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An East Coast Advocacy Group Is Using Oregon as a Testing Ground for Decriminalizing Sex Work

House Bill 3088 would invalidate the state’s prostitution statutes, decriminalizing those engaged in selling sex, their customers, and third parties.

To Mariah Grant, Oregon looks like the kind of place that could let somebody sell sex without fear of arrest.

She has good reason to think so. Oregonians have repeatedly taken bold steps to allow business practices that most states consider crimes. This state was among the first to take cannabis possession off the criminal books, then create a legal market for weed. And last fall, with Ballot Measure 110, voters made Oregon the first state in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine.

Grant thinks the next item that should be erased from Oregon's criminal statutes is full-service sex work—that is, the state's prostitution laws.

"We saw the success of Measure 110 last year to decriminalize personal use of drugs, and felt that Oregon was ready for this," Grant tells WW. "They understand that criminalizing sex workers is not going to protect anybody's human rights, and it's the state to make history by decriminalizing sex work fully."

Grant is advocacy director for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York City-based law clinic founded in 2001 to provide legal services to trafficking victims and sex workers facing criminal charges. For years, the group has sought to decriminalize sex work.

In Oregon, Grant has a willing lawmaker and a wealthy patron. So she's heading west, hoping Oregon will become the first state to decriminalize sex work statewide.

Last week, state Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) filed a bill at the request of the Sex Workers Project. House Bill 3088 would invalidate the state's prostitution statutes, decriminalizing those engaged in selling sex, their customers, and third parties.

Nosse introduced his bill understanding it makes Oregon a test case. "We seem to do really well at passing these libertarianesque things," he says. "We were one of the first to legalize recreational marijuana; now you've got Ballot Measure 110 that just passed. So if you've got an idea you want to germinate, particularly in that space, maybe this is a good place to do it."

Grant, who's originally from Eugene, says Oregon's progressive atmosphere makes it a prime candidate for SWP's first policy efforts outside of the New York area. Similar bills have been filed in New York and a handful of other Northeastern states in the past few years. None has passed.

The legal sex industry already operates more freely in Oregon that anywhere else, thanks to the state's inclusion of sexualized expression in its free speech protections as well as its relative lack of an organized religious conservative lobby. (A 2017 Gallup poll found 48% of Oregonians aren't religious, one of the highest figures in the nation.)

HB 3088 would implement what advocates call "full decriminalization." It removes penalties for selling sex, paying for it, and facilitating it as a third party. It would not be legalization, as it exists in parts of Nevada, where another specific set of laws regulate selling sex.

Laws against compelling prostitution or coercing someone to do sex work would remain on the books, as would the state's human trafficking statutes concerning use of force, fraud or coercion, and laws making a trafficking offense of any instance involving a minor.

Even with those caveats, it's a bold proposal. More often, state legislators have introduced partial decriminalization, sometimes called the "Nordic model," in which selling sex is not a crime but paying for it is.

Sex worker advocates have long opposed the Nordic model, which they call harmful.

"If our clients are criminalized, how will we work?" asks SWP communications director Zola Bruce. "And the people who are targeted are usually black, people who are Latinx, are people of color, and are not rich white clients. That's something we have to really look at when it comes to racial profiling and the challenges that we're dealing with when it comes to policing."

And decriminalizing sex work has gained momentum as a social and racial justice reform. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt's campaign platform said he would avoid the "pointless incarceration of those voluntarily engaged in sex work."

Fauna, a Portland-area activist with local decriminalization advocates DecrimOR and harm-reduction sex worker outreach group Stroll PDX, says there are clear disparities in who actually gets charged with prostitution in Oregon.

"The vast majority [are] women of color, Black women, trans women, people who are already marginalized and easy targets," she says. "It's not higher-end white sex workers who have more safety networks."

The Sex Workers Project is gearing up for an all-out public relations campaign, which it calls DecrimwORk. Grant says that includes state-level efforts around "decriminalizing, destigmatizing and decarcerating sex workers in the state."

And if the strategy works here? "We're looking at that being our model," Grant says, "as we would succeed in decriminalizing sex work in Oregon and then expand that into other states."

At least one Oregon man is enthusiastic enough to fund the plan. Last fall, SWP received a $1.2 million gift from an anonymous donor. WW has learned that donor is philanthropist Aaron Boonshoft, a Portland resident and son of wealthy Ohio commodities trader Oscar Boonshoft.

Aaron Boonshoft is not a household name in Oregon, and while records show he made some political contributions in the early 2000s, he is not known locally as a political donor. But public records from his 2019 divorce settlement offer a glimpse into his fortune: His ex-wife received tens of millions, including dozens of parcels of real estate.

Boonshoft declined to comment through a spokesperson: "Mr. Boonshoft wants the focus to be on this important cause and the community of people who deserve rights as workers, as citizens and humans."

Passing a law doesn't typically require a million dollars. SWP's war chest and its hiring of longtime ballot measure consultant Ted Blaszak suggest the project is prepared to decriminalize sex work via the same method Oregon struck weed and meth from the criminal code: the ballot box.

Grant says that's something SWP will consider if Nosse's bill doesn't pass. "It's a matter of not putting all our eggs in one basket," she says. "We don't want to limit ourselves by focusing just on the Oregon Legislature or a ballot initiative—we wanted to keep both options open. We also see a legislative effort as an opportunity to talk with Oregonians about the topic as we encourage folks to call their representatives asking them to support the bill."

The Oregon District Attorneys Association says it hasn't reviewed HB 3088 yet. The Oregon Department of Justice says it hasn't taken a position. The next step for the bill is getting a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas). Bynum did not respond to a request for comment.

Grant and Bruce, the advocates, say they expect opposition to come from police and traditional opponents of sex work, who confuse sex trafficking and consensual sex work. (Such opposition could emerge from Vancouver, Wash.-based Shared Hope International, an evangelical antitrafficking organization that has lobbied for harsher penalties for the customers of Oregon sex workers.)

"Historically in the U.S., we've seen opposition from people who have a misunderstanding of human trafficking and sex work and conflate the two," says Grant. "And we want to be really clear that human trafficking exists within any labor sector—including the sex trades—and that sex work itself is not synonymous with exploitation."