Proposal to decriminalize sex work won’t appear on Oregon ballots

Supporter says he’ll continue pushing to make it legal to buy or sell sex

By: - May 6, 2022 11:36 am

A Marion County primary ballot enclosed in an envelope. Voters won’t see a ballot question about decriminalizing sex work in November. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregonians won’t get the chance to vote on whether to decriminalize sex work this year after backers of a ballot initiative ended their campaign Thursday.

The proposed initiative would have made it legal to buy and sell sex in Oregon and would have treated sex work like other occupations, subject to employment law and state health and safety standards.

Petitioners were running out of time to gather more than 112,000 signatures from Oregon voters by July 8 to make the ballot, in part because advocates for survivors of human trafficking sued over the language that would have appeared on ballots. Signature-gathering couldn’t start until after the court case was resolved, which could take weeks. 

Aaron Boonshoft, a Portland resident who sponsored the ballot initiative, said in a statement to the Capital Chronicle that he’ll continue pushing to decriminalize sex work. That could take the form of another ballot measure in 2024, or legislative action. Before Boonshoft filed his initiative last year, state Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, introduced a bill to decriminalize sex work, but it didn’t make it out of a legislative committee. 

“We are committed to sex worker-led decriminalization efforts,” Boonshoft said. “All Oregonians should have access to health, safety and justice. And I believe sex worker rights are at the forefront of what’s needed to create a more just, kind and compassionate world.”

Boonshoft is the son of an Ohio commodities trader and describes himself as not employed in recent campaign finance filings. He gave a combined $275,000 to progressive district attorney candidates in Washington and Marion counties in April. The initiative campaign previously described him as a “client of legal, consensual sex work.” 

The initiative petition Boonshoft withdrew Thursday was actually the second attempt, after initially filing last November. After Secretary of State Shemia Fagan rejected proposed initiatives on campaign finance reform for not including the full text of the state laws that would affect, Boonshoft withdrew the first petition in January. He filed again with 1,000 signatures from Oregon voters – the first step in getting an initiative on the ballot.

Supporters also faced a legal challenge from a group of Oregonians concerned about human trafficking, who said in a complaint before the Oregon Supreme Court that draft ballot language approved by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum would mislead Oregon voters by not emphasizing how the measure would protect pimps and people buying sex.

In their court filing, Kiera Usagawa, Lauren Trantham, Joyclyn Bell, Justin Euteneier, Carla Penn-Hopson and Adrienne Livingston wrote that they agreed that sex workers should not be subject to criminal charges. 

“Petitioners are involving themselves in this process out of a concern that IP 51 will further marginalize sex workers by providing special legal rights for sex purchasers, pimps, and brothels,” their court filing said. 

The sex work initiative is the latest high-profile proposed measure that won’t make it before voters this year. Fagan and the Oregon Supreme Court blocked attempts to limit campaign contributions for technical reasons, and earlier this week supporters of an independent redistricting commission said they were giving up and would try again in 2024

Initiatives that would allow grocery stores to sell hard liquor, punish legislators who walk out of sessions and create more stringent gun control laws are gathering signatures. Voters will know by August which measures will make their November ballots. 

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.