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Protecting Sex Workers: An update on recently introduced legislation

It’s been more than eight months since the police led a raid to steamroll the Foxy Lady, and the Christmas season shutdown ignited a more honest conversation about sex workers than has ever before occured in RI. The Providence Board of Licensing revoked all the Foxy’s business licenses, forcing it to close. The Foxy fought back, and the RI Department of Business Regulation and the RI Supreme Court allowed it to reopen.

Two of the dancers indicted pled no contest. One of the accused was cleared of charges. An undercover cop testified he was told that for 300 bucks, anything goes in the VIP room. The city solicitor, Jillian Barker, argued this meant sexual conduct, illegal on the books to exchange for money in RI. Judge Melissa DuBose disagreed. “You could ask 50 different people what ‘anything goes’ means, and it would be a range from really freaky stuff to stuff that would be completely benign, like, ‘I’m lonely, can you please hold me at night?’” she said, according to an article in The Providence Journal.

“The Foxy Lady closing was actually really good for us,” says Bella Robinson, executive director of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). Motif previously interviewed Robinson for an article on sex worker rights and decriminalization, and caught up with her recently on all the latest happenings in the fight to decriminalize sex work. This past spring saw a series of laws brought into the General Assembly. S0317 and H5733, two identical bills, make it a 3-year felony for peace officers to engage in sexual acts with people detained or in their custody (see our previous article at motifri.com/decriminalizing-sex-work).

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Representative Anatasia Williams (District 9) introduced bill H5354, which has the goal of creating a special legislative commission to study the health and safety impact of revising RI’s commercial sexual activity laws. Introduced in committee, it received a hearing where a wide swath of people testified in support, including Gail Harvey from the Rhode Island National Organization of Women; Julian Modzelseki, who defends people before New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court; Brown University’s Elena Shih; and Dame Catherine Healy, a New Zealand sex workers’ rights activist, among many others, including an attorney from the attorney general’s office.

“I recall the arguments that were given for passing the 2009 law, expanding the statute, was that it was designed to protect women,” testified Stephen Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU. “That it was designed to crack down on human trafficking. And if we have learned anything in these last 10 years – it has not done that.”

On April 30, the committee held the prospect of such a study commission for further study. COYOTE plans to help reintroduce all three bills.

Robinson sees it as part of a generational fight, beyond legal realities. “Even if we get decriminalization, they’re going to try and take it back,” she says. “Just like they do abortion… I see my job as beginning to shift social perception.” She compares it to the treatment and public views of homosexuality 30 years ago. Most bigots have had to be more discreet about their hate in the past 30 years.

Besides simply reintroducing the same legislation, COYOTE RI has plenty of plans for the future. In July they ventured out to Broad Street as part of their regular street outreach program. “We give out hygiene packages, we give the women tampons,” says Robinson. “We do condom distribution, clean needle exchange, Narcan kits, snacks and water.” A hygiene kit includes sample size toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant and lotion. “Homeless people carry everything they own in a bag,” says Robinson. “You can’t afford to carry around a full bottle of shampoo.”

Since our last interview, they’ve obtained office space and hold weekly meetings. COYOTE was interviewed on the “Uprising” show on cable access, soon to be uploaded to YouTube. They’re also considering creating a regular television show about the negative impact criminalizing sex work has on sex workers.

Last month, Warwick Police arrested and named seven people for sex work. Cops collaborated with a local hotel, identified five women and two men and put their names, pictures and towns of residence out there for all to see. One must wonder what happens if, like the dancer at the Foxy Lady, these folks are cleared of charges after having their mugshots displayed on screens like they were guilty. Interestingly, the police did not disclose the name of the hotel in the interest of “continued cooperation.” RI’s war on sex workers continues.

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