Florida’s Sex Wars: the Battle to Decriminalize Sex Work

On May 3rd, the Florida legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 540 that extends the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database to include “johns” and “pimps” as well as sex trafficking victims and sex workers.

In a follow-up press release, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Behind Bars warned state legislators, the “registry will be open to the public & aims to name & shame adults in the sex industry.”  Going further, it argued: “Every member of the Florida House and Senate has now shown how little regard each member has for the brave sex workers and victims of sex trafficking who testified about the unavoidable harm this bill will create in their communities.”

Speaking with the desperate voice of those who know what they are talking about, SWOT warned:

When we are killed because our names are placed on a registry, we will hold the Florida legislators responsible. When our kids are taken away from our safe homes, put into Florida’s dangerous foster-care system, perhaps cruelly beaten or sexually molested, we will also hold Florida legislators responsible.

It concluded, “Listen to sex workers and stop these arrests.”

Sex workers have been persecuted since the nation was founded. Today, while sex work is legal in only a handful of rural counties in Nevada, it is estimated to be a $14.5 billion enterprise.  Many men — from Presidents Trump and Kennedy, to tycoons like Jeffrey Epstein and Robert Kraft, to celebrities, sportsmen and all-too-many ordinary men — have been customers of sex workers.  The Fondation Scelles estimated that in 2012 there were one million prostitutes operating across the country.   Who knows how many sex workers there are as the economy tightens.

Three weeks earlier, on April 22nd, a coalition of sex workers, attorneys, civil rights activists and their supporters held a rally before the Orlando (FL) City Hall calling on state legislatures not to pass Bill 540as well as for the state to decriminalize sex work and for the genuine enforcement of sex-trafficking laws.  Speakers included current and former sex workers as well as representatives from SWOP, Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) and the Greater Orlando NOW.

The rally in Orlando was part of a movement slowing gaining momentum throughout the U.S. to decriminalize sex work. Active campaigns are underway in Florida as well as in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, California, Hawaii, Alaska and Washington, D.C.  Two presidential candidates — Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) — have advocated for the decriminalize sex work.  “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” Gabbard said. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”  And the Florida chapter of NOW came out in support of sex-worker’s rights.

Kaytlin Bailey, a former sex worker and DSW’s communications director who participated in the rally, strongly opposed Florida’s legislative efforts to further criminalize sex work. She insists that “arresting sex workers isn’t a way of protecting them.  It’s a way to protect the gulf between what the police claim is a ‘rescue’ and the criminal charges these women face in sting operations like the one involving the high-profile billionaire Robert Kraft.”  She adds, “sex work should be decriminalized, because our government has no right to police our bodies. Arresting sex workers isn’t a way of protecting them.  It’s a way of protecting societal patriarchy.”


The women (and some men) who rallied at the Orlando City Hall to defend the interests of sex workers spoke to four interlinked issues that define prostitution today.  First, the personal experiences of sex work – it is not always trafficking but is often a choice; second, law enforcement seeks to collapse the difference between adult, consensual sex work and “trafficking”; third, the state legislature’s anti-sex politics are making the life of adult sex workers worse; and, fourth, the state needs to pass legislation that does not persecute sex workers.

Popular culture fosters a fiction about sex work. The 1990 comedy, Pretty Woman, directed by Garry Marshal and featuring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, has long left a false impression as to the life of a sex worker. Nearly three-decades later, Starz, the cable-satellite serviced, offered viewers the short-lived series, The Girlfriend Experience, that chronicled the exploits of a 21st-century sex worker, a young female attorney in training who leads a double life as a high-end escort or “girlfriend”.  Never asked, what is the real life of sex workers?

As painfully made clear by the women who spoke before the Orlando City Hall, sex work is a story of abuse, underpay and harassment – including rape, often by the police.  One of the women who spoke out was Christine Hanavan, a trained victim’s advocate with an MSW from University of Central Florida who is an organizer with SWOP Behind Bars and SWOP Orlando. She declared, “I’m an ally and advocate for sex workers and their human rights.” Going further, she insisted, “No one is more committed to ending violence and exploitation in the sex industry or knowledgeable about how to do it than sex workers.”

Addressing one of SWOP’s biggest complaints about the failed practices of state law enforcement, Hanavan noted that a 2015 inventory of Florida’s sexual assault kits found that 13,435 kits had never been submitted for analysis. She forcefully insisted:

“We must

… end the backlog on testing rape kits,

… stop rapists from raping,

… end rape by police,

… and stop arresting people for consensual sex.”

Hanavan drew special attention to Bill 540as well as other punitive laws being considered by Florida’s legislature that will only make the life of sex workers – and those truly trafficked – worse.  They include:

+ House Bill 851 –expands the charges that can be used to revoke the licenses of people who operate licensed massage therapists.

