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Decriminalizing Sex Work: Legal immunity for all with COYOTE RI’s Bella Robinson

Illustration by Sophie Foulkes.

Indoor prostitution, or sex work solicited in closed spaces, was decriminalized in Rhode Island from 1980 to 2009, empowering sex workers with the ability to report crimes committed against them by clients. Decriminalization was in part created by a legislative loophole in the RI Supreme Court’s 1998 ruling, State v DeMagistris, which focused on criminalizing public solicitation of commercial sex. The legal precedent did not include private, or indoor, sex work. When those opposed to decriminalization began to notice State v DeMagistris being used as a legal defense for indoor sex workers, they began their attempts to recriminalize all sex work, finally succeeding in 2009.


In 2024, those within the RI sex industry have no legal protection if they are the witness or victim of assault, sexual assault, homicide, robbery, or any other violent crime. Additionally, the ACLU states that sex work criminalization “prevents sex workers from accessing health care and other critical services, feeds an out of control mass incarceration system, and further marginalizes some of society’s most vulnerable groups, such as trans women of color and immigrants.”

I interviewed COYOTE RI’s executive director Bella Robinson to learn more about the fight for sex workers’ rights in Rhode Island today. The organization’s acronym stands for “Call off your old tired ethics,” a phrase that alludes to the morality often used to justify the criminalization of commercial sex. COYOTE RI’s website describes the organization as “a group of sex workers, former sex workers, trafficking victims, and allies that are advocating for policies that promote the health and safety of people involved in the sex industry.”

The moral crusade of criminalizing sex work can create what Robinson and Brown University professor Elena Shih refer to as “strange bedfellows” in their article “The History of Sex Work Law in Rhode Island.” The disparate coalition of anti-sex work advocates includes seemingly socially minded non-profits and evangelical, far-right groups. The common ground between these strange coalitions of otherwise ideologically opposed groups is found in “their belief that all sex work is exploitative and thus a form of human trafficking.” The federal definition of sex trafficking is sex work that involves force, fraud, coercion, or involvement of minors. Minors within the sex industry are considered victims of sex trafficking under federal law.

The anti-trafficking narrative that all sex workers — even consenting adults — are victims, paired with the lack of legal rights for sex workers to report crimes that they witness or are victims of, keep sex workers disempowered within our society. As Robinson puts it, “Criminalization causes violence and exploitation… When women – or anyone – can’t say they’re being abused, it creates the perfect playground for predators.”

There are two bills currently in the Rhode Island legislation regarding immunity for sex workers reporting crimes in good faith without being charged with misdemeanor sex work charges. The first bill, which Robinson supports, is House Bill 6064 sponsored by Reps. Enrique Sanchez (D), Brianna Henries (D), and Jennifer Stewart (D). This bill specifically “would prohibit the arrest of any person who is engaged in commercial sexual activity or practicing massage without a license if they were witness or victim of… the enumerated criminal offenses to include assault, sexual assault, homicide, robbery, larceny and the like.” This bill was held for further study in March of last year, with no further movement within the house.

Whereas, in the Senate, bill 2441 has been introduced as of February of this year, sponsored by Sens. Melissa Murray (D) and Tiara Mack (D). This bill would “provide immunity from arrest and prosecution for prostitution, procurement of sexual conduct for a fee, loitering for prostitution and soliciting from motor vehicles for indecent purposes.” This bill noticeably does not include immunity protections for those practicing massage without a license, informally known as spa workers. COYOTE RI has come out in opposition to SB2441, launching a petition titled “Asian Spa Workers Should Be Able to Report Violence Without Arrest – Next Steps.” At the time of writing this article, the petition has 380 signatures. UPRISE reports that “In 2021, Asian spa workers made up 13 of Rhode Island’s 16 total prostitution related arrests.”

COYOTE RI’s research and policy director Tara Burns has successfully advocated for an immunity bill in Alaska — the first in the country — that was codified as part of the larger criminal justice reform omnibus bill SB91 in 2016, allowing sex workers to report heinous crimes without fear of prosecution for misdemeanor commercial sex.

Despite these case studies of proposed and codified immunity bills, those working within the American sex industry face obstacles to their safety under criminalization. Another legal setback to sex workers’ safety within recent years was FOSTA-SESTA, which were a set of congressional bills passed in 2018 that intended to target the online facilitation of sex trafficking.

As a result of scrutiny from the bill’s passing, online classifieds website Backpage removed their “adult services” section, destroying a major online resource for sex workers to safely find, vet, and book clients. In 2022, COYOTE RI filed a formal appeal of FOSTA, noting among many other legal concerns that “Rather than stopping sex trafficking, FOSTA has made sex work more dangerous by curtailing the ability to screen clients on trusted online databases, also known as blacklists.”

Along with COYOTE’s tireless community-based research and legislative advocacy for the decriminalization of sex work in our state, the organization provides street outreach to sex workers and anyone else who needs resources, no questions asked. Robinson encourages those who are inclined to learn more or make a donation to visit

This is an ongoing story. Stay tuned for updates regarding the status of the immunity bills mentioned in this article.