BOSTON – Prostitution would be decriminalized in Massachusetts under a bill that Rep. Kay Khan hopes will focus law enforcement attention on people who buy sex and those who exploit sex workers.
While the bill would repeal criminal penalties that apply to prostitutes themselves, it would not legalize the illicit sex trade. Pimps and johns would remain criminals under the legislation.
Women and others who sell sex are often victims of human trafficking or don’t know of any other way to make money, said Khan, who said a criminal record for prostitution can foreclose other legitimate careers.
"They continue with the prostitution because they have no other source of income," Khan told the News Service, after testifying on her bill (H 3499), which was first filed this session.
Spanning the economic spectrum, the sex trade fosters some unspeakable crimes and legalizing even a portion of that could be a tough sell for lawmakers.
"I don't know what kind of response we'll get," Khan said. Asked about the potential for unintended consequences, Khan said the current system of criminalizing prostitution harms victims of human trafficking by imprisoning them.
Nicole Bell, who said she is a survivor of sex trafficking as a teenager and the commercial sex industry as an adult, founded Living In Freedom Together (LIFT), an outreach center for prostitutes in Worcester.
Most of the women who stop by LIFT say they have been arrested more times than they can count, Bell said.
"Historically our approach has been arresting victims to address prostitution in our communities," Bell told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "We are saying that we recognize individuals involved in the commercial sex industry as victims yet we are arresting and incarcerating these victims at a rate 10 times higher than those that fuel the commercial sex industry – the buyers."
Of the 1,299 people convicted of a prostitution offense between 2010 and 2013, nearly 40 percent were incarcerated, according to Maureen Norton Hawk, a sociology professor at Suffolk University who testified in favor of the bill. She said the number of convictions has dropped since 2004.
Kate Price, who said she was a victim of child sex trafficking and now researches the subject at UMass Boston, said arrests re-victimize women even if they are not prosecuted.
Khan said her goal is to protect women wrapped up in the sex industry and give them the means to start a new life without the baggage of prostitution convictions on their record.
"Arrests become barriers to exiting the commercial sex industry. These arrests follow these women while they're trying to obtain housing and employment," Bell said. "I remember how re-victimizing it was to have to explain my prostitution charges to a potential landlord."
Legalizing sex work for the prostitute while keeping criminal penalties in place for pimps and johns is known as the "Nordic model," according to Khan's aide, who said Sweden, Norway, France and Canada are among the countries that have adopted it.
There are about 20 co-sponsors of Khan's bill, all of whom are Democrats and most of whom are more liberal members of the party. The group includes Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler and Senate Ways and Means Committee Vice Chairman Sal DiDomenico.