous and misguided tropes around sex work. Dr. Stephany Powell, with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said, “You are inviting more crime into your area, and you are also allowing the ability of sex workers to roam freely in your community. … I’m telling you: you don’t want that.” J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, a sex worker who co-founded The Ishtar Collective with Bynx, responded to Powell’s derogatory remarks during their statement. “We’re already ‘roaming’ and that … metaphor of roaming like cattle is really part of that dehumanizing language. This is the stigma we’re talking about,” Oshiro-Brantly said. “I’ve heard things (tonight) like ‘demeaning,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘just plain wrong.’ All of these things are moral judgments that no person has a right to make for any other person’s life.”

Just prior to their vote, council members, including Mayor Anne Watson, reminded everyone in attendance that they are committed to ending exploitation and trafficking in all labor sectors. They then voted unanimously to repeal the discriminatory language, affirming that sex workers are deserving of their dignity, humanity, and bodily autonomy.

A sign at the August 24 Montpelier City Council Meeting. Courtesy of The Ishtar Collective.

A sign at the August 24 Montpelier City Council Meeting. Courtesy of The Ishtar Collective.

DSW Newsletter #39 (August 2022)

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Montpelier, VT Repeals Prostitution Ordinance

August 24, 2022 Montpelier has become the second city in Vermont to repeal its antiquated prostitution ordinance in the past year. Last summer, the Burlington City Council voted to repeal that city’s prostitution ordinance and voters subsequently...

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Montpelier, VT Repeals Prostitution Ordinance

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DSW Newsletter Archive

Burlington’s Vote To Strike Language on Sex Work From City Charter Becomes Law

June 8, 2022

Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed H.746, An act relating to an amendment to the charter of the City of Burlington, striking harmful language from the city’s charter. In March, 69% of Burlington residents voted to support equity, safety, and dignity by opting to remove the discriminatory language prohibiting sex work.

The charter change was then proposed for approval by both chambers of the state legislature. It was passed by a vote of 105 to 33 in the House and on a unanimous voice vote in the Senate. The Governor’s signature on the bill affirms that this type of language perpetuates stigma that can be harmful and does not belong in laws.

Vermonters who engage in consensual adult sex work and individuals who have experienced trafficking urged voters and legislators to make this critical amendment to the city charter. “We have been criminalized and marginalized for too long,” said Henri June Bynx, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of exploitation or trafficking. “We are asking our neighbors to recognize us as deserving of dignity and bodily autonomy. This charter change is a vital step towards improving the health and safety of individuals who engage in sex work consensually and those who are trafficked into it,” Bynx continued.

The charter amendment will not decriminalize prostitution in Burlington; state law will continue to criminalize sex work. Significantly, the overwhelming support in favor of the amendment demonstrates that voters and legislators can distinguish between consensual adult sex work and the horrific crime of human trafficking. Understanding this distinction is crucial for communities to combat trafficking into sex work effectively.

The only opposition to the charter change came from individuals and groups who conflate human trafficking and consensual adult sex work. When and where this conflation occurs, as it does in most of the laws governing sex work in the U.S. and around the world, trafficked individuals face enormous barriers to freedom and services because of laws and language that discriminate against and punish sex workers. Trafficking survivors are on average arrested seven times before they are able to escape exploitation because current prostitution and anti-trafficking laws make it impossible for victims and witnesses to report exploitation without risking prosecution themselves. When innocent people are arrested and prosecuted, victims face barriers to services, and exploitation proliferates in the underground market. Removing the archaic language from the City Charter is an important step towards addressing trafficking into sex work in a manner that actually helps victims.

Burlington’s Vote To Strike Language on Sex Work From City Charter Becomes Law

DSW Newsletter #37 (June 2022)

Burlington’s Vote To Strike Language on Sex Work From City Charter Becomes Law

June 8, 2022 Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed H.746, An act relating to an amendment to the charter of the City of Burlington, striking harmful language from the city’s charter. In March, 69% of Burlington residents voted...

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Burlington’s Vote To Strike Language on Sex Work From City Charter Becomes Law

DSW Research and Project Manager Testifies at Legislative Study Commission

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Vermont Legislature Ratifies Burlington’s Vote To Strike Archaic and Discriminatory Language from City Charter

May 10, 2022

The Vermont Senate voted to pass Burlington’s charter change, striking harmful language from the city charter. In March, 69% of Burlington residents voted to support equity, safety, and dignity by opting to remove the archaic language from the charter, which mandates that peace officers “restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith.”

