Anti-trafficking groups raise concern over Burlington sex work measure

Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 5:18 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Former prosecutors and victims of trafficking say a proposed measure to allow prostitution in Burlington would fuel an uptick in human trafficking.

“It’s on the path to becoming the brothel of the United States,” said Michael Shively with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, one of several advocacy groups planning to address the city council Monday night.

Rachel Foster, the co-founder of World Without Exploitation, the largest anti-trafficking coalition in the nation, says decriminalizing sex work could increase sex trafficking in Burlington and make it a sex tourism destination. “Allowing the demand side of the sex trade to really infiltrate Burlington in a way that really increases the risk and harm to the most marginalized and vulnerable girls and women,” Foster said.

Nicole Bell is a survivor of prostitution from Massachusetts and helps other survivors cope with their trauma. She points out that prostitution is seldom consensual and that the buyers and exploiters should be held accountable. “Is it really two consenting adults or is it someone in a position of power exploiting another person’s vulnerability,” she said.

Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman, P-Central, argues decriminalizing sex work is the best way to stop exploitation. “I’m glad there are conversations elevated along with exploitation, along with non-consensual sex or nonconsensual relationships, but the fight should be decriminalizing sex work if you support those things,” Freeman said. She says the charter change would make sex work safer, healthier, and provide more protection for those in the industry. “Decriminalizing sex work is ultimately much safer, safer for communities broadly and specifically for folks doing sex work.” When told about the slate of opponents lining up to speak against the measure, Freeman expressed surprise.

Former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan has prosecuted high-profile human sex trafficking cases and says decriminalization would strip law enforcement of tools including search warrants needed to uncover human trafficking. “If they don’t have the ability to investigate prostitution, they will not be able to uncover human trafficking and there will be victims in the shadows that we cannot rescue,” she said.

The advocacy groups plan to speak to the City Council at Monday night’s meeting and ask them to adopt an equity model instead, which would protect people in prostitution but keep legal restrictions on those doing the buying. As for the charter change -- it would take time because it would also require the approval of Burlington voters and the Legislature.

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