Democrats in the Maine Senate leveraged their majority Wednesday to advance a bill that would eliminate the crime of engaging in prostitution, overcoming opposition from Republican lawmakers and skepticism from some advocates on the left who feel the bill does not go far enough in decriminalizing sex work.

The 23-12 vote, which fell almost entirely along party lines, came a week after the House approved the bill. The legislation will now return to both chambers for final votes before reaching the governor’s desk.

Gov. Janet Mills does not currently have a position on the bill, a spokesperson for the administration told the Press Herald on Thursday.

But the Maine Women’s Lobby, which she co-founded, released a statement in opposition earlier this week.

“This bill is complicated – it decriminalizes the crime of prostitution while leaving the other side, purchasing sexual labor, a crime,” the group wrote. “While we support the intent, the evidence shows this approach does not improve health and safety for sex workers.”

The bill would eliminate criminal penalties for sex workers while maintaining punishments for those who pay for sex – a crime the proposed legislation would redefine as “commercial sexual exploitation.”


“People should not be criminalized for crimes that are happening to them,” Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, said before the vote Wednesday. “This bill acknowledges that the last thing trafficked and prostituted women need is a criminal record as they work to restart their lives.”

The proposed bill is modeled on the “end demand” approach, which aims to drive down prostitution while making it easier for sex workers to seek help from law enforcement officials. By eliminating the risk of being charged with a crime, the bill would encourage trafficking victims to report abuse, exploitation and violence, the legislation’s supporters say.

“If a woman is degraded, if a woman is disrespected, if a woman feels that she is not heard or believed, the state of Maine will lose witnesses vital to sentencing traffickers to prison,” Carney said.

She presented several statistics from European nations like Sweden, Norway and France, which reported significant initial declines in prostitution since eliminating criminal penalties for sex workers, although studies on the policy’s long-term effects in those countries have shown mixed results.

The bill would also increase the penalty for soliciting a child or mentally disabled sex worker.

Senate Republicans said they agreed with the goal of combating human trafficking, but most opposed decriminalizing sex work. Several speakers argued the bill would be counterproductive because traffickers could more easily recruit potential sex workers if those workers had no fear of criminal prosecution.


“Prostitution reduces a person to an article of commerce and a mere possession to be bought, used, and discarded without regard to their physical and psychological trauma,” said Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford. “If we do this, we’re putting a red star in Maine that says, ‘Come here, traffic people in Maine because it’s easier.’ ”

An amendment advanced by Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle would have stripped the bill of all elements related to decriminalization, but it failed on the floor after winning no support from Democrats.

Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn was the only Republican who voted in support of the bill.

Yet while the Legislature’s deliberations and votes on L.D. 435 have broken along party lines, the broader debate around decriminalizing sex work is more complicated. At a public hearing in April, several advocates for sex workers and victims of sexual violence and trafficking voiced concerns about the bill’s framing of all sex work as fundamentally exploitative. Groups that submitted written testimony questioning or opposing the bill’s blanket use of the phrase “commercial sexual exploitation” included the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Preble Street, and the ACLU of Maine.

The Maine Women’s Lobby argued that adopting a “sex workers’ rights” approach to prostitution, which distinguishes between coercive and consensual sex work and would fully decriminalize the latter, would be a more efficient way to protect workers and combat trafficking.

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