The charter change was then approved by both chambers of the state legislature. It was passed by a vote of 105 to 33 in the House and on a unanimous voice vote in the Senate. The bill now heads to the governor to be signed into law.

Burlington voters recognize that this language is not only outdated and dehumanizing but also perpetuates stigma and discrimination against sex workers, harming the health and safety of those who participate in consensual adult sex work — and the health and safety of the community more broadly.

Striking this language from the charter will not decriminalize sex work in Burlington. State law criminalizing commercial sex still applies within the city. City Attorney Dan Richardson testified that the language change will have little bearing on the way that sex work is handled in Burlington. His office does not currently prosecute sex work because they recognize the harmful impact of criminalization on public health and safety. Rather, the charter change signals a critical shift away from the historic marginalization and stigmatization that endanger sex workers.

“Removing this discriminatory language from the city charter is a critical and positive step for consensual adult sex workers and everyone who cares about their communities. It also shows that voters can separate consensual adult sex work from the grotesque crime of human trafficking,” said Henri Bynx, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of exploitation or trafficking. “We are deeply touched and encouraged to no longer be further marginalized by punitive language in Burlington’s city charter,” they continued.

Read Bynx’s compelling op ed on the significance of the referendum here: Henri June Bynx: Amending Burlington charter is a big first step

Volunteers from The Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England (ELA-ONE) promote Equity, Safety, and Dignity on March 1 in Burlington.

Volunteers from The Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England (ELA-ONE) promote Equity, Safety, and Dignity on March 1 in Burlington.

DSW Newsletter #36 (May 2022)

Vermont Legislature Ratifies Burlington’s Vote To Strike Archaic and Discriminatory Language from City Charter

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Burlington, Vermont Votes To Remove Language That Discriminates Against Sex Workers From City Charter

March 1, 2022

Burlington voters overwhelmingly chose to remove archaic and discriminatory language from their city charter. The current charter mandates that Burlington “restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith.” The question of whether to remove the language was presented to voters during their annual local election. Burlington residents showed their support for human dignity, equity, and safety by choosing to strike this outdated language from the charter. The referendum now heads to the statehouse to be ratified.

The charter change does not decriminalize sex work in Burlington, as Vermont State law still criminalizes commercial sex. But the referendum vote does signify that Burlington voters understand the important differences between consensual adult sex work and human trafficking and support equity, safety, and dignity for all. Consensual adult sex work is not inherently dangerous but criminalization and stigmatization leave individuals vulnerable to abuse and violence. Conversely, the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work protects the health and safety of communities by allowing sex workers greater access to resources and agency in their work. It also helps combat violence against sex workers by allowing them to report crimes committed against them and others without fear of arrest. When Rhode Island decriminalized consensual adult sex work between 2003 and 2009, incidences of female gonorrhea declined by 39% and sexual assault declined by 31%.

Stigma and discrimination cause tremendous harm to all people engaged in sex work, whether their form of work is legal or not, and whether they are working by choice, circumstance, or coercion. Laws that further stigma, shame, misogyny, and discrimination enable and amplify harm to an already vulnerable population.

“Removing this discriminatory language from the city charter is a critical and positive step for consensual adult sex workers and everyone who cares about their communities. It also shows that voters can separate consensual adult sex work from the grotesque crime of human trafficking,” said Henri Bynx, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of exploitation or trafficking. “We are deeply touched and encouraged to no longer be further marginalized by punitive language in Burlington’s city charter,” they continued.

A broad coalition of supporters urged Burlington voters to stand up for equity, safety, and dignity by voting affirmatively on question #5 on Town Meeting Day 2022.

Endorsers included:
Representative Tiff Bluemle (Chittenden-6-5)
Representative Brian Cina (Chittenden-6-4)
Representative Selene Colburn (Chittenden-6-4)
Representative Robert Hooper (Chittenden-6-1)
Representative Curt McCormack (Chittenden-6-3)
Representative Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (Chittenden-6-2)
Representative Barbara Rachelson (Chittenden-6-6)
Representative Taylor Small (Chittenden-6-7)
Representative Gabrielle Stebbins (Chittenden-6-5)
Burlington City Council President Max Tracy (Ward 2)
Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman (Central)
Burlington City Councilor Jack Hanson (East)
Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower (Ward 1)
Burlington City Councilor Joe Magee (Ward 3)
Burlington City Councilor Jane Stromberg (Ward 8)
The Ishtar Collective
Migrant Justice
National Harm Reduction Coalition
Out in the Open
Pride Center of Vermont
Vermont CARES

Volunteers from The Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England (ELA-ONE) promote Equity, Safety, and Dignity on March 1 in Burlington.

