This Policy Agenda promotes a rights-based approach, whereby consenting adults in the sex industry are neither perpetrators in need of punishment nor victims in need of rescue, but rather individuals with rights who are
- free to make their own choices about their bodies and sexual behavior
- guaranteed all human rights and civil liberties, including the freedom of speech, travel, immigration, asylum, work, marriage and parenthood, and the right to unemployment insurance, health insurance, and housing.
Some US legislatures are already making progress in this area. For example:
- In May 2019 RI held a hearing for House Resolution 5354– House Resolution Creating A Special Legislative Commission To Study The Health And Safety Impact Of Revising Commercial Sexual Activity Laws (creates A Twelve (12) Member Commission To Study The Health And Safety Impact Of Revising Commercial Sexual Activity Laws. Video (Link)
- In October 2019, the District of Columbia moved to decriminalize sex work to promote public safety and health and held a historic 14-hour long public hearing. This bill is sponsored by DECRIMNOW
- In June 2019, the Stop Violence Against the Sex Trade Act was introduced by New York State Senator Julia Salazar. The bill retains laws concerning trafficking, rape (including statutory rape), assault, battery, and sexual harassment, but also amends the statute so that consenting adults who trade sex, collaborate with or support sex working peers, or patronize adult sex workers are not criminalized. The bill is sponsored by Decrim NY (https://www.decrimny.org/).
- In 2019 California passed SB233, which protects anyone reporting a serious crime (such as sexual assault, trafficking, robbery, domestic violence) from being charged with misdemeanor prostitution, and also removes condoms as probable cause for prostitution arrests.
- In 2017 New Hampshire introduced HB287, asking to create a committee to study decriminalizing sex work.
As well as being criminalized, sex workers are subject to significant social and economic stigma and discrimination. Therefore, this Policy Agenda sets out legislative steps that enfranchise all aspects of sex work, and address the discrimination and stigmatization that affects the sex worker community.
Coyote RI’s Mission
Call off Your Old Tired Ethics (Coyote RI) is a diverse grassroots organization led by sex workers, former sex workers, and trafficking victims. We seek to advance sexual privacy rights through impact legislation, legal advocacy, education, and research. In our legal advocacy, we create change through impact litigation and policy statements.
In recognizing the harm from existing criminalization efforts, sex workers, sex worker-led organizations, and scholars have been researching the effects of state and federal law on sex workers’ livelihoods, continuing the research that the Act aims to initiate. Coyote RI, a grassroots organization that uplifts sex workers’ rights as worker rights, conducted three separate surveys from 2014 until 2018 through support from the American Sociological Association and partnerships with Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ).
Under recriminalization of sex work in Rhode Island, Coyote’s study of 62 sex workers from 2014-2016 echoed worries from Tara Burns’s 2013 study on 40 Alaskan sex workers: workers were primarily concerned with violence or coercion from police and not being able to access equal protection under the law. In 2017, Coyote, along with other sex-worker led organizations, ran a comprehensive, national survey by using Backpage to reach 1,494 U.S. sex workers. Not only was the average age of entry among workers 22, but 78% of the sample worked in and outside the sex industry. For workers, the rise in policy on trafficking and the conflation of consensual sex work with trafficking led to anti-trafficking laws being expansively used to police and surveil workers.
As FOSTA shuttered the internet and dozens of sex worker platforms were removed in 2018, Coyote ran an impact study on 262 U.S. sex workers within two weeks of SESTA/FOSTA’s passage, finding a 28% drop in client screening practices, while 60% of sex workers took on less safe clients to make ends meet and 65% of workers said someone had tried to threaten, exploit, or get freebies from them. Collectively, the research highlighted how increased civilian vigilantism, alongside police surveillance and violence of already marginalized communities, such as migrant workers, resulted in carceral and prosecutorial – as opposed to social welfare – interventions.
