Sex Workers Fight for Their Rights: Across the country, there are efforts to erase stigma and enhance safety.

AuthorLieberman, Hallie

"I was conceived in an act of sex work," says I Henri Bynx, thirty-three. Her mother, an I Australian immigrant, was working at a Reno truck stop when she met Bynx's father. "My papa was a truck driver, who already had two kids by two other mothers. He was a repeat client," she says. When he discovered Bynx's mother was pregnant, he married her.

Growing up in Alaska, Bynx knew nothing about her mothers work. She first learned about it from family members after her mother died, and the knowledge helped her understand parts of her childhood.

"[My mother] carried a lot of internalized whorephobia and shame that really influenced the way that she moved through the world," Bynx says. "She went through this really strange religious phase where she was like, 'I have to put Henri in church all the time so she doesn't grow up to be a whore.' "

Despite her mother's wishes, Bynx became a sex worker, too. Now living in Vermont, she's trying to make the world a safer place for herself, women like her mom, and other sex workers through the Ishtar Collective, which she co-founded. The group is working closely with Selene Colburn, a Vermont state representative who earlier this year co-sponsored a bill to decriminalize sex work.

The bill, now in committee, would remove all legal penalties for sex work "while retaining strict prohibitions and felony criminal penalties for human trafficking of persons who are compelled through force, fraud, or coercion to engage in sex work." If it passes, Vermont would become the first state to decriminalize sex work.

"My activism is incredibly informed by the way stigma treated my mom and thereby affected our relationship and my life, " Bynx says. "I don't want that for any of my buds in the industry. I don't want that for their kids."

But groups that seek to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work face an uphill battle.

"The sex workers' rights campaign is much less organized and resource-poor than the anti-sex work movement," writes Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University and author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, in an email interview. He notes that the claims of sex-work opponents that "most or all prostitution is forced, trafficked, or run by organized crime ... have resonated with politicians across the board."

Actually, research shows that these claims aren't true. A 2018 meta-analysis of 134 studies of sex work laws and worker safety correlated criminalization to an increase in violence against sex workers from police and clients. In New Zealand, violence against sex workers decreased after decriminalization in 2003. A 2020 review of more than eighty studies found no "clear link between criminalizing sex work and stopping human trafficking."

Still, as Weitzer notes, "It is risky for any...

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