By Guy Page
The two founders of the Marijuana Policy Project have senior leadership positions in Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW), a national group promoting the decriminalization of prostitution in Vermont.
Funding at least one Vermont-based organization called The Ishtar Collective, DSW seeks to build on its success in 2021, which it says was its best year yet towards reaching the goal of decriminalizing prostitution in the United States.
According a press statement, DSW helped pass 2021 laws in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.
In New York, two legislative actions were signed into law. One expands the ability of survivors of human trafficking to expunge their criminal records. This means people who were forced to commit crimes by their traffickers now have the potential to move on with their lives without the impediment of a criminal record. The other abolished the “Walking While Trans” law. People can no longer be arrested for “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” which DSW says “was used by police overwhelmingly to target trans persons of color.”
New Hampshire and Vermont both enacted so-called “Good Samaritan” laws, which protect sex workers from arrest should they seek police protection from assault. These laws were passed with bipartisan support and signed by Republican Govs. Phil Scott and Chris Sununu.
The Vermont law, Act 29, was signed into law in May 17. The first section of this two-pronged bill broadens the definition of child sex abuse, giving prosecutors more tools to go after sexual predators. The second gives prostitutes immunity from prosecution for prostitution and drug offenses if being a police informant exposes their own crimes. Also, the Burlington City Council Dec. 13 voted to remove language about prostitution from its City Charter. Their decision requires approval from voters and the Vermont Legislature.
In Rhode Island, the House of Representatives created a legislative study commission to review how laws impact prostitutes “and other marginalized populations.”
DSW senior staff include two (male) founders of the Marijuana Policy Project, Political Director Robert Kampia and IT Director Michael Kirshner. The MPP worked for 15 years to legalize marijuana in Vermont, finally succeeding last year with S54, establishing a regulated market for cannabis. Until last year, the Texas-based organization was known as The Legalization Project, which “focuses on (1) ending marijuana prohibition in the United States and (2) ending prostitution in the United States.”
DSW claims prostitution is “not inherently dangerous or exploitative, but criminalization puts sex workers at risk and creates conditions that allow for trafficking to proliferate.”
That claim is disputed by Maggie Kerrin, Vermont Chair of New Englanders Against Sexual Exploitation (NEASE). Sex trafficking is inherently dangerous and cannot be made safe by either regulated legalization or decriminalization–as the evidence shows where both have been tried, Kerrin said.
“The evidence that decriminalized prostitution fails to produce its purported benefits is overwhelming. Both full decriminalization (eliminating prostitution from the criminal code) and legalization (establishing prostitution as a specific type of regulated business) have been tried in the United States and in dozens of other nations and have never produced the benefits promised by advocates,” Kerrin said in recent testimony to the Burlington City Council. “The relaxation or elimination of criminal restrictions on prostitution have reliably produced the opposite effects – increasing the size of the commercial sex and sex trafficking markets, and increasing the risks and harms experienced by all of those in these markets.”
Act 29 is just the first step, a Vermont advocate funded by DSW says.
“Permitting sex workers to come forward to report being the victim of or witness to a crime without fear of arrest is critical, but I’m looking forward to the day when we will no longer be as vulnerable to crime or exploitation as we are now. That day will come when consensual adult sex work is decriminalized,” said J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantly, co-founder of The Ishtar Collective, a Vermont based sex workers rights coalition, and research and project manager at Decriminalize Sex Work. The Ishtar website says Oshiro-Brantley is a filmmaker who has been a sex worker in Vermont since 2012.
The DSW website refers to the Ishtar Collective as “a DSW grantee.” For those unfamiliar with The Ishtar Collective, here’s an excerpt from its website mission statement:
“We are queer, trans, cis, nonbinary, black, brown, indigenous, white, asian, multiracial, neurotypical and neurodivergent. Most of us come from trauma, violence, and some of us are formerly incarcerated or living with disabilities. We are committed to acknowledging the land we occupy. We recognize the indigenous culture and people that existed in N’dakinna (Homeland) long before Europeans arrived in North America. We commit to policies and practices of cultural equity to benefit current and future generations.”
A statement from its December 30 press release shows that any progress is Vermont is merely a stepping stone in a national strategy: “As a national organization pursuing a state-by-state strategy to decriminalize and destigmatize consensual adult sex work, Decriminalize Sex Work works with local organizations, advocates, and lobbyists to build community support and convince legislators to stop prostitution-related arrests. Decriminalize Sex Work plans to capitalize on the momentum to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution gained in 2021.”
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.