With two quiet vetoes, Gov. Tina Kotek pushed back on drive to decriminalize sex work in Oregon

With two quiet vetoes, Gov. Tina Kotek pushed back on drive to decriminalize sex work in Oregon

When Lola Baldwin was sworn in as a Portland Police officer on April 1, 1908, she became the first, or possibly second, female police officer in the country.


In her new role, Baldwin ran the police bureau’s Women’s Protective Division, and history has remembered her for her envelope-pushing work protecting women. A 2008 OPB article noted that many of her strategies for addressing vice and corruption in the community continue to influence modern day policing.

Portland-based sex worker Elle Stanger calls Baldwin a “mid-century SWERF,” or sex worker exclusionary radical feminist.

“She tried to outlaw women drinking in bars alone,” said Stanger, who is also the co-president of Oregon Sex Workers Committee, a group formed by sex workers in 2021 to help pass decriminalization legislation. “Her true belief was that women would not socialize in these environments when given the choice. So if they were in these environments, it must have been by some kind of horrible circumstance and that they needed rescue.”

A 1915 portrait of Lola Baldwin, one of the first female police officers in the United States. Baldwin headed up the Portland Police Bureau's Women’s Protective Division and campaigned to bar women from establishments where she thought sex work was happening.

A 1915 portrait of Lola Baldwin, one of the first female police officers in the United States. Baldwin headed up the Portland Police Bureau’s Women’s Protective Division and campaigned to bar women from establishments where she thought sex work was happening.

Courtesy of the Portland Police Museum / OPB

At the end of the 2023 legislative session, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek used her veto power to nix state funding for two studies, totaling $600,000, intended to research the impact of Oregon’s laws prohibiting prostitution. In doing so, she stepped into a centuries-old debate about whether or not the world’s oldest profession can ever be entered into voluntarily — or if it is a legitimate form of work and should instead be decriminalized.

Money for the studies would have come from an appropriations bill, approved by lawmakers, which allocated money to a wide range of initiatives. Among the items the governor did not veto: $220,000 to study how military pensions are taxed, $2,000,000 for Columbia County’s courthouse renovation and $300,000 for an independent audit of land purchases by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

In a written statement explaining her decision, Kotek said she thought the studies should be privately funded. But sex workers and advocates who have been pushing for decriminalization say Kotek initially supported the research then backtracked at the last minute, potentially because suddenly allowing a practice that’s long been illegal is politically fraught in Oregon right now.

“We just know how important it is to have a plan that takes the people and communities who will be most impacted into consideration as we even craft the policy,” said Marchel Marcos, the political policy, advocacy and civic engagement director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Marcos, a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, said APANO became involved after the Atlanta spa shootings in which a man shot and killed eight people, six of them Asian women, saying his sex addiction conflicted with his Christian values. There is a long history of sexualization and physical violence directed at Asian women in the United States, and Marcos said the shooting prompted APANO organizers to consider how they might take action in Oregon.

“This was a request of unbiased research,” Marcos said, “that would give lawmakers the Oregon based data to understand the issues and potential impacts that they should consider as they change … our laws.”

Rethinking ‘a reliable job’

The budget bill approved by lawmakers would have given $100,000 in state money to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission for a study on the advantages and disadvantages of decriminalizing prostitution. The Criminal Justice Commission is a state agency which researches and evaluates criminal justice programs.

Kotek also vetoed a portion of the appropriations bill that provided Oregon Health & Science University $500,000 in state funds for a public health study on the effects of current laws on Oregonians in the sex trade.

Oregon law makes it a class A misdemeanor to offer or engage in sexual conduct in exchange for a fee. If someone charged with prostitution is a trafficking victim, the burden is on the defendant to prove they were being trafficked. Soliciting sex for money, the customer side of the transaction, is also a class A misdemeanor. In 2020, a law took effect protecting sex workers from prosecution if evidence of prostitution only came to light as a result of them reporting a “person felony,” such as sexual abuse or assault. There is no federal law prohibiting consensual sex work. Nevada is the only U.S. state where sex work is legal in some instances.

