National Group Emerges in Oregon Pledging to Oppose Future Campaigns to Decriminalize Sex Work

World Without Exploitation is a New York-based nonprofit that has previously opposed efforts to decriminalize sex work in Rhode Island and Vermont.

SKYLINE: The Multnomah County Courthouse, viewed from a nearby parking garage. (Sam Gehrke)

Aaron Boonshoft, the wealthy Portland investor seeking to decriminalize sex work in Oregon, withdrew his initiative petition May 5, ending his effort to strike prostitution statutes from state law this year.

A day later, a national anti-sex trafficking group debuted on the Oregon stage, celebrating the campaign’s demise and pledging to oppose similar ballot measures in future.

World Without Exploitation is a New York-based nonprofit that has previously opposed efforts to decriminalize sex work in Rhode Island and Vermont. National director Lauren Hersh tells WW her group coordinated with local advocates and the Portland law firm Harrang Long Gary Rudnick PC to challenge the initiative’s draft ballot title with the Oregon secretary of state.

“There was mounting opposition by sex-trade survivors and their allies,” Hersh tells WW. “They were the ones who brought us in, asking for some help.”

After Boonshoft filed Initiative Petition 51, the secretary of state’s process provided interested parties the chance to weigh in on how the measure would be presented on a ballot. Proponents and opponents filed comments advocating for language that would make their arguments more likely to resonate with voters.

The comments submitted by World Without Exploitation’s attorneys make clear the group’s objection to IP 51: The initiative would have decriminalized the purchase of sex and third-party facilitation, not just sex work.

“This [ballot title caption] misleadingly suggests that IP 51 only shields sex workers from criminal liability and only provides sex workers with the specified legal protections,” WWE attorney C. Robert Steringer wrote in the challenge, filed March 22. “As a result, a voter who might be sympathetic to the view that sex workers should not be punished with criminal liability would not be informed that IP 51 also legalizes the conduct of sex buyers and pimps who use and profit from their work.”

The opponents also noted that the ballot title language made no mention of the creation of a taxpayer-funded revenue stream to bankroll health care centers for sex workers, along with job training, addiction treatment services, and housing for people working in the sex industry.

Meanwhile, Boonshoft hired the Stoll Berne law firm to comment on the draft ballot title. His attorney made a preemptive argument that using the terms “sex buyers” and “pimps” was a nonstarter.

“In their comments on the draft ballot title for [a previous initiative], the initiative’s opponents’ predominant argument was that draft ballot title did not convey that the initiative’s protections extended to ‘sex buyers’ and ‘pimps,’” attorney Steven C. Berman wrote. “Those commenters demanded those phrases be included in the caption and elsewhere. There are at least three reasons why their argument falls short here. First, inflammatory language intended to dissuade voters is not appropriate. Those commenters’ derogatory references to clients and third-party facilitators have no place in any ballot title.”

Hersh, who runs World Without Exploitation, confirms to WW that her group’s primary objection to Initiative Petition 51 is that it removes criminal penalties for people who pay for and facilitate sex work.

“We never want to see criminal penalties for people sold in the sex trade,” Hersh says. “But we want to see pimps, brothel owners and sex buyers held responsible for the devastating harm they cause.”

That’s a long-standing point of contention between advocates who want to decriminalize all sex work—arguing that arresting people who pay jeopardizes the workplace safety and rights of sex workers—and activists who advocate for human trafficking victims, arguing that much of the sex industry is coercive at best. (For a brief moment, this dispute became an issue in the short-lived campaign of Nicholas Kristof for Oregon governor.)

World Without Exploitation’s fusillade against people who purchase sex can also be read as a personal attack on Boonshoft, given that his campaign describes him as “an Oregon philanthropist, an advocate of human rights, and a client of legal, consensual sex work.”

Amy Ruiz, a political strategist assisting the Initiative Petition 51 campaign, says the campaign ran out of time to gather signatures. She says the challenge to the ballot title further narrowed the signature-gathering window.

“While this measure has been withdrawn for 2022,” Ruiz adds, “Mr. Boonshoft remains fully committed to the sex worker-led decriminalization movement.”

She adds: “Oregonians support ending criminal penalties for sex work between consenting adults, and ensuring that people who do this work are protected. IP 51 would have done that, and made it easier for us to hold traffickers accountable for abusing and coercing people.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.