ACLU-NJ, Sex Workers Call for Decriminalizing Prostitution

By David Cruz

In New Jersey, finding a partner for mutually consensual sex can be as easy as going online. Sites offer escort services right next to apartments for rent and cars for sale. But, unlike rentals and other sales, selling sex in New Jersey is illegal. Advocates for sex workers say this perpetuates a stigma and creates a black market for sex and exploitation of sex workers.

Janet Duran is a single mother of three in her late 30s. In her 20 years on and off as a sex worker she has seen it all, from violent clients to abusive police and financial hardship. She’s the co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, which has taken on decriminalization (as opposed to legalization) of sex work as its core mission.

“Yes, legalization is just going to be a bunch of people in government trying to make rules and set laws for us and this is private business behind closed doors, between two consenting adults,” she said. “It’s nothing that the government should be regulating. It’s our bodies; it’s our business.”

In a recent op-ed, New Jersey’s ACLU said they strongly support decriminalization of sex work.

“[The ACLU] sees laws criminalizing sex work as another way of misdirecting law enforcement resources and expanding our unjust system of mass incarceration. … In addition to criminal records, arrests for sex work come with devastating collateral consequences, including eviction, loss of child custody and deportation,” read a statement by Jeanne LoCicero and Udi Ofer, of ACLU-NJ.

Duran — who’s on hiatus from the business at the moment — says she knows firsthand that living with the fear of arrest makes sex workers vulnerable to coercion and violence, hesitant to report crimes against them — most frequently, she says, by cops — for fear that they’ll be be subject to arrest themselves or retaliated against. An arrest for sex work could cost you custody of your children, eviction from your apartment and even deportation.

“Horribly enough, a lot of sex workers, whenever they’re arrested, they are coerced into saying they’re trafficked,” she added. “A lot of them do that just so they won’t have a record. Because they’re scared.”

Duran says getting rid of laws governing consensual sex would be a powerful disincentive for those looking to exploit women and men involved in the business. But, as you might imagine, there are powerful voices on the other side of this issue.

“We have evidence, growing, growing evidence in Germany in the Netherlands in New Zealand that actually decriminalization of the sex trade increases sex trafficking because what it does is you have a government that provides a green light to the sex trade saying this is a business like any other business, women are commodities like any other commodities,” countered Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Duran says there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in the criticism of sex work when sites that offer “sugar daddy” relationships are actually promoted by established media. What do you think the sugar daddy gets out of that deal, she asks. It’s unlikely that state lawmakers will be taking up this issue any time soon. In the meantime, Duran says she’d like to continue to grow the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance into an organization that promotes HIV education and provides housing for homeless teens, who are often the most vulnerable to exploitation.