Not only has policing and surveilling of consensual sex workers increased under FOSTA/SESTA, but using carceral solutions as social policy heightens the health impacts of criminalizing sex work. When indoor sex work in Rhode Island was temporarily decriminalized in 2003 – before RI legislators recriminalized it in 2009 – economists Cunningham and Shah found that reported rape offenses fell by 30% and female gonorrhea incidence declined by 40% under decriminalization. Similarly, in their 2020 framework for HIV prevention and action, medical researchers noted that decriminalization would likely reduce HIV incidence among sex workers by 33–46%.
The health disparities for sex workers are particularly important, as Coyote found that medical providers were not informing workers about PREP or PEP, harming the quality of health care provided to workers. Further, 48% of workers reported being treated differently by medical providers when they became aware of their involvement in the sex industry, increasing stigma towards workers. Informed from sex workers’ experiences, Julianna Brown, Coyote’s Health and Policy Advisor, collaborated with the St. James Infirmary to create the first accredited continuing medical education module that Rhode Island doctors will be able to take as part of their required continuing education. While more research needs to be conducted, we question legislators’ claims that the research would be more legitimate for policymaking, especially when their own research was not used in debating SESTA/FOSTA. Meanwhile, sex workers are already identifying prescriptive solutions towards decriminalization efforts. Federal legislators should include sex worker-led organizations as part of drafting policies that promote the health and safety of sex workers and that reduce violence, trafficking, and exploitation. As states like Vermont (H.568 and 569) and New York (S6419) introduce different types of decriminalization bills, other states, and federal agencies should commit to having sex workers included in policy decisions. Otherwise, no research body would be legitimate without workers’ guaranteed input in the process.
Definitions and Community
We define a sex worker as anyone, who earns a living from their erotic labor, including prostitutes (whether working indoors in massage parlors or brothels, in their homes or on an outcall basis to homes or hotels, or outdoors on the street), exotic or burlesque dancers, strippers, adult film performers, escorts, courtesans, dominants, submissives, phone sex operators and webcam performers.
Anyone who consensually engages the services of an erotic service provider, we consider a client – not a “trafficker” or an “exploiter”, and also not a “john” (a slang term that is sexist and derogatory).
Directly relying for their livelihood on the jobs of sex workers are 3rd party support staff who act in capacities such as receptionists, agents, managers, drivers, warehouse workers, security, photographers, and even janitors in adult clubs.
Beyond these support staff, there are also third parties whose livelihoods rely indirectly on but often substantially upon sex workers, such as website owners and operators, hairdressers, makeup artists, dance club owners, gym owners, and personal trainers, taxi and rideshare providers, and even hospitality industry staff who work in the hotels and other establishments used by erotic service providers and their clients.
We consider part of our community anyone who is in the sex industry or who knowingly and consensually hires, pays, or provides support to sex workers, and also our friends and family members who support us (whether in a formal or informal capacity).
We believe the following principles should be paramount in all legislative initiatives that affect our community.
- Nothing About Us, Without Us – When it comes to laws affecting people involved in the sex industry, the voices of those stakeholders must be heard front and center, and attitudes that “other” us and deny our agency must be excised from the legislative process.
- Our Bodies, Our Rights – Consenting adults have the right to be free from state criminalization of their sex lives, whether or not money is exchanged or any other consideration is involved.
- Individual Privacy, Institutional Transparency – Any legislation that affects our community must protect our privacy and must guarantee that government agencies and service providers operate is held accountable for treating people humanely, non-coercively, and with integrity, dignity, and respect.
Legislation has too often relied upon or been an accomplice to, the criminalization of our labor as erotic service providers/prostitutes/sex workers. We believe that, as argued in ESPLERP v Gascon (see below), this is clearly in violation of our constitutional right to sexual privacy.
Many statutes define erotic service providers as “victims”, fail to recognize the agency of erotic service providers or our clients, and fail to provide equal protection under the law for members of our community. Labeling us as victims encourage a law enforcement approach toward our community since the presence of a “victim” implicitly assumes the existence of corresponding “perpetrators” who must be brought to justice.