People who do consensual sex work, as opposed to those who are trafficked and forced by others to have sex for money, said they view their work as a regular job just like everyone else. The criminalizing of sex work, they argue, isn’t grounded in public safety. And the impact of laws against their work, they say, ripples through every facet of their lives and actually makes them less safe.

Teal Lindseth is a movement-building director with Sex Worker Affirming Advocates, a new organization looking to foster diverse leadership in the sex worker community. She said that without a provable steady income and paperwork to back it up, sex workers have a hard time finding housing, getting approved for loans or securing health care.

“I can’t show pay stubs for what I’m doing for my job. How am I supposed to show that I have a reliable job that is giving me the same amount every time?” Lindseth said. “They’ll look at you and be like, ‘That is not a real job.’”

Consensual sex workers often have their profession weaponized against them in legal proceedings like custody battles. And without the security that comes with access to stable housing and the legal banking sector, they are less safe and more susceptible to trafficking and other forms of abuse and violence.

“Stability makes us safer,” Lindseth said.

Public vs. private money

The OHSU study would have considered all of those impacts on sex workers.

Portland State University Professor Stéphanie Wahab has spent 20 years studying sex work policies and was one of two professors who would have led the OHSU study on the impact of criminalization in Oregon. She said researchers were planning to address questions around the benefits of criminalization, who is harmed by it and how criminalization harms trafficking victims.

“There is some research… that people who are engaging in consensual sex work may be more likely … to ask for help or to report dangerous working conditions and people,” Wahab said.

After New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003, research found sex workers were overall safer, their relationship with law enforcement improved, and sex workers were more likely to report dangerous or exploitative managers. A 2015 government report from the Netherlands found the ability to regulate and monitor consensual sex workers and businesses improved public health and safety. Researchers in the Netherlands also found that legalizing prostitution likely made it more difficult for human traffickers to operate, an assessment with which the U.S. State Department agreed.


Some advocates for decriminalization also say the fear of being arrested makes it harder for trafficking victims to come forward or seek help. Wahab said she doesn’t know if that is happening in Oregon because many jurisdictions in the state say they don’t prosecute trafficking victims. It’s a question she said deserves to be answered.

“Wouldn’t that be interesting to talk to and find out from folks who are victims of sex trafficking in Oregon? Like, ‘What are your experiences with the police? Are they helpful? How are they not helpful? How has that shaped your experience?’” Wahab said. “That’s really one of the important reasons for the need to do this research.”

In an explanation for the vetoes posted online, Kotek’s office said she thinks there is value in the studies, “particularly as it relates to understanding disproportionate impacts on communities of color” but that “the Governor believes it can and should be privately funded.”

In an email sent to the groups seeking public money for the study, Rachel Currans-Henry, the governor’s Health and Human Services advisor, said Kotek does not believe “this is the most compelling public health emergency we should be focusing public funding on right now.”

Tina Kotek talks with a woman while in the center of a small crowd

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek recently used her veto power to nix state funding for two studies, totaling $600,000, intended to research the impact of Oregon’s laws prohibiting prostitution. She’s pictured here talking with local leaders in Hermiston, Ore., May 3, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Currans-Henry said Kotek believes a publicly funded study would “put Oregon on a path to consider decriminalization” and that she does not “believe people are ready for this discussion without a legislative engagement process.”

Marcos said when she and other supporters met with Kotek’s staff, they were very supportive and gave them talking points to promote the initiative. Kotek spokesperson Elisabeth Shepard said the meeting took place but that none of Kotek’s staff said she supported publicly funding the research.

Supporters of the research push back on Kotek’s assertion that the research would put the state on a path to decriminalization. They say the research and Oregon-specific data are needed to inform a public conversation and educate Oregonians and policy makers about sex work laws and their far-reaching impact.

Kotek says the state shouldn’t fund research before that conversation happens. But trying to have that conversation without good data could set the movement up to fail, advocates say.

