Jan 31, 2024 - News

Oregon sex workers continue to push for decriminalization

Illustration of a lawn sign with XXX printed on it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Sex workers across Oregon are planning to roll out a public education campaign to continue their push for decriminalization.

Why it matters: Advocates believe decriminalization would allow sex workers to negotiate safer working conditions, get better access to health care, banking and housing, as well as encourage them to report violence to law enforcement without fear of retaliation.

Driving the news: Gov. Tina Kotek struck down bills last year that would have used government funds to study the impact of the state's laws prohibiting prostitution.

State of play: Sex work decriminalization is unlikely to be considered during this year's short legislative session, which starts Monday.

  • But sex worker-led organizations — like Oregon Sex Workers Committee (OSWC) and Sex Worker Affirming Advocates (SWAA) — say they will lean heavily on social media marketing and community events to drum up public support for decriminalization in the coming weeks.
  • OSWC is currently working on a legal mapping project — examining the state's sexuality and loitering laws and suggesting amendments to present to lawmakers ahead of the 2025 legislative session, per Valentine Von Bettie, co-president of OSWC.

Between the lines: "Sex worker" is an umbrella term for not only those engaged in street-based work, but OnlyFans content creators, strip club dancers, escort providers, and more.

  • "We need to get rid of the assumptions of what a sex worker, or how a sex worker, should look or act like," Marchel Marcos, political advocacy director at APANO, which oversees SWAA, told Axios.

Flashback: Kotek vetoed two budget bills approved by legislators related to sex work decriminalization last year.

  • The first budget bill would've directed $100,000 in state funds to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to study the pros and cons of decriminalizing prostitution.
  • The other would have given $500,000 to Oregon Health & Science University to study the health outcomes of sex workers in the state.
  • Kotek said she believes the studies should be privately funded. According to a spokesperson, her position has not changed.

What they're saying: State Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) first introduced a bill to study sex work decriminalization in 2021, but it failed.

  • To have the bill make it to the governor's desk in 2023 was a big feat, Nosse said, but he wasn't surprised by Kotek's decision.
  • "Studies are often things that lead to changes in a policy, but I think she feels like we need to talk about it a little bit more openly to build political support," he told Axios.

The bottom line: Advocates say they don't have a timeline for when they expect to see progress on this issue.

  • "I don't think we are trying to change minds, but you have the option to see sex workers living their lives and trying to keep food on the table just like anyone else," Von Bettie said.
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