The state commits violence against sex workers by
- harassing them – the Urban Justice Center found that 30% of street-based sex workers in New York had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police
- arresting them — prostitution arrests are the usual means by which persons are labeled sex trafficking victims
- victimizing them during incarceration (from other inmates, guards, from losing income, from being forced to work, from being away from family)
- denying them access to support services, legal advocacy, and safe space shelter
- forcing them into state-provided or state-funded “diversion services”, which typically offer arrested sex workers the only way to avoid further prosecution
- fining them, subjecting them to probation and loss of rights, and saddling them with a damaging criminal record.
Over the past few decades, there have been multiple efforts in Congress and state legislatures to pass “anti-trafficking” legislation – which have had extremely negative impacts on erotic service providers/prostitutes/sex workers.
- SESTA/FOSTA, signed into law in April 2018, carved out an exception to the Communications Decency Act section 230 to make internet platforms liable for “sex trafficking” content. However, SESTA/FOSTA does not differentiate between consensual sex work and sex trafficking. As a result, SESTA/FOSTA has been disastrous for the health, safety, and rights of sex workers everywhere. Barring marginalized communities access to resources and technologies is nothing new – but SESTA/FOSTA created an infrastructural precedent to expedite the process. This led to a massive over-response from social and financial technologies. Companies like Square Cash, Paypal, Venmo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr already included anti-sex work clauses in their Terms of Service (TOS), but after FOSTA-SESTA, sex workers face increased discrimination and erasure. Effectively, SESTA/FOSTA encouraged these platforms to off-board us, excluding us from online spaces where we could vet clients and engage in preventive information exchanges. That forced many of us to engage in more dangerous street workspaces where we are at risk of violence – and paradoxically, more at risk of being trafficked.
- The Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act and California’s Proposition 35 both contain overly broad definitions which define our everyday personal and professional relationships as criminal associations, essentially defining our spouses and partners, roommates, landlords, support staff, and others, as “sex traffickers” who may be forced to register as “sex offenders”.
- The 2003 Federal Reauthorization Trafficking Victims Act expanded the narrative on “sex trafficking” to include “children” – whereby everyone under 18 who is found to be involved in prostitution is automatically defined as a “trafficked victim”.
At State level, “Safe Harbor Laws” are touted as a means to recognize youth as “victims” – which implies that no charges of prostitution should result.
However, both the Federal and State approaches remand underaged people into “protective custody”, where they are often held in “witness protection” until they testify against someone. Therefore laws like California SB1322 that mandates law enforcement to transfer such youth to “welfare services” actually violate youth right to due process.
This slew of trafficking laws put the lives of both coerced victims and consentual adult sex workers in danger by maintaining a black market that attracts violence and creates unsafe working conditions. The cover story of the November 2015 issue of Reason Magazine accurately declares that “The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs”. In effect, the “War on Sex Trafficking” is a war on people who exchange sex for money, and primarily a war on poor women of color.
There are vast Federal investments in grants to “anti-trafficking” NGOs, where in collaboration with Federal and State agencies, they mount high profile prostitution sting operations under the guise of “rescue” such as Operation Cross Country which typically fails to find many “traffickers”, but do criminalize consensual sex workers and their clients, and certainly do not provide services (such as counseling, housing, education) to ensnared individuals who are just trying to make a living.
Another major consequence of the current approach to “sex trafficking” is that law enforcement is empowered to seize property, without due process, even if the property owner is never charged with a crime. In practice, property seizure results in untraceable profit for law enforcement agencies and their non-profit collaborators. For example, the Department of Homeland Security seized $1.4 million from Rentboy.com, and we have no idea how that money was spent. The only people who do not benefit from such seizures are the erotic service providers on the sharp end.
In contrast to this law enforcement focus, research shows that funding long term necessities (safe housing, employment, education, food, and money) is a far better approach
ESPLERP v Gascon
As a prime example of impact litigation, in March 2015, ESPLERP filed a complaint with the United States Federal District Court (known as ESPLERP v GASCON [case 16-15027] which challenged California’s anti-prostitution law, Penal Code 647(b), arguing for the decriminalization of sex work – that these laws deprive individuals of the fundamental right to engage in consensual, private sexual activity.
