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Montpelier’s Police Review Committee recommended that the ordinance be repealed as its stigmatizing and discriminatory language was harmful to both consensual adult sex workers and individuals experiencing exploitation.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.

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Possessing Condoms Shouldn’t Be a Crime

August 17, 2022

Criminalization and policing practices greatly impede sex workers’ ability to protect themselves and their clients from the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). These practices negatively impact individuals working of their own volition and those who are being trafficked. The possession of condoms is often used by law enforcement as evidence that an individual has the intent to engage in or has engaged in prostitution. According to the ACLU, “Research indicates that certain police practices related to enforcement of sex work criminalization may put sex workers and their clients at greater health risk. Interviews with sex workers in Sacramento Valley, California, revealed that the threat and incidence of detention increased if sex workers had condoms in their possession.” No one should have to choose between carrying condoms and arrest; however, the practice of using condoms as evidence to charge an individual with prostitution forces many sex workers to make this impossible choice.

Police regularly cite condom possession as probable cause for the detention or arrest of individuals they suspect are engaged in sex work. They may also confiscate or destroy condoms either because they hope to disssuade someone from engaging in sex work or as a form of harassment. Sex workers in a New York City study reported that police took their condoms, even outside the context of arrests. A number of these workers stated they carry fewer condoms due to their fear of harrassment and arrest, though many shared that this did not deter them from exercising their human right to practice safe sex.

Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers have less agency and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as having unprotected sex. Numerous public health agencies, including the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, support the decriminalization of sex work as an essential step in the global fight against HIV, AIDS, and other STIs. Research shows the decriminalization of sex work would reduce HIV transmissions by 33 to 46% worldwide. Until decriminalization can be achieved, incremental measures such as laws prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence, will greatly improve health outcomes for sex workers and communities as a whole. Some states, including California, have passed laws that prohibit law enforcement from using condoms as evidence, but the practice persists around the country.

Numerous research articles and reports issued by public health and human rights organizations recommend that municipalities adopt the below recommendations to combat police harassment and abuse of sex workers and to promote safe sex through the use of condoms:

* Lawmakers should pass legislation decriminalizing consensual adult sex work.

* Pending the decriminalization of sex work, national and/or local lawmakers should pass legislation that prohibits condoms from being used by police or prosecutors as evidence of prostitution. Corresponding guidelines should be issued to judges instructing them to deem condom possession inadmissible as evidence of a person’s engagement in or intention to engage in sex work.

* Law enforcement officials should instruct officers not to confiscate condoms from sex workers or anyone else, and they should discipline violators of this policy.

* Health officials should work with police and other relevant agencies to train police officers and to ensure that law enforcement policies do not interfere with internationally recognized best practices to stop the spread of STIs including HIV.

* Police officers who rape or assault sex workers in any manner and who abuse their power by sexually exploiting or extorting sex workers should be prosecuted.

Designed by Rachel Schreiber. Courtesy of St. James Infirmary.

Designed by Rachel Schreiber. Courtesy of St. James Infirmary.

“They locked me up … because I had a condom. I wasn’t even prostituting. They took the condom.”

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Operation Cross Country: The FBI’s Annual Anti-Trafficking Performance

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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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August 17, 2022 Criminalization and policing practices greatly impede sex workers’ ability to protect themselves and their clients from the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). These practices negatively impact individuals working of their own volition and...
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Operation Cross Country: The FBI’s Annual Anti-Trafficking Performance

August 15, 2022

The FBI announced that Operation Cross Country, which it organizes annually to focus on “identifying and locating victims of sex trafficking and investigating and arresting individuals and criminal enterprises involved in both child sex and human trafficking,” was a profound success though an examination beyond the headlines finds the operation missed its mark. The FBI reported that the operation, which took place during the first two weeks of August, found 37 missing minors, identified “more than 200 victims,” and led to the “identification or arrest” of 85 suspects; however, they also stated that “the result was three arrests: one of an unregistered sex offender (which will become a federal case) and two state arrests.” The lack of details regarding what the operation actually entails, the circumstances of the victims, and the charges faced by the majority of those arrested mirrors past years’ announcements.

It is hard to disagree with the operation’s stated objectives, which are to assist victims and bring abusers to justice, but it appears that this is yet another example of law enforcement boasting that it has arrested numerous traffickers when the details do not support that claim. Law-enforcement agencies routinely announce that they have “busted a human trafficking ring” and “rescued sex slaves,” catchphrases that the media is quick to print as headlines. A cursory glance of the subsequent article or details of the arrests often reveals that those arrested were consensual adult sex workers and their clients, for prostitution or soliciting prostitution, and for petty offenses such as driving without a license or drug possession. Victims may not have been trafficked or exploited and may have been victimized in another sense.

Very few people are actually charged with “sex trafficking” during law enforcement “sting operations” aimed at combatting this offense. Arrests of adults engaged in consensual sex work reported in conjunction with data related to human trafficking grossly inflate the perceived rate of sex trafficking, denying resources to the vast majority of victims who are trafficked into other industries. Eighty percent of trafficking victims worldwide are exploited into service, agriculture, and other labor sectors outside of sex work, yet advocates have noted that when labor trafficking cases are reported to U.S. law enforcement, they often fail to investigate or prosecute. Nearly 90% of the federal government’s $24 million “trafficking prevention” budget was used to arrest consensual adult sex workers rather than to detect traffickers or assist victims. In 2020, prostitution-related offenses outnumbered those related to trafficking in the sex trade 38 to 1.

