This commentary is by Henri June Bynx, a Montpelier resident who is co-founder and co-director of the Ishtar Collective, Vermont’s only organization run by and for sex workers and survivors of exploitation or trafficking.
Last year the Vermont Legislature passed a “Good Samaritan” law that works to protect the safety and health of sex workers. The law is a critical piece of harm-reduction policy and, importantly, centers the voices of impacted community members.
But there is still much more to be done to defend the rights of sex workers and survivors.
As a farmer, a musician, a mutual aid organizer, a sex worker, and a Vermonter of six years, I support H.746 becoming law.
The bill was overwhelmingly supported by the Legislature, and it would remove archaic and discriminatory language from the Burlington City Charter. This change is a critical step in combating the stigmatization and dehumanization of Vermonters who participate in sex work.
H.746 is consistent with previous efforts to protect sex workers and all Vermonters from violence and exploitation. Making the change to the charter is vital to establishing equality under the law and promoting the dignity and safety of sex workers. The archaic, offensive and legally insignificant language currently in the city charter does not only not encourage public health and safety, it is actually harmful.
While my colleagues and I do support the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work to prevent human trafficking, any potential objections to decriminalization remain irrelevant to this charter change. The Burlington city attorney has confirmed that, because of the archaic nature of the statute, which mandates that peace officers “restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith,” it is no longer used by law enforcement.
The intention of Burlington’s recent vote to strike this language, and the approval of the bill by both houses of the Vermont Legislature, seeks to simply bring city ordinances in line with current practices and the vast majority of jurisdictions in the state of Vermont. Burlington residents are still subject to state law, which criminalizes prostitution.
Since moving to Vermont, I have seen this state accomplish incredible things. Vermonters are inherently geared toward supporting their community and I have been proud to both participate in and witness impressive acts of community support, such as constructing community pantries, engaging in hard conversations about race and houselessness, and providing neighborly aid funds for folks struggling in a global pandemic.
I wish I could say this innate sense of inclusion and support applies to all of us, but sadly that isn’t the case. When it comes to those of us who participate in consensual adult sex work, there is a clear double standard. I do not intend to vilify anyone by saying this, but rather bring to light an issue that is so often obscured and overlooked. I know we can do better because I have seen what Vermont’s constant communal evolution is capable of.
Language referring to “common prostitutes” and “houses of ill fame” demotes my personhood. The stigma perpetuated by this language, the negativity directed at me and others, and the word “punish(ment)” puts us at risk. It puts us at risk of losing our freedom, our homes, and even our lives.
Eliminating this language is a step in reducing stigma and uplifting our humanity and dignity. It is imperative that we become the inclusive community we strive to be, for ourselves and for those who come after us.
Since founding the Ishtar Collective in 2020, we have been forced to memorialize the lives of two members, whose deaths were preventable. The tragedy of losing them begs us to question how we can do better. The answer is nuanced and may make some uncomfortable, but it can’t be ignored. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that upholding and endorsing oppressive language is constructive to a death warrant when it pertains to marginalized peoples.
I often hear sex work addressed in a polarizing tone. Sex workers are either victims in desperate need of rescue or criminals, who should not have their “lifestyle” encouraged. Some “anti-trafficking” organizations shout over the voices of people like me to proclaim salvation while obscuring or discounting the nuances of my lived experience.
For all their fiery testimony, I have never seen these “advocates” lobby for a bill in favor of softening the blow of poverty and discrimination against sex workers, and not once have any of their leaders come to me and asked me what I want, how I feel, or what I have seen.
I understand that some have an ideological or moral objection to consensual adult sex work, but we do not have the luxury of time to engage in a debate now, nor is this debate relevant to how I deserve to be treated and viewed by my neighbors. What I need and deserve is for Vermont to say that sex workers are not subhuman, that you see our personhood, and that the deaths of my friends matter to you.
I want to live. We cannot discuss more than this until we are all safe. Upholding Burlington residents’ and legislators’ votes to remove the discriminatory language from the city charter is how to say this.