A bill to eliminate the crime of engaging in prostitution has passed the Maine House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Senators agreed Thursday to table the bill while waiting on a potential amendment. It wasn’t clear Friday what changes would be proposed.

Supporters say the legislation sponsored by Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, is intended to reduce commercial sexual exploitation. It eliminates criminal charges for sex workers engaged in prostitution, but those who pay for sex services could still be criminally charged.

“I brought this bill forward because it can be the first step in transforming lives – of those trafficked, trapped or in the depths of despair,” Reckitt said in a written statement Friday. “The partial decriminalization of prostitution will keep the current penalty in our laws for buying sex, while continuing to stop arresting those who feel compelled to sell their bodies for sex. This strategy to reduce demand has been proven to be effective in other countries, including Sweden, Norway, Iceland, France, Canada, Ireland and others. With its initial passage in the House this week, I am more optimistic than ever before that we can follow suit and help reduce sexual exploitation here in Maine.”

The bill passed the Maine House 86-57 on Tuesday. It passed the Judiciary Committee 11-3, with some committee amendments.

Several people told lawmakers that they were survivors of trafficking and have struggled to navigate the legal system because they were charged as criminals instead of being treated as victims.


“I see time and time again how the effects of past criminal charges hinder the growth and healing of other survivors. How heartbreaking to see someone completely turn their life around only to be denied a job or housing due to a criminal charge from their past,” said Crystale Vega, a trafficking survivor who testified to lawmakers in April. “To see my history played out time and time again in the lives others is almost unbearable at times. More often than not these past charges were the result of fear and or coercion.”

But others engaged in consensual sex work said their industry will remain unsafe as long as customers of sex work still face criminal charges.

“If we are criminalized, or if our clients our criminalized, how do we stand to earn a living?” Trisha Newalu, co-founder of the Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England, said on Friday.  “If we are seen as victims, or coerced, or forced?”

Newalu said 90% of the sex workers her group represents, from 2018 to 2022, support full decriminalization.

“Keeping any element of criminality in consensual sex work keeps people in danger, full stop,” Henri Bynx, a sex worker in Vermont, said in an interview Friday. Bynx also spoke to lawmakers about the bill in April.

“When we criminalize anyone participating in the sex industry … we don’t get those trusting relationships with police when there’s criminality associated with our labor, we don’t get those trusting relationships with community organizations,” Bynx said Friday.

Advocacy organizations for survivors of trafficking and those engaged in sex work cautioned lawmakers that the bill seeks to address a complex issue.


“The intersection of sex work and exploitation is an incredibly complicated issue,” Daniella Cameron, deputy director of Preble Street’s anti-trafficking services in Portland, testified in April. “That requires us to take a step back, devoting time and attention to arrive at a more holistic approach to decriminalizing sex work.”

“I don’t think there has been adequate discussion,” Maine Women’s Lobby Director Destie Sprague said on Friday. Sprague’s testimony to lawmakers in April drew a distinction between consensual sex work and trafficking, saying conflating the two misdirects resources and doesn’t improve safety.

Gov. Janet Mills’ office did not respond to a request for an interview about the governor’s stance on the legislation.

Quinn Gormley, executive director for the Maine Transgender Network, said approximately 13% of the transgender Mainers her organization represents have participated in some kind of sex work. Gormley said she did consensual sex work when she was younger. “It was my job. It paid the bills. It got me through college,” she said.

As the director of an organization representing a community with sex workers and survivors of trafficking, Gormley said she can only support full decriminalization, and not a partial process where consumers are still punished.

“So long as any part of the equation is criminalized, the people buying sex – the people who have power in this equation – they’re going to protect themselves,” Gormley said. “They’re going to ask sex workers, and more trafficking victims, to put themselves in danger. If our goal is to keep victims and women and queer and trans people safe who are involved in the sex trade, we have to fully decriminalize.”

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