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Sex work or sexual abuse? US Representative Pressley, activists debate decriminalizing prostitution

Cherie Jimenez, pictured at her Roslindale home in 2010, once worked in the sex trade and later founded the EVA Center, which provides services for women escaping the life. Jimenez told the Globe she disagrees with Representative Ayanna Pressley’s recent embrace of the movement to decriminalize prostitution.
Cherie Jimenez, pictured at her Roslindale home in 2010, once worked in the sex trade and later founded the EVA Center, which provides services for women escaping the life. Jimenez told the Globe she disagrees with Representative Ayanna Pressley’s recent embrace of the movement to decriminalize prostitution. Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/EMS Photograph

A growing movement to decriminalize prostitution in cities and states across the country — recently embraced by US Representative Ayanna Pressley — has feminists and women’s advocates sharply divided on the best way to protect women’s rights.

Should prostitution be considered a job like any other, whose practitioners could be empowered by workplace protections if it were made legal?

Or is it inherently harmful — a form of violence predicated on racial, gender, and income inequality from which women should be set free?

Female empowerment through sex work has become a surprising liberal rallying cry amplified worldwide by billionaire George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations funds organizations that promote it. Groups from Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, and even the Women’s March have embraced it, and measures that would decriminalize all aspects of prostitution are being pushed in Washington, D.C., and New York state.

“Decriminalizing sex work would improve the health and safety of sex workers and put them on the path to greater stability,” Pressley said in an interview. She has embraced the argument that sex work is the only work available to some marginalized people — particularly transgender women of color — and that they would be less vulnerable if they could better advocate for themselves and report crimes committed against them.

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Other women’s advocates think that’s naive and unrealistic — a “Pretty Woman” take on an ugly industry — and indefensible in an era of fierce pushback against other forms of gender-based exploitation.

“In this world of #MeToo, where people are finally standing up to men in power who are asserting power and control over women who have less than them, why are we also talking about legalizing that exact dynamic?” asked Alexi Ashe Meyers, a human rights attorney in New York who opposes full decriminalization. “How come if actual money changes hands it’s all of a sudden OK?”

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Meyers, a former assistant district attorney in New York and the wife of “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, last month launched a competing campaign. That so-called Equality Model — also known as partial decriminalization or the Nordic model — calls for eliminating criminal charges only for sex workers but continuing to prosecute pimps and buyers who take advantage of them. The sex workers themselves would have access to services to help them leave the business. (Pimps and brothel owners would not be subject to prosecution under full decriminalization.)

The ground between the two alternatives is vast and contentious, as Pressley is about to find out.

Even Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins — who endorsed the contours of Pressley’s broader criminal justice reform plan and who campaigned on ending prosecution of many low-level crimes — stopped short of endorsing decriminalization of prostitution in a statement to the Globe.

Pressley embraced decriminalization last month as part of her People’s Justice Guarantee, which aims to dismantle discrimination within the criminal justice system, reduce jail and prison populations, and eliminate wealth-based discrimination. Her announcement surprised antiprostitution activists who had gathered for an international summit in Roxbury to begin strategizing to combat the decriminalization campaigns they anticipate.

“If she spent any time and lived with the women in our house, I can’t imagine that she would continue doing this,” said Cherie Jimenez, who once worked in the sex trade and later founded the EVA Center, which provides services for women escaping the life, in Brighton.

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Pressley had previously taken the opposite stance. In 2013, she co-wrote a Boston Globe op-ed demanding that sex buyers be held accountable. “Prostitution is the end point of all sex trafficking — sex buyers perpetuate a violent, exploitative industry that fuels organized crime,” she wrote then.

“She used to be an ally,” said Jimenez, who agreed with Pressley’s broader aims to reduce prison populations for other crimes.

However, Jimenez noted that most of the women in her program’s safe house come from Pressley’s district.

“It’s almost like a disconnect in not realizing what are the real lives of women that are most impacted, most vulnerable,” Jimenez added.

Pressley says her support for decriminalization is a continuation of her life’s work: She is still pushing for continued investment of resources to support survivors and to combat human trafficking (commercial sex compelled by force, fraud, or coercion), which would remain illegal. But she is also advocating for women who are willing participants in the sex trade, likening it to her advocacy for other workforces rendered invisible because of societal biases — such as food service workers or housekeeping staff.

Noting that she is a survivor of sexual assault, Pressley said she remains “committed to aggressively combating trafficking, coercion, and exploitation while also carving out space to meet the needs of people engaged in consensual sex work — particularly those engaged in sex trade as a means of survival,” she said.

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Pressley’s decision was influenced by meeting with such advocates as Michael Cox, policy director of Black and Pink Boston, a prison abolition group that focuses on people who are LGBTQ or HIV-positive. He impressed upon her that sex work is a matter of survival for many LGBTQ people that even a so-called Equality Model would jeopardize.

“If you take away their source of income, street-based sex work, how are you going to support those women? Those women are now more vulnerable,” he said. “This is kind of patronizing, actually: ‘We know what’s best for you. Go be hungry over there.’ ”

Partial decriminalization would not do enough to lessen the stigma and risk, said Caty Simon, a low-income sex worker and activist who co-edits a website by and for sex workers.

“If we cannot advertise legally, safely, and independently, then we’re easy prey for exploitative third parties,” she said in an e-mail. “If clients are harder to find and negotiate with because they are criminalized, a pimp’s promise of procurement begins to sound more tempting.”

Pressley also heard from sex workers who had recently championed decriminalization in Washington, D.C., which the city government considered, but did not pass, in November.

“This is my body. Nobody should be telling me what I can and cannot do about it,” argued D.C. advocate Tamika Spellman, a transgender sex worker who met with Pressley. “We live in a country where casual sex is a celebrated act. If I charge for that casual sex it’s a criminal act? That does not make sense.”

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Spellman said the D.C. measure failed largely because of concern that children would be vulnerable to trafficking after decriminalization — a concern she said was baseless.

But Yasmin Vafa, who opposed decriminalization in D.C., pointed to a 2018 study that found one in five men who had never paid for sex could envision doing so if the circumstances were right.

“The nature of the sex trade is you’re never going to have as many willing participants as the never-ending demand requires,” said Vafa, cofounder and executive director of Rights 4 Girls. “Traffickers will seek to meet that demand with vulnerable bodies.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.