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.Print