In 1978, I co-founded the Maine Women’s Lobby with the core belief that women here deserve to live free from violence and in a state where equality was a reality. From our earliest moments, we were clear that Maine’s most vulnerable need laws protecting and ultimately allowing them to thrive. Forty-five years later, I’m heartbroken to see the organization I dearly love aggressively support policies emboldening pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners, while trampling the rights of sex trade survivors.

Over the last few years, there’s been a universal acknowledgment that we must work harder to combat the devastating harms experienced by people in the sex trade. Data unambiguously show the majority of those sold in prostitution come from marginalized communities and experience long-term trauma, while their buyers are disproportionately white, economically privileged men. It’s further compounded when those sold – and not their exploiters – are punished and criminalized.

That’s precisely why I introduced L.D. 1435 – An Act to Reduce Commercial Sexual Exploitation – to ensure exploited people receive services rather than criminal penalties, and that abusers are held accountable for the destructive harm they cause. This solution was supported by the majority of my colleagues in both the House and Senate, and it has enjoyed bipartisan support every step of the way. Moreover, it’s overwhelmingly backed by survivors, sex trafficking organizations and child rights advocates in Maine and throughout America.

I was astonished to read the recent op-ed co-authored by Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, and Quinn Gormley of MaineTransNet. Not only did they promote decriminalizing pimps and sex buyers, but the column also was riddled with false claims and distorted data. Specifically, this flawed piece fails to mention the realities of full decriminalization and blatantly misrepresents figures from the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report.

The reality is that repealing laws against buying sex and pimping clearly increase sex trafficking in various locations across the globe. The assertion that New Zealand’s full decriminalization model scored high on its trafficking response is grossly inaccurate, and I am appalled that anyone would try to cite the 2022 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report to support this argument. The TIP Report actually states the opposite. In fact, it downgraded New Zealand to Tier 2 status because of severe deficiencies, including a total lack of trafficking prosecutions and convictions and zero victims identified in the whole nation. These findings directly contradict the ridiculous claim that New Zealand’s approach assisted governmental response or reduced trafficking.

Yes, it’s long overdue to better protect and decriminalize individuals engaged in prostitution. But legalizing pimping and sex buying would expand the market – making Maine a sex tourism destination and placing our most vulnerable, especially kids, in peril. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, “Decriminalizing the legal sale of commercial sex among adults absent regulations and safeguards provides devastating cover for the ongoing abuse and victimization of children through trafficking and obscures the ability of social service providers, families, and law enforcement to recover and protect children from sex traffickers.”

There’s a clear, common-sense solution to reducing exploitation. L.D. 1435 protects those in the sex trade from arrest, but keeps the commercial sex industry from growing. This partial decriminalization approach (aka the Equality Model) has been successfully implemented in countries including Norway, Iceland, Sweden, France, Ireland, Israel and Canada. It’s proven not only to better support people in the sex trade, but also be a key tool to prevent trafficking.  According to a Norwegian government-commissioned study, partial decriminalization “reduced human trafficking and has not increased violence against women.” That is both critically important and our goal here at home.

In Maine, we pride ourselves in creating solutions that protect our most marginalized. It’s what we once prioritized at Maine’s Women Lobby. L.D. 1435 is the responsible, effective way to help the sex trade’s most vulnerable. It enjoys strong support from Maine’s survivor community. It’s time to put them first.

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