N.H. House votes to create commission studying decriminalizing sex work

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A bill establishing a legislative committee to study decriminalizing sex work in New Hampshire passed the House, 177-134, despite strong opposition from Gov. Chris Sununu.

Under House Bill 287, the five-member committee would look at the present state of sex work and sex trafficking in the New Hampshire and explore the advantages or disadvantages of decriminalization. The committee would look at the experiences of law enforcement officers, policing and arresting costs, and the effect of the trade on the mental and physical health of sex workers, who often face continual danger.

According to Rep. Elizabeth Edwards, D-Manchester, who sponsored the bill, exploring and addressing the topic poses challenges for a practical reason: Those involved in the sex trade are the least likely to speak out and draw attention to themselves, she said.

The proposed committee would examine three models for regulating the sex trade, Edwards said: a “halfway” model that would make it illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them (known as the Nordic model), a full decriminalization model, and a full legalization model. The committee would comprise members of the House and two members of the Senate, appointed by chamber leadership.

On the House floor, the bill passed without debate. It now heads to the Senate, but if passed there it would still face a likely impossible hurdle in the governor’s office.

“There are those in the Legislature that want to explore legalizing prostitution,” Sununu said last week. “I am 100 percent against it, and would veto the bill if it reaches my desk.”

But Edwards dismissed Sununu’s opposition.

“It sounds like he’s misinformed. ... First of all, it’s just a study committee. Second of all, legalization is not really anyone’s intention that I know of.”

But she called the bill’s passage in the House a net positive whether or not it’s vetoed by the governor.

“As long as we’re having conversations about this topic, that is one way to destigmatize the issue,” Edwards said. “What we have found is that the stigma is what is killing sex workers.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)