We had some heavy hitters on our side. Decriminalization of sex work is supported by Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, the Lancet, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law. And our case was supported by amicus briefs from over thirty civil rights and LGBTQ organizations, including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, the Free Speech Coalition, and the Transgender Law Center
In October 2017, ESPLERP v Gascon was heard before a three-judge panel at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco – But unfortunately, in February 2018, the Ninth Circuit panel dismissed our case. Video (link)
One notable feature of the whole process was that over time, we received more and more positive coverage in major outlets like the New York Times, CBS, Fox News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the UK Independent – That coverage recognized that our position – that sex work should not be criminalized – is sensible and intellectually correct and that public opinion is shifting in our favor.
The criminalization of consensual sex creates a system with multiple levels of social and institutional discrimination. We, therefore, call for a rights-based approach which recognizes consenting adults in the sex industry as neither perpetrators in need of punishment nor victims in need of rescue, but rather individuals with rights and agency who deserve to be free to make their own choices about their bodies and their sexual relations.
We, therefore, propose the following legislative steps toward ensuring greater safety and enfranchisement for erotic service providers.
- Repeal SESTA/FOSTA, signed into law in April 2018, was ostensibly targeted at online “sex trafficking”, but does not differentiate between consensual adult sex work and sex trafficking. As a result, while it has had zero effect on “sex trafficking, it has been disastrous for the health and safety of the erotic service provider community – causing us to be arbitrarily kicked off social media, and the closure of relatively safe online platforms where clients could be vetted and preventive information exchanged. Many workers were forced to engage in more dangerous street work – in spaces that are subject to violence from predators, police and “traffickers”.This bad law harms the erotic service provider community and the wider public and is being challenged in court (see Woodhull Freedom Foundation et al. v. the United States But court cases can take years to run their course, and the outcome is rarely certain. So we strongly encourage Federal legislators to immediately repeal this bad law – and replace it with legislation that guarantees our class of workers the same online and offline protections as other private citizens.
- End discrimination against erotic service providers, clients and support staff
- Repeal moral turpitude laws
These archaic laws limit the ability of people to gain employment after a prostitution arrest. Even non-criminalized erotic service providers such as exotic dancers, adult film performers, massage parlor staff, agency support staff, phone sex operators, professional dominatrixes/submissives and webcam performers may be negatively impacted by these laws. For example, Stacie Halas, a permanently certified teacher, was dismissed by her employer, Oxnard School District, when they learned of her previous employment in the adult film. (Link)
- Prohibit discrimination in access to publicly funded services
In its 2015 Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights- the State Department affirmed United Nations Recommendation #86, stating, “We agree that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution”. But there are numerous instances of State laws and regulations that still discriminate against our community. For instance, the California Victims Compensation Fund maintains language banning those who have been injured in the course of a prostitution transaction from receiving benefits. Language singling out people who work or have worked in pornography and/or prostitution is another form of victim-blaming and is completely inappropriate treatment of victims of sexual assault.
- Prohibit discrimination in judicial proceedings
Very often, sex workers are treated unfavorably in family court hearings (for example, covering child custody and/or divorce settlements). For example, Jessica Hernandez lost custody to an abusive partner, who subsequently killed the child, because the judge discriminated against her based on her legal occupation as a stripper –
- Prohibit the use of sex worker status as grounds for discrimination
People applying to State or local government for housing, education, or employment, should not be subject to discrimination based on their occupation. But, for example, Oakland’s 2014 “nuisance ordinance” targets prostitutes, and allows for the removal of tenants due to their perceived status. Such laws place the onus on the person being discriminated against to prove that they are not a prostitute. And mean that low-income tenants, transgender residents, and people of color are targeted and made homeless.
- Grant immunity from prosecution for prostitution offenses to erotic service providers and our clients and support staff when they report more serious crimes California SB233, passed and signed into law in 2019 and becoming active in 2020, is an example of legislation that enhances the safety of erotic service providers and our community – and indeed of society at large.
