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Proposal would provide protections to sex workers reporting sexual assault

By: - April 21, 2021 11:10 am
State House dome

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, according to Pamela Kylie, a public policy specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated on April 21 at 5:12 p.m. to correct the spelling of Pamela Keilig’s name.

A proposal before the Senate Judiciary Committee aims to provide protections to sex workers who report a sexual assault. Opponents of the measure said it would grant sex workers immunity from all crimes, a claim the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight, refuted.

House Bill 123-FN would protect a sex worker who comes forward about sexual assault from then being prosecuted for prostitution.

Rep. Klein-Knight, a Manchester Democrat, said some sex workers are held against their will, trafficked, and “held hostage by abusers that would basically say, ‘You can’t get out of this situation because you are doing something illegal.’”

Klein-Knight said that these women “are trapped in a certain lifestyle.” The bill, which was originally introduced last session, has bipartisan support, Klein-Knight said.

But Katherine Cooper, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, opposes the proposal, which she said would “invite false accusations.”

The New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers represents both sex workers who are charged with crimes as well as people who are paying for sex, Cooper said.

“It’s just not accurate or fair to simply categorize all prostitutes as victims and all purchasers as evil men,” she said. Cooper argued that legalizing and regulating sex work would be a more effective way of reducing abuse, the spread of disease, and trauma.

“Any time a prostitute is arrested, he or she will be able to avoid conviction by claiming, either truly or falsely, that he or she was sexually assaulted,” said Cooper. “It creates an incentive to lie and say you were assaulted because you get off being prosecuted.”

But Klein-Knight said that was a misconception of the bill. “Someone has to come forward to make a claim” of sexual assault, she said. They would not be able to bring up allegations of sexual assault after the fact to lift other charges that had previously been brought against them.

Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, according to Pamela Keilig, a public policy specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. And this policy change would align New Hampshire with a federal statute – the Violence Against Women Act – granting rights and protections for gender-based violence, said Keilig.

She testified in support of the bill, which she said would “help address some of the barriers that victims might face when deciding to come forward.”

When people do come forward, it’s often with the aid of a social worker or community leader, Crystal DeBoise told members of Senate Judiciary. DeBoise said that in 20 years of work as a social worker and advocate for survivors of sexual assault, she had never seen a sex worker make fraudulent claims about victimhood as a defense.

“It simply doesn’t happen,” she said. “With community support, someone comes forward with much trepidation into a terrifying place, which is a police department, to bravely tell her story and to get a predator off the streets.”

“I think we should really assist people when they are attempting to help all of us to get the worst predators off the streets,” said DeBoise.

Senate Judiciary will discuss the language in the bill and possibly vote on it next week.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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