The Other Legalization: A Sex Worker’s Dream for Decriminalization in Rhode Island

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Every Wednesday night she parks her tangerine Nissan Rogue inside the faded lines of the lot by the McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts on Broad Street, a spot she says the working girls often visit between shifts.

It’s eighteen degrees tonight and her truck is one of the few stragglers in the glazed parking lot. It’s supposed to snow any minute now, but still, she decides to stand behind the truck. With her glasses pushed back in her auburn-dyed hair and a scarlet pea coat to match, she shivers in the cold, waiting for her guests to arrive.

“Hey honey, whatcha need?” she says to a heavy-set man approaching her truck.

“Anything you can spare,” he replies.

The trunk opened wide, she reaches inside and pulls out four flower-patterned bins filled with the essentials for her outreach work: water, hygiene supplies, naloxone kits, condoms, gloves, hats–and Ritz-crackers. Her name is Bella Robinson, and she is the executive director of COYOTE RI (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics Rhode Island), a sex workers’ rights organization in Rhode Island. Though the organization aims to help local sex workers, she’s on Broad Street to offer supplies to anyone who is in need– no questions asked. The parking lot is a common spot for outreach groups that provide services to homeless individuals in Providence.

“Do you want condoms?” she asks the man, adding them to the bag before he can even reply.

“Here you go honey, never know when you’ll need it. Maybe you’ll get lucky,” she laughs. Years of smoking have caused her to laugh to sound like sandpaper is rubbing against her vocal cords.

Aside from outreach, Robinson spends at least 60 hours of her unpaid time a week educating students and the broader community about sex work and running campaigns in support of the decriminalization of sex work. Her latest efforts: lobbying for a bill (H5354) introduced to the Rhode Island State House on February 8th that would create a commission to study the health and safety effects of decriminalization in Rhode Island. Introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams, the bill would guarantee COYOTE RI a spot at the table, which would give the organization, and Robinson, a voice at the state level.

Robinson herself is no stranger to sex work; it’s been her livelihood on and off for thirty-five years. Now fifty-four years old, she says it’s how she can afford her home, purchase a brand-new truck, and support her cat, Bobby two.

Her path to sex work started at age eighteen after she left the forty-one-year-old man she had married only a year before. She was a foster child in Florida who resented the system that bounced her around from home to home. It was through this system that she was given permission to marry this man by her mother, who she says didn’t even have custody of her. It was also this system that allowed the grade C student to take her GED at sixteen and never go to a day of high school, she says with regret.

Robinson knew she was a trophy wife, and the young bride’s husband quickly became verbally abusive. She says he never hit her; he only raised his hand at her once, and she left before he could’ve had the chance. Not wanting to face her grandma and tell her what happened, she decided to live out of her car. That is when she met Joey and his friend, two transgender men that would become her living survival guides. In an exchange for a ride, they would feed her, buy her cigarettes, and give her the gas to fuel her home. The men were prostitutes, but Robinson only found this out when she found herself in the back of a police car with handcuffs around her wrists.

“We used to hitchhike a lot,” she explains. “So, I’m walking down the street, and this man in a red Camaro asks me if I want a ride. I say, ah what the fuck, and I get in the car. He says he wants to take me to dinner and a movie, I say I can’t I’m married. Then he pulls out a badge and says I’m under arrest for prostitution. I didn’t even understand what Joey and his friends were doing at the time.”

After she was arrested, Joey was there to bail her out of jail. She says the accusation of being a sex worker only made it easier for her to start. Joey taught her how to work the streets soon after, never asking her for any money in return.

“I found out real quick that is was easier for me to get dates than Joey”, she laughs. “But she was my saving grace. I learned that if I turned two tricks, it paid for my hotel, cigarettes, food, and I would never have to kiss a man’s ass again. I was the master of my own castle.”

For years she worked with an escorting service, attending parties that would eventually get her involved with crack. She became addicted; the short-lived high cost her fifteen years of painful addiction and five years of jail time. Now, she doesn’t work at night because she knows people will be drinking and partying.

“I used to turn tricks for $20 and smoke crack, and I have to own that,” she says. “No one made me do that, those were my decisions. I started making better decisions and my life got better. My life got stable.”

And in this new, stable life her sex work continued. In 2009, she was working in New Jersey off of online sites like Backpage.com when one of her clients told her sex work was decriminalized in Rhode Island. She thought he was just trying to impress her, but a quick Google search verified her hopes. It was all she needed to pack up her home and move to Rhode Island.

For the first in her life, she felt free. She could call the cops on customers who threatened her, she could work from home without the fear of being evicted, and she could raise her child without any fear of losing her.

