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Decriminalizing prostitution: How activist groups are shaping legislation in Rhode Island

Texas-based Decriminalize Sex Work and their directors have been funding lobbyists, donating to local politicians, and giving grants to local groups since 2019. What have their investments yielded?

Members of the Special Legislative Commission to Study Ensuring Racial Equity and Optimizing Health and Safety Laws Affecting Marginalized Individuals met on Monday, April 25, 2022, to hear testimony from Melissa Broudo of Decriminalizing Sex Work and from Danielle Ozuna, who had been trafficked as a 13-year-old girl.Photo via Court TV

PROVIDENCE — A well-funded Texas-based organization pushing states to lift prohibitions against prostitution found a receptive ear in longtime Providence Representative Anastasia Williams.

She was one of a handful of legislators who in 2009 voted against closing a loophole that had inadvertently legalized indoor prostitution in Rhode Island for 29 years and made the state a red-light hub for pimps, strip clubs, brothels, and massage parlors.

Williams said she was skeptical of arguments from law enforcement at the time, that prostitution had to be labeled a crime in order to have probable cause to investigate traffickers and exploitation.

“It was completely unfair, and it was being looked at from a man’s point of view and not a real situation as a business, as a grown folks consensual affair,” Williams said of the prohibition. “It’s two grown adults who say they need this ... so why would you infringe on someone’s rights?”

That viewpoint is the backbone of the argument in favor of decriminalizing prostitution in the US and in other countries. But while advocates and commercial sex workers agree that the workers themselves should be shielded from criminal prosecution, some say that the push for full decriminalization in Rhode Island — which could also shield sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners — would instead protect predators and increase trafficking of vulnerable children and adults.

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“People don’t take into consideration how many women we’ve lost, and they want to paint it as the real problem is criminalization. No, the problem is the dehumanization and violence you experience every day,” said Nicole Bell, a survivor of sex trafficking in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, who founded Living In Freedom Together in Worcester, Mass. “I don’t think people who are prostituted should be criminalized. They should be given access to services to be whole human beings. ... (But) I don’t think we should be giving a pass to privileged white men who are buying sex because they can.”

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A focus on consensual adult activity

The seemingly grassroots efforts in Rhode Island are part of a nationwide movement, funded in part by wealthy donors and nonprofit organizations. Texas-based nonprofit Decriminalize Sex Work, its lobbying arm The Campaign to Decriminalize Sex Work, and its affiliate The Legalization Project – all directed by Robert Kampia, formerly of the Marijuana Policy Project – are working on legislation in New England with members of state governments, funding lobbyists and grassroots groups, and seeking to change public opinion about prostitution.

Decriminalize Sex Work, or DSW, states that its overall goal is to decriminalize “consensual adult sex work,” and that it is also “advocating for incremental measures that will reduce exploitation and violence perpetuated against sex workers and survivors of trafficking.”

But while the organization’s political goals are clear, the extent of its influence in Rhode Island is less so. According to their website, their national strategy summary includes “not providing information that prohibitionists could use to thwart DSW’s political agenda.”

Though DSW was co-founded by Kampia, a co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Project who was forced out of his own organization in 2017 after allegations of sexual assault and harassment, DSW’s legislative and lobbying efforts in Rhode Island are spearheaded by Melissa Sontag Broudo, a New York-based lawyer and sex worker activist. She co-founded DSW with Kampia and serves as its legal director, while Kampia is the organization’s political director.

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“I am here for sex workers and survivors of human trafficking, and the critical thing is it is not a monolith. There are people with a broad spectrum of different individual beliefs and experiences in the sex industry,” Broudo said in an interview. “The only way we’re going to have everyone engaged in ending exploitation is removing criminal penalties when it is consensual adult activity.”

Melissa Sontag Broudo, co-founder of Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy & Rights (SOAR) Institute and the legal director of Decriminalize Sex Work gives a presentation before members of the Special Legislative Commission to Study Ensuring Racial Equity and Optimizing Health and Safety Laws Affecting Marginalized Individuals met on Monday, April 25, 2022.Photo from Court TV

Broudo criticized police investigations into brothels for trafficking as a waste of resources that punishes the wrong people, and warned against conflating prostitution and human trafficking. She also said that decriminalizing prostitution was the best way to stop trafficking, because sex buyers and sex workers would report those who were underage or being trafficked, even though her organization did not provide evidence of such reporting during the years when indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island.

When asked how decriminalization could affect non-consensual sex work or victims of sex trafficking, Broudo, who is also the co-founder and co-director of the New York-based Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute, said the question “detracts from the fact that sex workers and survivors are getting arrested and raped everyday because of criminalization and stigmatization.”

Investing in the R.I. political system

In Rhode Island in 2019, DSW reported spending $20,000 on lobbyists at the Bradford Group, and The Legalization Project spent $34,700 to organize a statewide coalition to “focus initially on creating a state-government commission to study the costs and benefits of decriminalizing consensual adult prostitution,” according to tax documents.

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In 2020, DSW spent $71,469 in Rhode Island to continue organizing a statewide coalition in favor of setting up the government commission. The group spent another $36,616 to lobby the state government, including $25,000 in grants, to change the laws. The Legalization Project spent $27,855 to assist with lobbying.

Kampia donated $1,000 to Williams in 2019 and 2020, the maximum amount allowed under law. Broudo and her husband, Aaron, each donated $1,000 to Williams in 2019, 2020, and 2021, and smaller amounts to other Rhode Island politicians who favor decriminalization.