The shadow of Measure 110

Those hoping to ultimately decriminalize sex work say comprehensive, unbiased research will help rally public support and avoid a replay of the state’s rush into drug decriminalization. Voters approved Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalized most drug possession in Oregon, November 2020, and it became law 13 weeks later — an instantaneous systemic shock. The paradigm-shifting law took effect without any research and effectively no time for addiction services providers to prepare.

Supporters say stalled attempts in 2021 to decriminalize sex work through legislation and in 2022 through a ballot initiative failed to gain momentum because of limited grassroots organizing. And, Marcos said, they lacked data to be able to craft a policy tailored to the state’s specific needs. She said she had hoped research would address those shortcomings.

But two years in, drug decriminalization has underwhelmed. The policy shift was supposed to ensure people addicted to drugs were funneled into treatment instead of jail. But the complicated systems needed to execute such a sweeping legal change can take years to stand up. And drugs were decriminalized just as surging fentanyl use deepened the opioid crisis. Virtually no one, Kotek included, thinks Measure 110 is working as intended.

Decriminalization as a concept may have become a political liability.

“I understand [Kotek’s] reticence to do something where the outcome could be so uncertain to her public image,” Stanger said. “However, I really encourage the governor to use this as an opportunity to learn more about why globally, and for decades, hundreds of researchers and harm reduction experts have formally recommended the decriminalization of sex work to reduce HIV transmission, to reduce the likelihood of child involvement or youth trafficking, to reduce the overall transmission of STIs, to increased victims reporting.”

For the sex workers who were pushing for the research, the veto was devastating. But they said they are committed to finding private funding to complete the needed research. It’s an imperfect solution, according to Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, who has advocated for decriminalization for several years and thinks a study like this shouldn’t be paid for by a private citizen who potentially has a personal interest in legalizing sex work.

“I think it would be better to do it with a more academically minded, funded approach,” he said, adding that the government pays for research on all kinds of topics but that this particular issue is not necessarily normal. “People have a lot of feelings and hang-ups about sex, and they have a lot of thoughts about people who do sex work of their own free will.”

Nosse thinks that to get Kotek more involved in the push to decriminalize sex work — or even to research the impacts of Oregon’s laws — advocates will need to make a more public push.

“If we’re gonna build political will to do a study, to do anything, we can’t be low key,” he said. “People have to sort of come out and lobby and have hearings and press the flesh and create the political space to make something happen.”

Testifying in public, in front of the Legislature, is a big ask. Sex workers have, for reasons inherent in sex work’s current legal status, been reluctant to lobby so publicly en masse.

Stanger pointed to the numerous stories of police extorting sexual favors from sex workers in exchange for not arresting them as just one reason why sex workers would be afraid to testify about how criminalization impacts them.

“Why would you want to speak on an interaction that could draw more scrutiny to you, either from the general public or [the police]?” she said.

Local journalist and author Joe Streckert dedicated an entire section of his book “Storied & Scandalous Portland, Oregon” to Lola Baldwin, the early 20th century Portland police officer. He said Baldwin successfully campaigned to have City Council ban fortune telling because the businesses often hired attractive women to lure customers. She successfully lobbied to have women banned from shooting galleries and amusement halls where women would “be subjected to the severest insult and temptation,” according to Baldwin biographer Gloria Meyers. Baldwin went after dance halls, female jazz singers and massage parlors.

When Baldwin resigned in 1922, Streckert said she lamented that women, like men, were smoking, dancing and drinking. A result of too much freedom, she said.

Dance halls, massage parlors and, of course, sex work, outlived Baldwin. But the perception that any woman involved in the sex trade has been pressed into it against her will has proven persistent.

Valentine, a Portland-based sex worker and the other co-president of the Oregon Sex Workers Committee, said the stigma continues to make women less safe.

“We all deserve to make a living, and this work is important for people who have limited schedules or parents who have disabilities, who have mental health struggles,” Valentine said. “We are going to continue doing this project. We are just going to have to find more private funding.”


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