But her freedom was an accident, a mere legislative error.

Indoor prostitution in Rhode Island had been legalized in 1980 only because there was no specific law that defined the act and outlawed it. The “loophole,” as it is often referred to, created a safe haven for prostitutes. In 2009, there was an eruption of opinions that criticized decriminalization. At the time Rev. Donald C. Anderson (Now Donnie Anderson), executive minister of Rhode Island State Council of Churches, wrote in a statewide email saying, “There can be no doubt this is 21st-century slavery and we have placed ourselves in the eye of the storm.”

There had not been a human trafficking case reported in Rhode Island for nearly a decade, but the critics of decriminalization won. On November 3, 2009, just six months after Robinson set foot in Rhode Island, the loophole was closed and her taste of freedom had been taken away from her.

Near the entrance of the lot where she does outreach is a long, rusted pole with a sign attached to it advertising for a Vietnamese restaurant. “Pho’s Paradise” it reads in a confident, vermillion bold, but the message is misleading: the restaurant had closed down long ago.

Through Robinson’s work with COYOTE RI, she is fighting for her own paradise back. With more access to data on the effects of prostitution in Rhode Island than anywhere else, Robinson is determined to dispel the myths and the stigmas surrounding sex work. Through these efforts, she hopes to see the decriminalization of sex work in RI once again.

As an early step, Robinson is organizing people to testify in support of H5354. The hearing is scheduled on April 30th, 4:30 PM at the State House.

So far, responses about the bill have been mixed. The ACLU has supported the bill, and Executive Director Steven Brown says it is a good and timely bill that will revisit the state’s prostitution laws.

“The ACLU long supports decriminalization, we think it’s a victimless crime, and think the state has nothing to do with it,” says Brown. “We recognize the disproportionate discrimination on women that this law creates, as [women] are the ones to most likely be charged with the crime.”

Others, however, are more skeptical of the bill and the decriminalization of prostitution.

Rhode Island House Representative Sherry Roberts refused to comment on the bill itself but stated “I oppose decriminalization because I don’t believe it does anything to promote family values. I also believe it could potentially become an enticement for increased criminal activity into the state, like human-trafficking for example.”

But Robinson argues human-trafficking has little to do with the majority of sex work.

“Immediately when legislators came to hear about the bill, they hear the responses coming from anti-trafficking people who’ve never worked in the sex industry,” she says.

In a study performed by COYOTE RI, 1515 sex workers were interviewed, and of this population, only four percent considered themselves victims of trafficking.

Fifty-one percent of the sex workers, on the other hand, reported being victims of a crime while working, and almost seventy percent of them said they would not report it to the police.

Robinson says that a majority of the news about sex trafficking has been inflated by anti-sex work groups in order to get funding from sponsors. She claims the “rescue lobby”, as she calls them, tries to make victims out of sex workers who are caught, promising them benefits in return.

“The police will threaten you,” she says. “They’ll say we’re going to put your name in the paper and everyone is going to know that you’re a whore, but if you say that you were forced, you can become a victim. Then they’ll parade you around a fundraiser so you can tell your struggles on the microphone…”

Robinson says a better solution to combating sex trafficking would be to have “knock and talks”, where, rather than arresting sex workers, the police would book an appointment with the girls undercover and check in on them to make sure they’re safe.

The way the laws are currently set up, help is difficult to find even for sex workers who are not being trafficked. According to Robinson, if two girls work together, they can be charged with felony pandering or promoting, making it more dangerous for them. This could have happened to Robinson, who at 44, was working with another woman off Craigslist when a swat team kicked down her door and arrested them.

Under this current system, many sex workers don’t share information about clients with each other for fear of getting charged with a felony.

“[If sex work is decriminalized], I can say, yeah, I know Tom, he’s a nice guy,” says Robinson. “Or I can say ‘Uh no, he’s on a blacklist for choking some girl out…’and I’m supposed to go to jail for promoting prostitution because I want to help keep others safe?”

Regarding safety, Robinson also claims the current legislation allows for corruption within the system. Police officers can, and allegedly often do, take advantage of sex workers by using their services and then refusing to pay. Sex workers are left defenseless, Robinson says, and any protests can be silenced by a single threat of arrest.

Robinson argues that decriminalization would protect sex workers from all kinds of abuse, and supporting sex work doesn’t mean you approve of it, it just means you understand it’s not okay to abuse this population.

“Part of our mission is educating students and the larger community so when you hear the dead hooker joke, you say no, no that shit is not cool,” she says. “For years shame made everybody silent, and we’re not going to be shamed…we’re coming back, and we’re speaking out.”

Victoria Caruso is a student at Brown University, class of 2021

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