Sex Workers Outreach Project co-founders on objections to bill targeting prostitutes' johns

Update below: Earlier this week, SB 85, a bill that would establish a so-called "johns school" for people who solicit prostitutes, sailed through the Senate judiciary committee. Read it below.

But the overseers of Colorado's Sex Workers Outreach Project branch see the measure as ineffective and contradictory of current laws.

Of course, Billie Jackson, the only person to testify against SB 85 at the hearing, and her partner, who prefers to be known simply as Elle, have a very different perspective on prostitution than do Beth Klein, a Boulder attorney who helped write the bill, and Marian Hatcher, the woman behind a johns school project in the Chicago area, who spoke in favor of it.

Jackson describes herself as a former sex worker, having been employed in Denver-area topless clubs for eighteen years, while Elle is a professional dominatrix; she stresses that she doesn't offer sex to clients and keeps her services within what she describes as "the legal realm." In 2009, they founded the local Sex Workers Outreach Project branch, an affiliate of Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, as a way of assisting sex workers in need even as they advocate for mainstream acknowledgment of the profession. "We promote social justice for sex workers and the right of sex work as a legitimate career choice," Jackson notes.

As such, Jackson and Elle feel the entire johns school concept is of dubious value. They cite an article by the Village Voice, Westword's sister paper, describing as "junk science" research they say Klein and Hatcher use to support their arguments. Likewise, they note that proposed fines of $10,000 are far in excess of current maximums for solicitation. The Denver Post reports that the guidelines top out at a $1,000 fine and a year in jail, but notes that most sentences are far lower. Jackson suggests that a $500 fine and a six-month deferred sentence is far more typical.

Moreover, Jackson and Elle are concerned that SB 85 is part of a movement to ratchet up the pressure on prostitution nationwide. Elle points to the Hunt Alternatives Fund, with which Klein worked to help develop what's described as a "National Action Plan for Eliminating Sex Trafficking." The approach equates cracking down on johns with ending sex-trafficking practices.

"They refuse to differentiate between consensual sex workers and those who are coerced," Elle says. "And there are many people in the industry who love what they do. They have a blast. They enjoy it, and they have stable, healthy lives. This old idea that hookers are all on drugs and there's a pimp around the corner making them do what they do is just not always the case anymore.

"They are forcing their morality on the rest of us, which is no different than a pimp taking away my personal autonomy. But attitudes have changed so much, and people need to understand that sexuality is a subject that's very stigmatized."

Not that either Jackson or Elle condone trafficking or non-consensual prostitution. Indeed, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, accessible at swopcolorado@yahoo.com, is focused on letting sex workers know they're not alone. Their services include offering sex workers access to medical and mental health examinations and harm-reduction tips, as well as working with law enforcement to combat stereotypes. They also hand out condoms as an outreach method, although Jackson says some sex workers refuse to accept them since condoms can be used by police as evidence of prostitution -- a situation that she sees as terribly counterproductive.

They feel the same about SB 85. "Johns school is a big waste of taxpayer money," Jackson says. "And it's also a big waste of law enforcement's time to go after johns. It's been proven that it doesn't work."

Update: Billie Jackson requested that we add a note about her academic credentials. As she writes, "I have a Masters degree in Community Counseling/Chi Sigma Iota from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado and am working on a PhD in General Psychology at Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota." She's bringing her knowledge base to her work with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, she says.

In addition, Jackson asked us to remove a reference to her and Elle being co-founders of the local SWOP branch. That descriptor has been changed to "overseers."

Page down to read SB 85 and to see a Hunts Alternative Funds document about a national planning meeting to "eliminate demand for commercial sex."

Senate Bill 85: Prostitution-Related Offenses
National Planning Meeting to Eliminate Demand for Commercial Sex: Hunt Alternatives Fund

More from our News archive: "Murder down, prostitution and child-porn busts up in 2010, says Denver Police Department."

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