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Sex workers fight for Study Commission to examine criminalization of sex work in Rhode Island

Using the slogan “Nothing about us without us,” COYOTE points to a long history of policymakers creating legislation about commercial sex without the input of sex workers. By failing to listen to those involved in the commercial sex industry, the state has ostracized and disrespected sex workers, placing them at risk of more violence and exploitation.

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“My arrest for prositution is what created every barrier I’ve had with housing and access to survival resources,” Gabrielle Monroe, a sex worker and activist, told the Committee on Health and Human Services during a February hearing for House Resolution 5250. 

Introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence), the resolution would establish a thirteen-person Study Commission with the goal of producing a comprehensive study and recommendations relating to the impact of criminalizing policies on those involved in the commerical sex industry. The Commission would investigate the enforcement of these policies, the treatment of marginalized communities by police, and the efficacy of anti-trafficking legislation. 

“The police didn’t save me from anything,” Monroe told the Committee. “In fact, they destroyed my life and ensured sex work would be the only option I had available to survive.”

COYOTE RI – a group of sex workers fighting for the health and safety of people engaged in the commercial sex industry – are directly behind the momentum for the resolution. Their efforts to establish a Study Commission began two years ago when the resolution was first proposed to the House Judiciary Committee. Since then, COYOTE has continued to advocate for a Commission that would engage the voices of those most negatively affected by criminalization. 

Using the slogan “Nothing about us without us,” COYOTE points to a long history of policymakers creating legislation about commercial sex without the input of sex workers. By failing to listen to those involved in the commercial sex industry, the state has ostracized and disrespected sex workers, placing them at risk of more violence and exploitation.

If the resolution is passed, representatives from COYOTE RI, Amnesty International PVD, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, the RI ACLU, local service providers and law enforcement would have seats on the Commission. The Commission would reserve only two seats specifically for individuals who have worked in the sex industry. The inclusion of these perspectives is crucial, though this means that the majority of Commission seats would not be held by individuals most directly impacted by the criminalization of sex work. 

At the hearing on February 25th, the Committee considered verbal testimony from ten individuals, as well as written testimony from forty contributors. No one testified against the resolution. This is because the resolution does the bare minimum: it would allow sex workers to influence legislation which concerns them directly. COYOTE RI Executive Director Bella Robinson told the Committee that, “By saying ‘no,’ you’re saying this population does not deserve any further consideration.”

The resolution follows months of concentrated community organizing around the Movement for Black Lives, which has once again brought national attention to the issue of police violence against Black communities. Citing the need to investigate “police treatment of marginalized and targeted communities, especially, black people and transgender women,” the resolution ties together issues of racial and gender justice that many advocates of decriminalization see as inextricable. 


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Like Robinson and Monroe, those advocating for the rights of sex workers have long argued that criminalizing sex work endangers all communities that experience disproportionate violence at the hands of the police. Beyond putting sex workers at greater risk of state violence (from arrest to incarceration), criminalization also prevents those involved in commercial sex from seeking medical assistance, calling emergency services, contacting other sex workers, and reporting instances of sexual or physical violence. These impacts are exacerbated for Black and trans sex workers, as well as migrant workers. Several investigations of decriminalization over the past few decades have confirmed these experiences, including Rhode Island-specific research conducted by economists Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, which found that sex workers were safer and healthier in a decriminalized environment. 

In considering the future of Rhode Island laws on sex work, it is crucial that the state center the voices of those involved in the commercial sex industry. Establishing this Study Commission is a first step to evaluating the real impact of criminalization on sex workers — the next is revising legislation concerning sex work to reflect the input of advocates like Robinson, Monroe and many others.  As Monroe told the Committee, “Sex workers have voices. We are the experts in our own lives.”


See also:

Video from the hearing:

Written Testimony from the hearing: