By Jordan Mazza


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) -- Bella Robinson says she's been a sex worker for 35 years.

She moved to Rhode Island when it was one of the only states where prostitution was decriminalized.

"I felt free for the first time in my life," Robinson said. "Because if you threaten me, I'm dialing 911 and telling on you. And I can't be evicted. And I've got some rights."

In 2009 the state made prostitution illegal again over concerns about sex trafficking.

"Sex workers are against trafficking," Robinson said. "We don't want to see our own people exploited. We don't want the youth in the sex industry."

But she says making sex work illegal again only served to put sex workers back in danger.

Now Robinson and her organization, COYOTE - RI, are working with Brown University and advocating for a new bill. It's co–sponsored by Rep. Anastasia Williams and proposes a commission to study the health and safety impact of sex work laws.

"Crackdowns against sex workers have to do with the fact that we're afraid of people practicing their sexuality and we prioritize these morals over the safety of people involved in the sex industry," said Meghan Peterson, a Brown University researcher who works with COYOTE–RI.

But one prominent opponent of the bill is Donna Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor who advocated for the state's criminalization effort in 2009.

She advocates the so–called "Nordic model," used throughout Scandinavia, in which only the buyer of sex can be arrested.

"Anyone who is buying sex is truly the one who is making a choice," Hughes said. "And truly has the option not to do that. I think some of the women may not have so many options. And we should be trying to make sure they have better options."

But COYOTE-RI disagrees with the Nordic model, saying fear of arrest for clients forces sex work underground and risks safety.

And the group says the goal of this new bill is not decriminalization, but conversation.

"Our goal is to start to shift perceptions," Robinson said. "Allow sex workers to integrate with their communities and not have to hide who they are."

Robinson says COYOTE-RI is planning a lobby day at the State House for mid-March.




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