- Tim Newcomb
Burlington voters will decide this Town Meeting Day whether the city should retain its ability to regulate what some call "the world's oldest profession" — prostitution.
An affirmative vote on March 1 would repeal a long-forgotten section of the city charter that allows Burlington "to restrain and suppress houses of ill fame" and "to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith," language that supporters of repeal describe as archaic and offensive. If the proposed change receives a majority of votes in March, the proposal would still require approval from the state legislature and governor.
But what was meant to be a simple housekeeping matter has ignited a messy debate. National advocacy groups have swooped into Burlington to brand the charter change as an attempt to decriminalize sex work. They and other opponents argue that if the city were to forgo its enforcement powers, the illicit sex trade would flourish.
Supporters of the repeal say those claims amount to moral panic. Because prostitution would still be illegal under state law, they say, the charter change won't change much at all.
The city charter was drafted in the late 1800s or early 1900s, then updated in 1949. The document allows Burlington to create local ordinances, some of which are enforced with criminal or civil penalties and are separate from state law.
Burlington did have an ordinance that made it illegal — and punishable by a fine of $50 to $500 — for women to engage in prostitution and for men to "consort with such female[s]." But in October, the city council unanimously voted to repeal the ordinance, after a number of councilors argued that the gendered language was outdated.
The charter language, however, remains. Keeping it would allow a future council to introduce another anti-sex work ordinance down the line — something the current council wants to prevent.
"[The ballot item] simply takes this very specific grant of authority out of the charter," City Attorney Dan Richardson said. "If a future city council wanted to pass an ordinance relating to those topics of prostitution or houses of ill fame, they would not be able to because they would lack that specific authority."
Most of Vermont's 251 municipalities have charters, but only seven, including Burlington's, have anti-prostitution clauses, according to Richardson's research. Vergennes and North Bennington's charters reference "houses of ill-fame," and a handful of others speak to "disorderly and gambling houses" without mentioning the sex trade by name. The euphemisms alone justify scrubbing them from Burlington's charter, Richardson said, because the imprecise language is difficult to enforce in court.
Burlington police haven't used the charter to make sex work-related arrests in recent memory, and while state law is more reliable, prostitution cases are still exceedingly rare. Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George hasn't charged anyone with prostitution for at least three years, she said.
City Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), who introduced the charter change, said the infrequency of charges indicates that cracking down on consensual sex work isn't a priority for police, regardless of what's on the books in Burlington.
"There's this idea that the city's going to almost overnight turn itself into an extremely violent, extremely harmful sort of place, when in reality, we're already not enforcing this," Freeman said. "That concern is not based in evidence."
Sex work has also changed over the years. While the term "prostitution" may conjure images of short-skirted women standing on a street corner, modern methods have evolved to include selling sex online through classifieds and dating websites.
Sex workers and their allies say consensual sex shouldn't be demonized and that Burlington's charter change would be a symbolic step to that end. Henri June Bynx of Montpelier is the cofounder of the Ishtar Collective, an anti-sex-trafficking organization that advocates for safe working conditions for consensual sex workers such as themselves. Bynx supports repealing language that dehumanizes prostitutes and their clients by suggesting that they should be punished.
"Our work is work, too," Bynx said. "If we're going to be taxpaying, good-neighbor citizens in the state of Vermont, I don't want to look at local laws and see words like that referencing my personhood."
Bynx doesn't put much stock in the idea that editing the charter would encourage sex trafficking in Burlington.
"It is a massive, catastrophizing exaggeration," Bynx said. "This is not about opening brothels at the waterfront in Burlington; this is about humanizing a shadow demographic of people."
Sex trafficking survivor Tricia Grant, a Maine resident who testified at council meetings, interprets the charter change differently. Though Bynx and others say they entered the profession by choice, Grant says her experience being sold for sex, including in Vermont, taught her that prostitution is rarely voluntary. She worries that without a local law in place, police will turn a blind eye to exploitation.
Trafficking has gotten local attention before. In 2014, a Seven Days exposé revealed that forced prostitution was commonplace in local Asian massage parlors, though the traffickers were never arrested. And in 2018, a New Hampshire couple was arrested for forcing women to sell sex in a South Burlington hotel.
In 2019, federal authorities won a conviction against Burlington-area trafficker Brian Folks, who exploited his victims' opioid addictions to recruit them as prostitutes and drug runners. He's serving 22 years in prison.
At council debates, representatives from several national advocacy groups and other trafficking survivors worried that the number of such cases would rise if Burlington changed its charter. Rachel Foster, cofounder of World Without Exploitation, a coalition of 200 organizations, traveled from New York City to Burlington three times to testify against the city's "alarming" ballot item. Foster says passing the charter change would signal to traffickers that Burlington is a safe place to do business.
"The message gets through that [they] can do this with impunity," Foster said. "[It would be] heard loud and clear that ... in Burlington, the state laws are not being enforced."
The advocates' testimony resonated with some city officials at last week's public hearing about putting the question on the ballot. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), who ultimately voted for the proposal, said she was becoming "increasingly uncomfortable" after hearing Foster and others describe the repeal as a step toward decriminalizing sex work, a policy Shannon does not support.
Others, however, dismissed the notion that the charter change would increase illicit sexual behavior. Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) noted that other communities, including Essex, Colchester and South Burlington, don't have anti-sex-work clauses in their charters, "and prostitution hasn't become a booming business" in those places.
Many of the opponents to the Burlington-specific change are out-of-state groups, some known for their conservative stands. One public commenter was from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-pornography outfit formerly known as Morality in Media. Councilor Freeman said the organization's foundation as a religious-right group raises questions about its motives and whether its advocacy is rooted in discriminatory or regressive beliefs about sex. The center bills itself as "nonsectarian and nonpartisan," though advocates from faith-based groups did also testify at council meetings.
"It makes me wonder what the role of conservative, religious ideologies is in matters of personal liberty and public health," Freeman said.
For all its intricacies, the debate in Burlington could become moot if a new state law came to pass. Earlier this month, state Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) introduced a bill similar to one she sponsored in 2020 that would decriminalize sex work for both the buyer and the seller, while still retaining prohibitions against trafficking. The earlier bill didn't advance because the pandemic hit soon after.
Colburn doesn't think the latest version is on a fast-track for approval this session. But if it did eventually pass, Colburn said, she'd hate to see Burlington "left behind" with an outdated law still in place.
"It's deeply offensive ... and it's also just impossible to interpret," she said. "It just doesn't belong."