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Harm Reduction Hawai'i: Change State Laws for Sex Workers

Harm Reduction Hawai'i


Community advocates and sex workers in Hawai’i are mobilizing to be heard at the State Legislature next session.


Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Tracy Ryan, executive director, Harm Reduction Hawai'i

Harm Reduction Hawai’i is attempting to change state statutes and rules that currently subject sex workers to moral judgement and criminalization.  Tracy Ryan, the organization’s executive director, says fearful sex workers who won’t testify and federal misinformation are crippling progress.


“If we’re gonna deal with either sex work or sex trafficking we have to start with actual facts.  And, as long as hysteria and fear rule the roost, we can’t do that.  We can’t do an actual fact-based analysis, we can’t look at cost benefits of various programs.  We can’t employ logic to problem solving.  Instead, it’s all about getting people fearful and angry and passing bad laws.  Which is where we’ve been for most of the last 15 years.”


Ryan says New Zealand has removed laws that penalize the acts of consenting adults and provides workers the 

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Terra Burns, sex worker rights advocate

greatest freedom of how and where they want to work.  Terra Burns, from Alaska, left sex work, began writing books and earned a master’s degree in social justice.  She lobbied her state legislature to change sex trafficking laws.


“We have now in Alaska an immunity law that allows you, if you are the victim or the witness of a crime like sex trafficking or child pornography or assault, you can now report that to the police and you cannot be charged with prostitution or arrested with prostitution when you’re making a good-faith report that you were a victim or witness of a heinous crime.”


Burns says the next step is to clear sex worker criminal records to enable them to secure employment and housing, and, ultimately, to decriminalize all aspects of consenting adult sex work.


“The prostitution laws violate our Constitutional rights to privacy, our due process right to work and enter into contracts and earn a living; our rights to gather and communicate with each other for our own safety and to negotiate for safe work places.”


Executive director Ryan, a transgender woman, supports clearing sex worker criminal records because the only way to currently avoid prosecution is to claim to be a victim of sex trafficking.  She is also organizing an outreach project and intends to have a number of legislative initiatives introduced next session for greater protections and freedoms.  


“We really feel that sex workers should be the ones speaking for themselves rather than talking to advocates and having the advocates like me speak for them.  So, if sex workers actually show up at the legislature, they can’t really be ignored.  And we’ve found in the few hearings I’ve been to where sex workers showed up that the entire tone of what the people on the other side of that desk were really thinking and ready to do, changed.”


There will be a Harm Reduction Conference on January 11 to discuss a broad range of issues, of which sex work is one part.   Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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