Last month, the Judiciary Committee of the Maine Legislature took hours of moving testimony on L.D. 1435, which would remove the criminal penalty for prostitution – what we call sex work – while maintaining the crime for purchasing that work. Much of the testimony recounted harrowing stories of people who had been forced or coerced into nonconsensual sex work, better known as sex trafficking.

We agree that preventing and responding to sex trafficking is essential, and these survivors showed incredible bravery in telling their stories. Still, we disagree that L.D. 1435 is the right path to do this, because sexual exploitation and sexual labor are not the same thing.

Sex trafficking or exploitation is the trade of sex through force, fraud or coercion (or among people who cannot consent). Sex work or sexual labor is the consensual exchange of sex acts for something of value. People may experience both at different points in their lives. However, conflating the issues and decriminalizing only one half of the work has serious downsides. This model (sometimes called the Nordic Model) has unanticipated harmful consequences for people on all sides of the issue. It also has no real effect on ending demand: A 2014 report by the Swedish police found no reduction in trafficking in the country after 15 years of this approach.

Conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking makes it harder to prevent and respond to trafficking. New Zealand shows us a model of full decriminalization of sex work (since 2003) that scores high on trafficking response. Addressing the two separately through full decriminalization moves the emphasis away from consenting behaviors and focuses scarce law enforcement resources on exploitative and abusive behaviors.

The Nordic Model is intended to increase safety of sex workers, but it’s been shown to have the opposite effect. After Scotland instituted laws criminalizing solicitation in 2007, groups recorded a doubling in reported rapes and assaults. Partial criminalization keeps in place the policing of sex work and sex workers, which exposes them to ongoing police scrutiny, moves their work to more isolated locations and disrupts negotiation with clients and other safety strategies.

We all agree that preventing exploitation is essential. But we must do that in a way that recognizes the dignity and autonomy of consenting adults. Many sex workers find offensive the idea that the work itself is exploitative, and they have noted that sex work is no more exploitative than any work in an economic system that leaves most of us with two options: work, or starve. As organizations dedicated to equity and bodily autonomy, we honor the choices people make based on their own circumstances and experiences.

Neither sex workers nor trafficking victims are kept safe by the criminalization or purchase of that labor. Nordic Model approaches increase risk and violence toward sex workers, who are disproportionately women, queer and trans, and of color.  Sex workers need clear channels to get help when they need it, but those can’t exist without the complete decriminalization of this work. This is why numerous international organizations, including the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch and Freedom Network USA, all support full decriminalization as the surest path to increasing worker rights and safety.

As we celebrate Pride this month, it’s even more important to recall that Pride, and the movement for rights for queer and trans people, was founded, fueled and funded by sex workers such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. They fought for the dignity and autonomy of LGBTQ+ people, including the dignity of their work and labor. It’s time to recognize that sex work is work, and support the rights of sex workers by ensuring that neither they, nor their clients, are a target of the law.

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