The question of whether Oregon will remove prostitution from its criminal statutes may be put directly to the public next year after a bill that would have done so failed to move out of committee in the Oregon Legislature.

It’s a next step that was hinted at by the sex worker advocacy group that brought the bill to Oregon in the first place. Any ballot initiative will happen without the group’s involvement, but other advocates from around the country are coming to the aid of the Oregon effort.

“It appears very unlikely that the Legislature would move as quickly as the people would on this massive miscarriage of justice,” says Ted Blaszak, a ballot initiative consultant assisting with the decriminalization effort.

Dr. Angela Jones, a sociology professor at the State University of New York, was one of more than a dozen speakers at the first press conference held by the newly formed Oregon Sex Workers Committee after supporters of decriminalizing sex work presented testimony in a brief House Judiciary Committee informational hearing Thursday afternoon.

“Decades of research unequivocally shows that criminalization makes sex workers less safe, contributing to violence, poor health outcomes, banking and housing discrimination, [and] stigma. And driving exploitative third parties underground only makes catching them harder and more expensive,” Jones told legislators. “Further, criminalization has had the most adverse affects on the most marginal.”

Since state Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) introduced House Bill 3088, several other Oregon legislators joined him in supporting decriminalization. Reps. Wlnsvey Campos (D-Aloha) and Dacia Grayber (D-Tigard) signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Portland/Beaverton) has stated her support for decriminalization.

The national organization that brought HB 3088 to Nosse, the New York-based Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, hired initiative consultant Blaszak in January. Blaszak says the SWP has withdrawn from decriminalization efforts in the state and that he’s now working for Oregon sex worker organizers.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, who chairs Judiciary, thanked several of the witnesses for their bravery in speaking about their experiences. Her sole question was whether one of the aims of decriminalization was similar to those of so-called Good Samaritan laws that give, in her example, underage drinkers an out from consequences if they get caught breaking one law while reporting another, more severe crime. In fact, Oregon already passed such a bill in 2019, granting immunity from prosecution on prostitution charges when evidence of that charge would result from the reporting of a “person felony.”

Speakers at the informational hearing included Nicole Gililland, a former adult performer who filed a Title IX lawsuit against Southwestern Oregon Community College accusing the school’s instructors of discriminating against her due to her prior work. Amy-Marie Merrell, executive director of the Cupcake Girls, recalled the 2004 sexual assault convictions of Eugene police officers Roger Magaña and Juan Francisco Lara, who targeted sex workers and drug users.

“I’m delighted you’re having an informational hearing on this topic,” Nosse said. “I know it is one that may be sensitive and even provocative for some but I think it’s a conversation we need to be having.”

Rep. Janelle Bynum, who chairs Judiciary, thanked several of the witnesses for their bravery in speaking about their experiences. Her sole question was whether one of the aims of decriminalization was similar to those of so-called Good Samaritan laws that give, in her example, underage drinkers an out from consequences if they got caught breaking one law while reporting another, more severe, crime. In fact, Oregon already passed such a bill in 2019, granting immunity from prosecution on prostitution charges when evidence of that charge would result from the reporting of a “person felony.”

Afterwards, a press conference held via Zoom featured a slate of speakers that included sex workers with experience creating and working under New Zealand’s repeal of criminalization, researchers, attorneys who work with trafficking victims, and singer-songwriter Storm Large.

A sex worker named Bella said that law enforcement failed to protect her and instead targeted her in a “human trafficking operation” and arrested and charged her with prostitution. The subsequent publication of her mug shot affected her future employment prospects and compromised her safety, she said.

An Oregon Sex Workers Committee press release for Thursday’s conference said the committee was moving forward with work on a 2022 ballot initiative, which its polling indicated would have the support of 68% of Oregonians.