Oregon activists, lawmakers push to decriminalize sex work

Oregon

As much as 68% of the public supports the idea, according to a ballot measure consultant.

– MAY 01: Owner Shon Boulden walks into his club during the Drive-thru at The Lucky Devil on May 01, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The strip club offers drive thru dances during the Coronavirus Pandemic. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

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Local activists are pushing state lawmakers to decriminalize sex work across Oregon.

State Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, has championed the idea this year with House Bill 3088, which would remove the crimes of prostitution, commercial sexual solicitation and promoting prostitution from the law books.

The bill was discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, June 3. And while the bill is procedurally barred from reaching the governor’s desk during the crowded end of the legislative session, advocates applied more pressure during a virtual press conference held later that day.

Bella, a local sex worker who testified anonymously, says she has been jailed and charged with prostitution here even though she is a consenting adult. As a single mother with children, sex work is how she puts food on the table and pays the rent, she said.

“My work life does not overlap my home life,” she said. “Law enforcement says I should get a real job — as if I don’t already have one.”

Elle Stanger, a sex educator who says she has engaged in legal and illegal work since 2005, suggested that the bias against sex workers is spurred by a culture of shame and misinformation.

“Please do not arrest our clients as a method for supposedly reducing harm. It does not respect consent,” Stanger said.

Dr. Barbara Brent, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said decriminalizing sex work would help reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, among other benefits. The World Health Organization and other groups have reported that legalizing sex work will decrease sex trafficking.

“It’s going to save lives,” said popular musician Storm Large, comparing the legislation to the suffrage and marriage equality movements. “Sex workers are dehumanized in this society. They are just in constant danger.”

If the decriminalization bill doesn’t pass this session, the idea may find new life as a ballot measure.

Willamette Week reported in February that a related group, the Sex Workers Project, has raised more than $1 million from donors and hired consultant Ted Blaszak, hinting at a planned fight at the ballot box.

But Blaszak said at the press conference that the Sex Workers Project has “reassessed” and no longer is involved in the ongoing efforts in Oregon, but that the path forward for a ballot measure remains “very strong and clear.”

“When voters hear the reasoning for protecting sex workers’ rights and autonomy, as well as (about) wasting unnecessarily public resources, our polling shows support reaching 68%,” he said.

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