+ House Bill 219and Senate Bill 370 — would create new mandatory minimums for solicitation of human trafficking victims.

+ House Bill 527 andSenate Bill 168 – while dubbed,“Federal Immigration Enforcement,” they are anti-immigrant, anti-family, anti-worker, and anti-safety – and they’re also support human trafficking.

+ House Bill 259and Senate Bill 982 – while ostensibly requiring public-school health education about child abuse and human trafficking, they would actually remove educational requirements about teen dating violence and abuse.

In opposition to these repressive initiatives, SWOP and other groups supporting sex-worker rights back the “Florida Healthy Adolescent Act.” It would require actual comprehensive sexual health education including abstinence, not only abstinence.  As Hanavan affirms, “This is what we need to help adolescents learn healthy sexual attitudes and how to protect themselves. This is something sex workers say will reduce involvement in the sex industry and vulnerability to exploitation.”

Hanavan argues a simply – if all-important – message: “If our lawmakers want to address human trafficking, they should LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS and JUST STOP THE ARRESTS.”


Alex Andrews, an Orlando sex worker and a SWOP advocate, argues, “Our legislators and law enforcement have been led to believe that sex trafficking is huge in Florida, but studies have shown that because sex trafficking and sex work is being conflated all the time.”

Over the last decade, nearly every state has either passed or toughened existing laws concerning what is labeled “human trafficking.” It a category covering both labor (e.g., house cleaning, farm labor and sweatshop manufacturing) and – especially — sex work (i.e., prostitution).  As sex work, traffickingoften involves underage juveniles, mostly girls.  Among the venues in which sex trafficking ostensibly occurs are “gentlemen’s” or strip clubs, brothels, streetwalkers and online advertisements.

Often forgotten is an acknowledgment that all sex work is not the same nor a form of “trafficking.”  Trafficking is sexual slavery, a “non-consensual,” involuntary or coerced act.  Prostitution is a “consensual” or voluntary practice involving sexual intercourse or other practices (e.g., phone sex, posing) engaged in by adult women, men and transgender persons who exchange sexual services for money or o ther forms of compensation.  While there has been a reported increase in independent or “freelance” sex workers, commercial sex is often mediated by a pimp or a sex gang.

In Florida, over the last two-decade period (1998 to 2017), the number of prostitution arrests fell by 75 percent – from 9,772 in ’98 to 2,468 in 2017. (ProCon.org offers slightly different prostitution-arrest totals for the years 2001-2016.)

At the end of 2015, Florida was one of 34 states that had passed what is known as “safe harbor” laws; other states include New York, Minnesota, Connecticut, Tennessee and Texas.   As the Pew Trust noted,“states have dramatically changed laws targeting the sex trade to distinguish between voluntary prostitution and the trafficking of women and girls who are forced or coerced into selling sex.”  Under such laws, youths arrested for sex trafficking are no longer prosecuted for a criminal offense but placed in a victim-services program that is supposed to provide rehabilitative and protective services.  This support is critical so that these young people can reclaim their lives.

Florida adopted its safe-harbor law in 2012 and, as Pew found, in 2014, 3,356 people were arrested for prostitution, including 27 minors – less than 1 percent; it found that in 2011, before the safe-harbor law, state police made 4,484 prostitution arrests, including 35 minors — also less that 1 percent.  The Florida results are in line with a 2012 Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report that found, “Two percent of prostitution and commercialized vice arrests in 2010 involved a juvenile, a proportion that has averaged between 1% and 2% since at least 1990.”

The most significant development is the changing attitudes of ordinary Americans regarding sex work.  A May 2016 Marist Poll finds that nearly half (49%) of Americans felt that commercial sex between two consenting adults should be legal whereas just over two-fifths (44%) opposed it.  In addition, six in ten respondents opposed criminal prosecution of those arrested for prostitution and more than half of respondents (53%) reported that decriminalizing prostitution would regulate the “professional,” thus minimizing risk to sex workers.

Sex workers have been prosecuted since colonial days, but the nation did not adopt a law prohibiting prostitution until the 1910 Mann Act.  It prohibited the interstate transportation of women for commercial sex.  And the newly-established federal Bureau of Investigation (BI) first targeted was Jack Johnson, the black heavy-weight boxing champion, who defeated James the “Boilermaker” Jeffries, the reigning “white” champion, in 1912. The BI targeted Johnson because he brazenly traveled across state lines with his white wife.

The U.S. is a crazy country.  Gun ownership is a constitutional-guaranteed right; 32 states have decriminalized the medical use of marijuana and 22 states decriminalized its recreational use; the Supreme Court ruled sports gambling legal; abortion remains the law of the land; and the commercial sex industry – of sex toys, porn, “gentlemen’s clubs,” adult hook-up services, enhancement drugs and more – is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.  Yet, commercial sex work among consenting adults remains a crime in many states.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.