The legislation protects anyone reporting a serious crime (such as sexual assault, trafficking, robbery, domestic violence) from being charged with misdemeanor prostitution, and also removes condoms as probable cause for prostitution arrests.
The criminalization of prostitution discourages erotic service providers, our clients and support staff, from reporting serious crimes. This new law means our community can help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the small number of actual sex traffickers, corrupt law enforcement officers, coercive third parties, and others who prey upon us, without fear of penalties.
In addition, California has a ‘Getting To Zero’ campaign regarding HIV transmissions – so granting immunity from prostitution arrests when carrying condoms to an incentive to safe sex in line with the State’s goals.
- Establish a ‘Vacatur Law’ to automatically remove prostitution convictions and arrests from criminal and public records A ‘Vacatur Law” should be established whereby prostitution convictions and arrests can be automatically and completely removed from criminal and public records, without requiring people with criminal records to go through a complicated, onerous and expensive legal process.
- Prohibit gender identity, sexual orientation and racial profiling of sex workers, as the ACLU argues in its supporting amicus brief for ESPLERP v Gascon legislation criminalizing sex workers, their clients and support staff, is “discriminatorily enforced against women (transgender and cisgender) and people who are LGBTQ and gender non conforming”. Women of color, transgender women and LGBTQ youth should not have to fear being arrested for prostitution just because a law enforcement officer considers their appearance indicative of prostitution.
- Prohibit mandatory HIV testing and repeal laws that criminalize HIV positive status, with new medical advances against HIV (such as Truvada), the current level of state coercion employed against people with compromised immune systems is inappropriate. In California, with the passing of SB 239 in 2017, knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection, is now a misdemeanor, which is the same status as other STDs. We supported SB 239, but we need legislation to go further and decriminalize HIV status altogether.
- Monitor peer counseling ‘services’ provided by anti-trafficking or anti-prostitution non-profit groups and rape crisis centers receiving public fundingAnti-trafficking groups, anti-prostitution groups, and rape crisis centers are in receipt of significant public funds without any requirement for transparency and accountability as to how those funds are used, or any independent ethics oversight.
For example, Coyote created this spreadsheet of organizations that have tapped into federal “Trafficking in persons” (TIP) funding, and once we looked up their 990’s we can see that the majority of the funding goes to pay their salaries and offices and fundraising efforts. Almost none of the funding goes to provide any real services for “people involved in the sex industry. These heavily funded organizations are purposely conflating sex work with trafficking and publishing false stats to get the state and federal government to provide them more funding. Sadly nothing these organizations due reduce trafficking or begins to address the root causes as to why people enter the sex industry.
- Implement a grievance process in publicly-funded anti-prostitution/anti-trafficking groups, rape crisis centers and domestic violence sheltersNon-profits and NGOs that provide services to prostitutes or trafficking victims, in particular rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, should be required to notify all service recipients of the process by which they can file complaints about the quality of the services they receive. State records of all such complaints should be maintained and available to the public, and any non-profits or NGOs that show consistently poor user satisfaction or engage in unacceptable practices should promptly be made ineligible for public funding.
- Implement public reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies that perform prostitution and human trafficking arrests, incarcerations and convictions currently, law enforcement agencies and task forces that perform prostitution and human trafficking operations, arrests, incarceration, and convictions, operate with a near-complete absence of transparency. For example, those that are listed here in the recent new report. They should be subject to Federal, State, county or city oversight, and be required to
- make all meetings open to the public
- publish names and roles of task force members
- publish annual audits with all costs, including overtime pay, and any costs incurred by participating non-profits
- publish anonymized details of arrests and convictions, together with demographic data (gender, age, race) on those who have been arrested and/or convicted
- publish all Memoranda of Understanding between task forces, law enforcement agencies, non-profits or other agencies
- implement public reporting requirements for publicly-funded non-profits and NGOs that provide services related to prostitution or human trafficking.
