Maine Is the First U.S. State to Center Survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Legal Reforms

The two new laws in Maine were inspired by the movement against domestic violence—aiming to center victims, hold abusers accountable and eliminate victim-blaming.

A new Maine law sponsored by state Rep. Lois Reckitt (pictured) and signed into law last month eliminates the crime of engaging in prostitution. (Whitney Hayward / Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed two laws last month empathetic toward people who engage in prostitution, while expanding criminalization for sex buyers and those who sexually exploit vulnerable populations, including children and people with mental disabilities.

These laws make Maine the first U.S. state to adopt a survivor-centered model regarding the sex trade—also known as the Nordic or equality model, which represents a paradigm shift in efforts to reduce commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, provide greater support for prostituted individuals and hold exploiters and sex buyers more accountable.

Maine state Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt (D) sponsored the bills, An Act to Reduce Commercial Sexual Exploitation (LD 1435) and An Act to Provide Remedies for Survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (LD 1436), using the domestic violence movement as inspiration to center victims, hold abusers accountable and eliminate victim-blaming.

The laws recognize the link between prostitution, sex trafficking, violence and substance abuse, and the gender dimensions of prostitution, with women disproportionately arrested for prostitution, and men the overwhelming majority of sex buyers and rarely held accountable for the harm they perpetuate. Under the new laws, people engaging in prostitution will no longer be arrested, will receive increased services and can petition to have their previous arrests for prostitution sealed so that they are not discriminated against in other areas, such as housing and employment.

The laws employ a demand reduction strategy by only penalizing those who pay or attempt to pay for a sex act. They reframe prostitution as “commercial sexual exploitation,” or “providing, agreeing to provide or offering to provide a pecuniary benefit to another person to engage in a sexual act or sexual contact.”

In Maine, people engaging in prostitution are trafficked into the trade 90 percent of the time, according to Reckitt’s estimates. The laws call for the adoption of an anti-sex-trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation protocol by March 2024 and a report providing data to support expanding survivor services in January 2024.

“The laws seek to discontinue the practice of arresting those who sell their bodies for sex—the vast majority of them because life has given them very few choices and even less support for their lives and the lives of their children,” said Reckitt. “These laws will not alone solve all their problems—but they acknowledge that what has been called, for centuries, ‘prostitution’ is driven by the demand presented by those who choose to ‘buy’ another human being’s body. We, in Maine, can help lead the movement to end the buying of our fellow citizens, predominantly females.”

Anti-trafficking advocates applauded the passage of the laws.

“Maine’s enactment of this law is groundbreaking for the United States,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “It honors global survivor-led efforts that help us understand that prostitution is a system baked in misogyny and gender-based violence that must end. Hopefully, Maine will inspire other states to offer services, instead of incarceration, to those bought and sold in the sex trade; to target sex buyers as a progressive tool to prevent sex trafficking; and to change harmful cultural norms that create barriers to women’s equality.”

“Today, I am so proud to live here in Maine,” said Tricia Grant, a survivor of sexual exploitation, on the day of the bill’s signing. “This legislation is firmly rooted in anti-trafficking and acknowledges that arresting and revictimizing people for their own exploitation is not the solution. Rather, holding the exploiters and abusers accountable is the answer.”

Ahead of the laws’ passage, one organization in Maine argued that some adults engage in consensual sexual activity and should not be penalized. Reckitt responded to this criticism: “As it is, no law enforcement entity is interested in or targeting these transactions. My responsibility as a state representative is to protect citizens from harm, and the harms of systems of prostitution are many and demonstrable.”

Another argument, which came from outside of Maine, was that because the trans community experiences workplace discrimination, the community is disproportionately pushed into marginal, risky activities like prostitution—and because of this, it should be protected through decriminalization of the entire commercial sex trade, including sex buyers, pimps, and brothel owners. Reckitt pushed back on this: “This is offensive. The LGBTQIA+ community, especially LGBT youth, are at higher risk for exploitation. I do not favor any public policy that legitimizes sexual violence.

Reckitt said a better solution would be to direct resources toward affirmative action in employment for the trans community, in order to break down stigma and create paths to economic empowerment.

Other states have or are considering various legal reforms.

  • Nevada has legalized prostitution, but only in registered brothels in 10 counties with fewer than 700,000 residents.
  • The latest move in a decade of liberalization in California saw Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) sign a law which took effect on Jan. 1, 2023, that eliminates the crime of loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution—a crime that bill sponsor state Rep. Scott Wiener (D) had criticized as a method of profiling people, especially trans women, trans people of color and women of color.
  • Other U.S. states, including New York, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and Tennessee, are considering bills that would in some way decriminalize sex work or provide other protections, such as eliminating punishment for trafficking victims who report crimes.

Arresting and revictimizing people for their own exploitation is not the solution.

Tricia Grant

Countries across the globe have grappled with the appropriate legal framework for prostitution and how to address sexual exploitation and trafficking. Sweden was the first country to enact an equality model in 1999 by targeting solely the demand side of the sex trade, followed by Iceland, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, the Republic of Ireland and Israel.

Critics of the approach used in Maine argue that it does not eliminate the factors which create exploitative conditions and the risk of violence and could prevent people engaged in prostitution from operating safely and independently—for example, by making customers reluctant to undergo screening measures and scaring away more desirable customers. They argue that only full decriminalization will ultimately reduce exploitation and violence.

Advocates of the survivor-centered model used in Maine’s new laws, however, point to positive results in Sweden and other countries adopting the equality model, such as a reduction in prostitution and its associated harms, fewer sex buyers and shifts in cultural attitudes, and claim that full decriminalization increases harms—such as in Germany, where legalization has turned Germany into “Europe’s bordello,” with disastrous results for women.

Maine’s efforts to end trafficking and punish those who profit from commercial sexual exploitation will focus more attention on the issue and provide useful information and empirical data for other U.S. states considering similar laws. Ultimately, Maine’s experiment could prove that employing a demand reduction and survivor services strategy is the best strategy for supporting and providing better options for prostituted people in the United States.

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.