The hyper emphasis on “sex trafficking” by law enforcement and the public leads to misdirected resources and the arrest and stigmatization of consensual adult sex workers. Ironically, these arrests, among other law-enforcement practices, make it harder for actual victims of trafficking to seek services.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown exposed Operation Cross Country’s flaws and the harmful ramifications of inflating sex trafficking statistics in this piece, printed in Reason magazine in 2017.

“Federal officials insist child sex trafficking is an American epidemic, with domestic victims numbering in the hundreds of thousands. None of the stings have yielded evidence of anything like a problem on that scale.”

— Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason, 2017

DSW Newsletter #39 (August 2022)

Operation Cross Country: The FBI’s Annual Anti-Trafficking Performance

August 15, 2022 The FBI announced that Operation Cross Country, which it organizes annually to focus on “identifying and locating victims of sex trafficking and investigating and arresting individuals and criminal enterprises involved in both child sex...
Read More
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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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DSW Newsletter Archive

DSW Staff Attend Key Conferences Around the World

August 12, 2022

It was a busy and productive summer for DSW staff as they traveled to multiple influential conferences to discuss the critical need to decriminalize consensual adult sex work. Staff had the opportunity to participate in panel discussions, to present their work, and to engage with legislators and academics among others.

Staff Attorney Becca Cleary and Communications Director Ariela Moscowitz traveled to Denver, CO, for the Annual Legislative Summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures. They met with numerous legislators from around the country to discuss decriminalization and incremental measures states can take to improve the health and safety of sex workers and the community and to combat trafficking. These incremental measures include immunity laws that would allow individuals to seek medical attention and report crimes without fear of their own arrest and 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.

Legal Director Melissa Broudo, Research and Project Manager J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, and Cleary took part in the Woodhull Freedom Foundation’s Sexual Freedom Summit. Broudo moderated “Lawyering for Sex Workers,” which focused on the legal issues surrounding sex work, human trafficking, sexual freedom, and human rights. She also joined Oshiro-Brantly to present “The Role of Inclusive Sexual Education in Promoting Human Rights and Trafficking Prevention.” DSW volunteer attorney Allison Kolins moderated while Broudo and Oshiro-Brantly discussed the findings of their paper published in the 2021 edition of the Charleston Law Review. The paper examined sex negativity and gendered, homophobic, and transphobic ideas, particularly in the context of school and community based learning, as contributing factors to exploitation risk on a continuum of sexual abuse, including trafficking, throughout an individual’s life course. Cleary shared her presentation, “Strategies to Advance the Human Rights of Sex Workers,” which focused on much-needed policy reforms.

Crystal DeBoise, director of strategic partnerships, Political Director Rob Kampia, and Oshiro-Brantly attended the Global Meeting of the Law and Society Association in Lisbon, Portugal. This year’s theme “Rage, Reckoning, and Remedy” highlighted issues of race and colonialism and the extent to which historical legacies impact current realities. Oshiro-Brantly presented their paper, “Continuum of Exploitation: The Role of Inclusive Sexual Health Education in Preventing Human Trafficking of Minors” as part of the “Vulnerable Gender: Protection Against Legal Inequality, Social Exclusion, and Sexual Exploitation” track. DeBoise presented on decriminizalizing sex work with a panel of international experts.

Rebecca Cleary and Ariela Moscowitz at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rebecca Cleary and Ariela Moscowitz at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Melissa Broudo, Becca Cleary, and DSW volunteer Allison Kolins at the Sexual Freedom Summit.

Melissa Broudo, Becca Cleary, and DSW volunteer Allison Kolins at the Sexual Freedom Summit.

Crystal DeBoise, Rob Kampia, and J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly in Lisbon for the Global Meeting on Law and Society.

Crystal DeBoise, Rob Kampia, and J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly in Lisbon for the Global Meeting on Law and Society.

J Leigh Oshiro-Brantly presenting at the Global Meeting on Law and Society.

J Leigh Oshiro-Brantly presenting at the Global Meeting on Law and Society.

DSW Newsletter #39 (August 2022)

Operation Cross Country: The FBI’s Annual Anti-Trafficking Performance

August 15, 2022 The FBI announced that Operation Cross Country, which it organizes annually to focus on “identifying and locating victims of sex trafficking and investigating and arresting individuals and criminal enterprises involved in both child sex...
Read More
Operation Cross Country: The FBI’s Annual Anti-Trafficking Performance

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...
Read More
Montpelier, VT Repeals Prostitution Ordinance

Possessing Condoms Shouldn’t Be a Crime

August 17, 2022 Criminalization and policing practices greatly impede sex workers’ ability to protect themselves and their clients from the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). These practices negatively impact individuals working of their own volition and...
Read More
Possessing Condoms Shouldn’t Be a Crime

DSW Staff Attend Key Conferences Around the World

August 12, 2022 It was a busy and productive summer for DSW staff as they traveled to multiple influential conferences to discuss the critical need to decriminalize consensual adult sex work. Staff had the opportunity to participate...
Read More
DSW Staff Attend Key Conferences Around the World

DSW Newsletter Archive