Megan, a volunteer from the Erotic Labor Alliance of New England (ELA-ONE), and J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly of DSW and the Ishtar Collective brave the cold in order to advocate for the charter change. (DSW, 2022)

Burlington VT Votes To Remove Language That Discriminates Against Sex Workers From City Charter

Members of the Ishtar Collective, ELA-ONE, and allies celebrate on election night. (Ishtar Collective, 2022)

DSW Newsletter #34 (March 2022)

Burlington, Vermont Votes To Remove Language That Discriminates Against Sex Workers From City Charter

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State Bills to Watch in 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.

State Bills to Watch in 2022

(SWARM Collective, 2013)

DSW Newsletter #32 (January 2022)

State Bills to Watch in 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...

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State Bills to Watch in 2022

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DSW Newsletter Archive

Burlington, VT City Council Votes To Remove Language on Sex Work From Its City Charter

December 13, 2021

In a historic move, the Burlington, VT City Council unanimously supported a resolution to remove harmful, stigmatizing, and archaic language around prostitution from its city charter. Burlington voters will now have the opportunity to vote on the measure in March. The formal process to amend the charter mandate to “restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith,” was triggered by a resolution by City Councilor Perri Freeman, which was unanimously approved in June 2021. The City Council Charter Committee then voted in favor of bringing the amendments to the full Council. Voters will now have the opportunity to make a change that would support human rights and dignity.

When the resolution was first introduced, Mayor Miro Weinberger asked City Council members to “work to repeal or amend any language that is discriminatory towards women, to sex workers and to victims of sex crimes.” Vermonters who engage in consensual adult sex work and individuals who have experienced trafficking urged City Councilors to allow residents to vote on the issue. “We have been criminalized and marginalized for too long,” said Henri Bynx, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of trafficking, “We’re asking our neighbors to recognize us as deserving of dignity and bodily autonomy. This charter change would be a step in the right direction towards improving the health and safety of individuals who engage in sex work consensually and those who are trafficked into it,” Bynx continued.

The charter amendment would not decriminalize prostitution, as it remains illegal at the state level. In May 2021, Gov. Phil Scott approved legislation that provides limited criminal immunity to people who report a crime committed against them, or which they witnessed, while voluntarily involved in sex work or while a victim of human trafficking. “This [law] means that a pimp or an abuser could no longer threaten arrest to exploit a sex worker or survivor of trafficking, which is a common tactic of exploitation. It shows lawmakers care about us as people. They are taking action to protect our safety by giving us equal protection under the law,” said Bynx.

Sex work is not inherently dangerous or exploitative but criminalization puts sex workers at risk and creates conditions that allow trafficking to proliferate. “Permitting sex workers to come forward and report being the victim of or witness to a crime without fear of arrest is critical but I’m looking forward to the day when we will no longer be as vulnerable to crime or exploitation as we are now. That day will come when consensual adult sex work is decriminalized,” said J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective and research and project manager at DSW.

Stigma and discrimination cause tremendous harm to all people in the sex industry, whether they are there by choice, circumstance, or coercion. Laws that further this stigma, shame, misogyny, and discrimination enable and amplify harm to an already vulnerable population. The current Burlington City Council charter mandate is not only immensely archaic and dehumanizing, but it also does nothing to support the health and well-being of the citizens of Burlington.

Ishtar Collective members and others testified in support of the charter change at the meeting on December 13. The City Council also heard vocal opposition from national groups who intentionally conflate trafficking and consensual adult sex work and unanimously stood on the side of evidence, human rights, and dignity. DSW is pleased to be working with The Ishtar Collective, a DSW grantee, and others to make this important and historic change in Burlington.

Burlington, VT Moves Towards Decriminalization

(Shutterstock, 2021)

DSW Newsletter #31 (December 2021)

Burlington, VT City Council Votes To Remove Language on Sex Work From Its City Charter

December 13, 2021 In a historic move, the Burlington, VT City Council unanimously supported a resolution to remove harmful, stigmatizing, and archaic language around prostitution from its city charter. Burlington voters will now have the opportunity to...

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Burlington, VT City Council Votes To Remove Language on Sex Work From Its City Charter

Johns Hopkins University Hosts Panel on Decriminalization

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