Charlie Buttrey

March 18, 2023

In what was almost certainly not the first time that sex workers have accompanied state legislators to the Vermont State House, on Thursday, lawmakers, state’s attorneys and advocates called on Vermont to become the first state to decriminalize sex work statewide (sex work legal in 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties).

I confess that I am conflicted but, at bottom, I have a hard time justifying criminal penalties for sex work, and it does seem to me that legalization and regulation will make the experience safer for the workers and their clients.

I did not realize until I began to research the question that prostitution was de facto decriminalized in Rhode Island for about ten years. In 1998, that state’s legislature reduced the penalty for “outdoor prostitution” from a felony to a misdemeanor, and inadvertently made “indoor prostitution” legal. The loophole in that law was closed by the legislature in 2009. In that ten year period, however, instances of reported rape and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases went down. And one sex worker who was being physically assaulted felt free to call the police for help, since she was not breaking the law.

There is little chance that the legislation will pass in Vermont this year, but its advocates hope to reintroduce a bill next session.

In the meantime — and I’m not being facetious — what is the difference between illegal sex work and performing in a pornographic film? In both instances, money is being exchanged for a sexual act (or two), yet one is legal and the other is not.  My advice: if you are going to pay someone for sex, see if he or she will agree to have it recorded. That way, you can always argue at trial that you were simply making a movie.

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