Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Decarceral alliances in the fight to decriminalize sex work

Ending mass incarceration and ending violence against sex workers are the same project.

Bella Robinson Katherine Chin
10 February 2020, 8.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the recriminalization of indoor prostitution in Rhode Island. Between 1980 and 2009, the reigning legislation outlawing street prostitution in Rhode Island left a loophole that allowed judicial interpretation to establish indoor commercial sex establishments as legal. Sex workers working from homes, hotels, or agencies could report violence to the police without risk of arrest. They could access health care services without fear of being reported. Commercial sex establishments were privy to the same licensing regulations as other businesses, and sex workers were provided with the same standard of legal protection as other citizens and laborers. New legislation introduced in November 2009 to recriminalize indoor sex work in the state changed all that.

By chance I moved to Rhode Island that same year. I had depended on sex work for my livelihood for decades, enduring arrests, one three-year and one five-year sentence at a state prison, and the violence of the criminal justice system. I regularly suffered from coercion at the hands of the state. My first prostitution charge and conviction resulted from refusing to go out with a police officer. Later on I did time at the Lowell Correctional Facility, where guards physically and sexually abused female inmates, using their positions of power and authority to pressure women into having sex.

After I was released, I had little choice but to use sex work to pay the exorbitant fines the judge had levied or I risked going back to jail. The criminal justice system, in my experience, was just another oppressive force that endangered my rights, my health, and my agency. Moving to Rhode Island was supposed to change that. For a little while it did. Crossing the state border put me in a world where I was an equal citizen before the law and where the state protected me from violence rather than caused it. In Rhode Island I experienced freedom for the first time.

That feeling of liberty was short-lived. Governor Donald Carcieri signed the recriminalization bill into law on 3 November 2009, destroying with his pen the world of equality and agency that I had briefly inhabited. I had tasted the freedom of sex work under decriminalization for six months. I had caught a glimpse of the life I deserved. Having those rights again taken away from me galvanized me to found the Rhode Island chapter of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE RI) and advocate for decriminalization.

Criminalisation and the carceral state

The criminalization of sex work makes violence against sex workers appear normal. It prevents sex workers from calling the police, health care providers, and other sex workers when things go wrong. And it potentially classifies any sex worker-led organization as a criminal enterprise. Academic studies conducted by Cunningham and Shah of Baylor University and UCLA, and Bisschop, Kastoryano, and van der Klaauw of the Institute for the Study of Labor, show decreased sexual and physical violence among sex workers in decriminalized environments, as well as improved public health through lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

Yet lobbying for decriminalization faces an uphill battle. Rather than acknowledge the harm reduction and public health gains that decriminalization would bring to the sex industry, criminalization’s advocates stubbornly continue their moral crusade to use the police to save women from coercion and exploitation. The name of choice for this work is anti-trafficking. Funding streams, which flow from the United States government to the NGOs on the ground, are funneled into anti-trafficking efforts that are entangled with systems of surveillance, mass incarceration, and deportation. Raids, arrests, and deportations are committed in the name of protecting victims of human trafficking, subjecting sex workers to the revolving door of a punitive, carceral state that fails to provide the resources and support that would empower women to leave the industry if they so choose. The Department of Justice has allocated millions of dollars to law enforcement agencies to fight sex trafficking, yet little, if any, trickles down to victim-centered harm reduction programs. COYOTE RI’s investigation of organizations that receive anti-trafficking funding found that the overwhelming majority of these funds are spent on administrative overhead, fundraising, and trainings on how to spot and report trafficking. By conflating sex trafficking and prostitution, the state has found a way to pursue its agenda of criminalizing and incarcerating women who deviate from traditional standards of morality and work outside the formal economy.

Criminalization uses violence as a tool of social reform, which in turn normalizes violence against trans women, women of color, and migrant women.

Decriminalization is thus closely tied to the fight against the carceral state. The criminalization of prostitution is a key example of how surveillance, arrest, punishment, and deportation have become the state’s default responses to social issues. Criminalization uses violence as a tool of social reform, which in turn normalizes violence against trans women, women of color, and migrant women – the marginalized groups who are disproportionately represented in prostitution arrests. There is, therefore, a natural alliance amongst lobbyists for the decriminalization of prostitution and those who advocate for decarceral solutions and prison reform and abolition. Both groups share a central concern with punitive politics and the policing of so-called problematic communities, which impedes racial and economic justice, civil liberties, human rights, and public health. Both groups also recognize that criminal punishment is not necessarily the most effective way to reduce violence and harm in communities of need.

My work on decriminalization as the executive director of the COYOTE RI is therefore not limited to building and strengthening networks of sex workers and sex workers activists, but also focused on partnering with other organizations with decarceral agendas. In 2017, COYOTE was one of five organizations dedicated to racial and economic justice that co-founded the Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance to provide community support for victims of hate crimes and state-sponsored violence. We also have a long-standing partnership with the Sex Worker Outreach Project Behind Bars, in which we act as case managers and help incarcerated sex workers access reentry services upon release. Together we also collect and publish data on the impact of carceral policies to inform future political discussions.

COYOTE RI works with Black & Pink, an organization advocating for the abolishment of prisons and the rights of LGBTQIA prisoners across the country. We also serve on DARE’s Behind the Walls Committee to advocate for the removal of barriers to employment for people with criminal records. It is only with these alliances that COYOTE has been able to work on cross-cutting projects that help reshape conversations surrounding decriminalization, and garner a wide base of support for the movement.

Our organizing strategy and focus on decarceral solutions have brought a significant amount of visibility to the movement. Our most recent success was the introduction of resolution H5354, “Creating Special Legislative Commission to Study the Health and Safety Impact of Revising Commercial Sexual Activity Laws.” Introduced to the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee by RI Representative Anastasia Williams, this historic bill demands a study commission to examine the impacts of the criminalization of sex work. It would not be possible without a diverse coalition of activists that recognize a common battle against mass incarceration, and women’s organizations like RI NOW, the Providence chapter of Amnesty International, and Womxn Project HQ.

Having worked under both criminalization and decriminalization, and having experienced incarceration and sexual assault at the hands of the state, I have an intimate understanding of the need to build a broader coalition of decarceral politics in order to protect my community. The fight for the decriminalization of prostitution can thus find common cause and support with abolitionist movements by centering decarceral politics and solutions to the violence waged against our communities. Decriminalization would liberate thousands of women of color, LGBTQIA folks, and immigrants from the threat of incarceration and deportation. It would empower so many vulnerable communities and protect them from the abuse and violence they experience regularly at the hands of the state. Bringing a decriminalized world to fruition will require recognition of these intersectional goals and a broad coalition fighting together.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.


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