To Fund Lobbying Effort, Sex Worker Advocates Turns To Internet

Every legislative session, different interest groups will hire lobbyists to influence legislation that affects them. But what happens if you’re already on the wrong side of the law? APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that a sex worker group is raising money to send one of their own to Juneau.

Smart watches, movies, even potato salad — all these things have found success with crowdfunding. Now Terra Burns wants to see if Internet users will pay for her to travel to Juneau and advocate on behalf of sex workers.

“It’s really been really hard for people in Alaska’s sex industry to have any voice at all because of stigma and criminalization,” says Burns.

Burns is 33 years old. She’s a graduate student who studies the sex industry, and she’s worked in it in the past. She’s also affiliated with a sex worker group called Community United for Safety and Protection, which opposes human trafficking laws that were put on the books in 2012.

The laws upped the penalties for coercing people into the sex industry, and they changed the statutes so victims would not be referred to as prostitutes. But Burns thinks they have not worked as promised — of the sex trafficking cases that have been opened since the the laws were put on the books, she says half were prostitutes themselves.

“Most of the people that they have been charging have been women who have been working together in the industry,” says Burns.

Burns thinks the law should be amended so those who work in the sex industry of their own volition are not treated as traffickers and are not entrapped by police officers.

Burns launched a “Tilt” crowdfunding campaign three weeks ago. It’s like Kickstarter, but for causes. The goal is to raise $1,500 to pay for Burns to live out of a camper in Juneau for a month. So far, the crowdfunding campaign is only at the halfway mark, with just $800 raised.

Burns says there weren’t too many other funding options. She notes sex workers can’t act like a union, where they collect dues to pay for lobbying on issues that affect them.

“I would love to be able to have that discussion, but it would be considered under the law sex trafficking in Alaska,” says Burns.

And she’s volunteering, because the group can’t afford a professional lobbyist.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” says Burns.

The Alaska Public Offices Commission does not have much experience with advocates supported by crowdfunding, but they think Burns will have to register with them as a representational lobbyist, since only her expenses are being covered.

Even if the campaign stalls and those expenses are not fully covered, Burns has decided to come to the capital. So far, only one bill dealing with sex trafficking has been introduced, and it would allow victims of sex trafficking to use that as a defense if they are charged with prostitution crimes. Burns is opposing it because she thinks it splits members of the sex industry into victims and traffickers while leaving voluntary participants in a difficult position.

But bill sponsor Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat and the Senate’s Minority Leader, does not see the conflict.

“My bill does not affect sex workers — it affects victims of sex trafficking,” says Gardner. “It doesn’t touch sex workers who are voluntary sex workers in any way, shape, or form.”

Gardner introduced the bill last year, and it passed the Senate unanimously before stalling in the House. Because the bill has not been controversial, Gardner is not sure that Burns’ lobbying effort will be productive.

“She’s well intentioned, and might very well be right about some of the things she’s saying,” says Gardner. “But we deal with the reality here of what it takes to pass legislation, and you can have a great big earth-shaking, proposal, or you can bite off one little piece that won’t draw opposition from any quarter, and try to get that through.”

Gardner says she does sympathize with the difficulty that people affected by sex trafficking legislation have in being heard by the Legislature.

“We got calls from people, but by and large they were too frightened to speak on the record,” says Gardner.

Burns plans to testify on the bill, should it get a hearing.