Vermont bill aims to decriminalize prostitution, make it easier to get help

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont lawmaker hopes to make prostitution safer and remove the stigma that often prevents sex workers from seeking police protection and health care.

A bill introduced last month by Rep. Selene Colburn and headed to the House floor Thursday would decriminalize prostitution, while the state would maintain its laws against sex trafficking. The bill also calls for the creation of a panel to make recommendations on modernizing Vermont’s prostitution laws.

Colburn, however, thinks a related proposal will have a better chance at movement this year. It would give immunity to people who were victims of or witnessed a crime while engaged in prostitution or sex trafficking so they can report it to law enforcement.

“Right now sex workers really feel that they cannot access police protection,” said Colburn, a Progressive from Burlington. “There are tons of statistics about the violence, the high levels of violence, and sex assault that people who engage in sex work experience.”

The push in Vermont is part of a small but growing movement to decriminalize prostitution that advocates say will bring sex work above ground, and help prevent sex workers from being assaulted, exploited and trafficked and keep them from facing punishment for breaking the law.

Advocates see the bills as starting a discussion and say that with more education there’s a possibility for additional states and jurisdictions to propose decriminalizing prostitution.

“A lot of people doing sex work are trading sex out of circumstances: they’re homeless, they’re experiencing disabilities, they’re trans and they’re experiencing discrimination in the workplace,” said Nina Luo, an organizer with Decrim NY, a group working to decriminalize the sex trades in New York City and the state.

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