Williams said she isn’t swayed by the donations. “I am open for everything and anything. Contributions don’t play a factor in it,” she said. “It’s not about ‘We got her in our pocket.’ It takes money to run a campaign, it takes money to do things that need to get done. They contributed.”

Williams’ bill to create a special legislative commission to study decriminalizing prostitution passed in 2021.

Broudo, who is registered as a lobbyist in Rhode Island, told the Globe that she herself had written the legislation, sponsored by Williams, to establish the commission. In an email, DSW’s communication director, Ariela Moscowitz said the same, and added that that Broudo and COYOTE RI organized the legislative hearing in 2019 to support the bill.

The 13-member commission, which is called the “Special Legislative Commission to Study Ensuring Racial Equity and Optimizing Health and Safety Laws Affecting Marginalized Individuals,” is chaired by Williams with vice chairwoman Providence Democrat Edith Ajello, who also voted against prohibiting prostitution in 2009.

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Seven members are from organizations that support decriminalizing prostitution. They include three sex workers: the founder of COYOTE RI and two co-founders of The Ishtar Collective in Vermont, a sex-worker rights organization that is a coalition member of The Erotic Laborers Alliance of New England. COYOTE RI and The Ishtar Collective both receive funding from DSW and testify in support of decriminalization bills in New England. One committee member, Ishtar Collective co-founder J. Leigh Oshiro-Brantley, is also the research and project manager for DSW.

When asked why an organization from Vermont had seats on the commission, Williams said she was told they work in Rhode Island.

The remaining four seats are held by representatives from the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, the attorney general’s office, the public defender’s office, and the state Department of Health.

While testifying at a meeting of the legislative committee on April 25, Broudo did not disclose her involvement with the legislation that created it.

This year, DSW is involved with three bills in the House, including two sponsored by Williams, and one in the Senate. The organization is also supporting a bill by Senator Cynthia Mendes to abolish all laws pertaining to prostitution, pandering, brothel-keeping, and bar forfeitures or investigations. COYOTE RI, which receives grants from DSW, worked with Mendes on the bill. At an April 5 hearing, scores of sex-trafficking survivors and advocates testified against the bill — the first time the decriminalization movement has seen significant opposition in Rhode Island.

The senators were struck by what they heard from survivors. “In the entire session, this has been the most moving, compelling testimony that I’ve heard, and I’m sure my colleagues would agree,” said Senator Stephen Archambault, the committee vice chairman. “We hear a lot up here on diverse issues, but your stuff really hits the heart, with empathy. God bless you all.”

Concerns about Kampia

Kampia’s connection to DSW has cost the organization credibility with some sex workers and advocacy groups that are also seeking to decriminalize prostitution.

In March 2019, a collection of 25 sex worker advocacy groups, including SWOP Boston and Whose Corner Is It Anyway? in Massachusetts, signed an open “Solidarity Statement” that said Kampia “has a long and public history of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault” and demanded he resign from DSW.

Broudo acknowledged that funding from Kampia, with his connections to wealthy Libertarians from the marijuana movement, “one million percent” pays for the organization’s work. But while she said the decision to focus on Rhode Island was his, she repeatedly said that she is the person behind the efforts to fully decriminalize prostitution in Rhode Island. Decriminalize Sex Work was a collaborative effort, she said, and Kampia was not the visionary.

“Rob is actually quite uninvolved in R.I.,” Broudo said in an email to the Globe. “I find it immensely — shockingly — misogynistic to have my work and the work of all of my colleagues (almost all of whom are women and trans folx) erased and subsumed under Rob.”

“I suppose my 20 plus years of expertise as an advocate and attorney is way less interesting/salacious than Rob’s history,” she wrote. “Very feminist move.”

Though recent tax forms show Kampia is paid more than Broudo, “They founded the organization as equals,” Moscowitz said in an email. “He is no more in charge of strategy or efforts than she is.”

Broudo told the Globe she was offended by questions about whether any funding came from owners of brothels and massage parlors, which were made illegal when Rhode Island prohibited indoor prostitution. One operator of three massage parlors in Pawtucket forfeited $650,000 in a racketeering case last year.

“I don’t know who any of those people are. Like, it’s such an absurd idea. I’m laughing at how nefarious you think our organization is,” Broudo said. She said the money is coming from Libertarian investors “who believe in this issue.”

When asked if Kampia was their sole or primary fundraiser, whether Decriminalize Sex Work had a response to the “Solidarity Statement,” and whether a goal of decriminalization could be to allow individuals or groups to invest in businesses related to sex work, Moscowitz responded: “Robert Kampia is speaking with counsel and considering legal action against Boston Globe Media for defamation. I will therefore not be communicating with you until further notice.”

Representative Williams, however, said she wasn’t concerned about Kampia’s past. She said she deleted “negative correspondence” that she’d received recently from people angry about Kampia’s involvement in the decriminalization movement.

“Everybody has a past, some worse than others, some fabricated, some real, so my whole thing is I believe in second chances. So, I’m not going to hold that against Mr. Kampia,” Williams said. “I did not get involved in that… I’m in Rhode Island handling my business and the business of my constituents and my state.”

Williams said her commission will continue to hold hearings; she said she will invite people who disagree with decriminalizing prostitution to testify.

Ultimately, she said, she wants the commission to come up with recommendations to help those who want to get out of commercial sex work as well as those who don’t.

“The government or society is allowing them to become victims because they are not providing them with the tools they need,” Williams said. “So if we want to look at trafficking and eradicating, we have to be honest, they are out there trying to survive, and they come to us and say, ‘Can you help me?’ and we turn our back.”

Would the House be willing to support fully decriminalizing prostitution? “I think with the right presentation and understanding, it would be,” Williams said.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.