We support the New Hampshire bill NH HB 287 to establish a committee to study the decriminalization of sex work. Such a study is urgently needed and could play a crucial role in understanding the impact of criminalizing sex work first of all sex workers safety, health, and ability to exercise their human, legal, economic and civil rights. This study could be a precedent-setting move for New Hampshire and could inspire other states to follow.
It has been 100 years since the Red Light Abatement Acts, aimed at eliminating prostitution, swept the US in the early 20th century. In 1910, the Mann Act was passed which was a federal law criminalizing prostitution. Since then, thousands of other laws against prostitution have been brought in and implemented through raids, crackdowns, arrests and prosecutions, most heavily enforced against women working the streets. Women of color are disproportionately targeted by these laws. The most recent attack is the shutting down of websites where sex workers advertise. Sex workers haven’t stopped working because sex work is an economic necessity in the vast majority of cases, but women are having to employ less safe methods of contacting clients.
On January 25th, US PROStitutes Collective will join others to mark the 100th anniversary of an historic mobilization of sex workers. In 1917, 300 prostitute women occupied a church in San Francisco to protest the impending closure of the Barbary Coast, the red light district where they lived and worked. The women took over the pulpit and addressed the reverend leading the crusade against them and the congregation. They said “nearly every one of these women is a mother, or has someone depending on her. They are driven into this life by economic conditions and will always be coming into prostitution as long as conditions, wages and education are as they are. You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
How true those words are today! Poverty is on the increase; women and children comprise 75% of impoverished people in the US. Black, Latino and Native American children are most likely to live in poverty. Most sex workers are mothers and many women of color are in prostitution to make ends meet and feed and clothe children. Transgender and young people of color are driven into prostitution in high numbers due to poverty and discrimination; a recent study documents teens increasingly doing “crimes of survival” such as swopping sex for food[i]. The proposal of the NH committee to study statistics on “race, gender identity and socioeconomic status” of those arrested would be very useful on getting a clearer picture of sex work in New Hampshire. Data on sex workers is almost non-existent, and that which is most often used is biased, questionable and problematic. An unbiased study is of the utmost importance.
We would like to flag up in particular the crucial issue of the impact on sex workers’ safety and health of criminalization and we hope this will be a priority for the committee. While prostitution itself is not inherently dangerous, the criminal status gives a green light to violent men to attack sex workers and get away with it. These men know sex workers are afraid to report crimes for fear of arrest and if they are immigrants, deportation. As a result, many sex workers are attacked and killed. We hope you will have heard of the serial murders in Los Angeles, where over 200 Black women, many of them sex workers, are dead or missing. US PROS works with the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders which has organized for decades to make public this colossal and tragic loss of life and press the police to investigate. The murders were dismissed by the police as “No Human Involved”.
In 2015, US PROS gave evidence in the UK parliament reporting on some of the statistics we had gathered in the course of our work. In addition to reporting on our work winning compensation for sex workers who are victims of rape, and the impact of current policing policy, we focused on how the prostitution laws are implemented in a racist way. For example, we found that nationally, Black people make up 42% of all prostitution arrests, yet Black people make up only 13.2% of the US population. Similarly, 48% of people arrested for trafficking in San Francisco are Black, yet Black people make up only 5.7% of the population. We would be glad to assist any committee that is formed by providing it with this and other evidence of this kind.
We support the proposal in the bill to look into the costs to the public of criminalizing sex work. What studies have been done have found that millions ($11.8 million per annum in San Francisco alone) are squandered on raids, arrests and prosecutions. The San Francisco City Taskforce on Prostitution proposed that the money be diverted into resources and services to benefit vulnerable communities, young people and others[ii].
Any committee that is established to look into this issue has a valuable pool of existing research that it can draw on. In particular, Amnesty International did comprehensive research over two and a half years which formed the basis of their policy to recommend decriminalization. AI looked at academic and UN agency substantive evidence from around the world and international human rights standards and found that criminalization of sex work “makes sex workers less safe, prevents them from securing police protection and provides impunity to abusers.”
New Zealand which decriminalized sex work in 2003 with verifiable success could also provide valuable information and evidence about the impact of decriminalization on sex workers safety as well as on levels of prostitution and whether incidents (and reports) of rape and other violence have increased or decreased.
Additionally, recently the Expert Group Meeting on the Committee on the Status of Women: Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work, UN Women ILO, issued recommendations September 26 -28 September 2016, in relation to sex workers:
- Recognize that sex work is work and protect the terms and conditions of those who may freely choose to engage in the exchange of sex.
- Ensure that sex workers have access to health care and social protection and that they are not discriminated against in national laws and policies.
- Recognize organizations of sex workers as legitimate unions and associations and include them actively within collective bargaining frameworks and institutions.
- Decriminalize sex work and the purchase of sex but hold those to account who are exploitatively profiteering from its existence.
This bill to study the decriminalization of criminalizing sex work is very timely. We urge the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to pass it. Thank you for your attention.
US PROStitutes Collective
P.O. Box 14512, San Francisco, CA 94114