- Expand Privacy LawsWe require laws that protect the digital privacy of sex workers. The USA has signed on to the UN Treaty on International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights however there are many ways in which developments in surveillance have preemptively violated our privacy.
- Stingray devices (also known as International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI)-catchers) were initially developed for the military and intelligence community, but are now in widespread use by local and state law enforcement agencies, who use them to violate the privacy of erotic service providers. There is clearly a need for laws banning the use of these devices without a warrant to ensure that constitutional rights are protected.
- Our images are routinely scraped from public online ads sites and are published onto other online sites without our permission. This activity should be made criminally illegal, as erotic service providers have limited access to civil courts to pursue justice.
- Technology companies, like Palantir, Thorn, and Google (which donated $11.5 million to anti-trafficking organizations) are now using facial recognition technology to try and identify “sex trafficking victims” by scanning escort online ads. See (Link). But in practice, what they are actually doing is building databases of adult consensual workers – where posting an ad online in order to make money to survive can lead to your face and identity being cataloged and handed to law enforcement. There is clearly a need for legislation to prevent the collection of personal data without consent.
- Social networks, like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, are using their technology to ‘shadowban’ workers and using their Terms of Service to push sex workers off the internet – which causes social and professional death. We need legislation to bring balance and reparations to this clearly unfair business practice.
- We oppose license schemes that would expose sex workers to harassment and discrimination – such as requiring our legal names, date of birth, and social security numbers, and requiring us to submit to criminal background checks. See (link) For example, a privacy watchdog in the Netherlands found that compulsory registration of sex workers breached privacy rules. However in New Zealand where sex work has been decriminalized, outing the legal name of a sex worker also known as doxing is a criminal offense. See (Link)
- Protect the privacy of erotic service providers, clients, and support staff during undercover sting or surveillance operations law enforcement agencies who invite journalists/media or members of nonprofits to accompany them on operations targeting the sex worker community should be required to inform such third parties that they are not allowed to film or record a person who is caught up in an operation, being arrested or in custody, without that individual’s consent. Such filming by “embedded” journalists and others violates our right to privacy, leads to exploitation of individuals, and stigmatizes the industry as a whole. See (Link)
- Establish regulations restricting prosecutorial misconduct is unacceptable for prosecutors to coerce defendants in sex trafficking and prostitution cases into giving up their rights to due process and their day in court by threatening to go after them with draconian charges if they don’t accept plea bargains. There is a growing movement calling for limitations on prosecutors’ ability to force defendants to plea to charges they may not have committed. See (Link)
States should establish strong penalties for such misconduct to deter prosecutors from abusing their power.
- Prohibit sexual contact by law enforcement during investigations law enforcement officers and their agents should be prohibited from any sexual contact, including penetration, with anyone who is under investigation and/or in their custody or who are victims and/or witnesses. Any violation should be prosecuted as a criminal sexual assault offense and restitution should be obtainable in civil courts. For example, Michigan Governor signed into law House Bill 4355 and Senate Bill 275 in 2017 outlawing police having sex with prostitutes on duty by removing an exemption that previously blocked their prosecution. Alaska’s 2017 State bills HB112 and SB73 propose to take legislation one step further and make it a felony criminal act for officers to have sexual contact and penetration with those they are investigating for prostitution.
Despite these limited advances, in most jurisdictions, law enforcement officers are enabled to engage in the legal sexual assault with erotic service providers. It is imperative that States specifically prohibit this behavior – and treat it as the sexual assault it is.
In conclusion, anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws contribute to the disenfranchisement of our community. This disenfranchisement, and a lack of public accountability in law enforcement, state agencies, and nonprofits, misallocate precious taxpayer resources and deters reports from community members who have been actual victims of rape, robbery, theft, coercion, battery, assault, stalking, or murder. Continuing these failed policies based on faulty definitions is going in precisely the opposite direction to the growing global consensus on the human rights of erotic service providers and clearly puts members of our community at risk while undermining public safety.
Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (Coyote RI)
10 Davol Sq Suite 100
Providence RI 02903