Legalize and Regulate - Sex Work?

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One of the serious problems facing our society is how to rescue those who are forced into prostitution as victims of sex trafficking. A bill H.568 has been introduced in the Vermont House Judiciary Committee that would decriminalize prostitution. The bill is intended to protect those who are forced into prostitution through violence and coercion by removing the stigma and liability of having committed a crime. As of this writing it looks as if the bill may become just a study of the issue. But I wonder if this approach will solve few problems and may create new ones, and that perhaps we should seek another path.

I am concerned that decriminalization of prostitution would actually make it easier for pimps and johns to exploit vulnerable women and girls, because what they are being forced to do is no longer a crime. Decriminalization would not include regulation: there would be no way to protect the workers or the customers from sexually transmitted diseases, which could then affect the general public. There would be no way to ensure that prostitutes are safe from violence and abuse. There would be no way to regulate where and how this activity takes place in a community. Decriminalization without regulation might attract more sex trafficking activities to Vermont.

There are some people who choose to engage in sex work, without coercion. And there are the victims of sex trafficking. If we wish to help the latter, it might make sense to legalize and to regulate prostitution, which would provide a legal outlet for those who wish to provide such services and those who wish to obtain them. We could then focus our law enforcement efforts on victims of sex trafficking without using resources to enforce the ban on consensual monetary sexual exchanges.

But it would really matter how such a program were designed. With Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan of Dorset I have introduced a bill H.651 that would ask the state to develop a proposal to legalize and to regulate sex work along the following lines. To get a state license a sex worker would have to be over 21, and they would have to have a health certificate and a criminal background check. They could practice their trade only at certain state licensed facilities like clubs which would provide security in return for rent. The number of both kinds of licenses would be limited. There would be a tax on the revenue generated by activity as well as license fees to cover the costs of regulation.

Legalizing consensual sex work might have benefits for sex workers and for our society as a whole by protecting the health and safety of participants and of our communities. There would be control of where and how such activities take place in our municipalities. Law enforcement could concentrate on preventing sex trafficking and rescuing its victims.

I know that this may be a shocking proposal to some. But in a society that is immersed in sexuality through many activities and forms of media, does it really make sense to prohibit consensual prostitution? Does it really make sense to pretend that this activity, however much we may deplore it and would like to discourage it, should not be considered for legalization and regulation along with other formerly prohibited recreational activities? Many states have legalized recreational use of cannabis. The expansion of legal gambling to include new games and locations is also in play. If people over the age of 21 should have the right to consume a drug like cannabis, or to bet on sports, should they have a right to use their bodies as they see fit, including selling sexual services? Would such legalization and regulation make it easier to identify and to prevent sex trafficking?

Cynthia Browning represents Arlington, Sandgate and Manchester in the state House of Representatives.

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