An officer talks with a sex trafficking victim. Courtesy FBI

Gov. Janet Mills of Maine recently faced a dilemma — whether she should sign a bill reducing penalties for those who sell sex. Maine would have been the first state to fully decriminalize prostitution, as discussions intensify across the country about the potential for fighting human trafficking by decriminalizing prostitution and soliciting.

In San Diego, anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement sources are aware of the efforts to legalize prostitution. It’s being advocated for sex workers who want the same rights as any worker in the country.  

California is also facing another showdown of sorts: Senate Bill 357, which would no longer punish those found to have been “loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution.”

Maine, like San Diego, sits at the intersection of human trafficking across state and international borders. That state’s bill had elements that anti-trafficking advocates support: reduced penalties for people who have been sold into the sex trade along with support in the form of social services and opportunities.

It would have also increased punishment for pimps and traffickers who coerce often vulnerable people into the underground network.

Gov. Mills, however, vetoed the legislation after a local organization opposed it, pointing out that pimps could take advantage of the new system. 

“While some hope this bill will protect the survivors of human trafficking, a goal I share,” she said, “others fear that sex traffickers will use decriminalization of prostitution as a way to entice more people into their trade.”

Oregon now is the centerpiece for these controversial efforts. That state is also considering repealing the crimes of prostitution, commercial sexual solicitation and promoting prostitution. 

The legislation has been described by KTVZ in Bend, Oregon, as being proposed by an “outside group.” That group, we found, is Sex Workers Outreach Project, which is very active in the effort behind decriminalization across the country.

The argument for the Oregon legislation is that eliminating penalties would help reduce trafficking because pimps couldn’t use fear of arrest to keep their victims in line. This would help remove victims from these situations.  

Phoenix Calida, the media spokesperson for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said her organization is focusing its efforts on Oregon for now. Her argument for decriminalization is that its “not effective to just lock people up for prostitution.”

The effort to decriminalize was given a boost earlier this year when Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance ordered a halt to prosecution of prostitution offenses, and now lawmakers across the country are looking at possible legislation. It’s also been pushed as part of an effort to support the rights of sex workers. 

Another decriminalization advocate, active in California and elsewhere, is the Washington, DC-based Collective Action for Safe Spaces, which has advocated for decriminalization of prostitution for a number of years. Their argument is that “sex work is not the same as sex trafficking.”

No matter the claims made regarding legalizing prostitution, when it involves trafficking, “it’s not a real solution to the problem,” said Kathi Hardy. She leads the Survivor Leader Network of San Diego, which has “survivors of human trafficking working together to aid the communities of San Diego” in responding to “modern-day slavery.”

Hardy is a survivor of the sex industry and a recovering addict who has dedicated the last 20 years of her life helping others trapped in “the life” on the streets of San Diego. She sees her role to help “squash women’s addiction to ‘the life’ as well as their other addictions.”

She points out that studies done Europe involving hundreds of women across multiple countries have found that complete decriminalization is not a way to reduce the pressure on women or to fight sex trafficking

Earlier attempts to legalize prostitution in California ended up in federal court where a judicial panel ruled in 2018 that laws prohibiting prostitution were in the public interest.

But he battle is not over, say supporters of efforts across the country to decriminalize prostitution and soliciting. They believe decriminalization will provide strong support in the fight against sex trafficking.

Hardy said her experiences, and what research has shown is the answer, is to severely punish the buyers and traffickers and provide an exit strategy for prostitutes. To her, the bottom line was and continues to be that the “sex industry is not work, it is exploitation; it is the world’s oldest exploitation.”

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist. August has reported on sex and labor trafficking for twenty years and is a board member of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition.

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