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The Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation Symposium Mini-Series Number 3: Maine: Successful Advocacy Lessons Learned, Panel 2

Posted: December 13, 2023

Welcome back! This is the third installment of a series recapping our annual symposium, which was held on October 13, 2023, at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. During the symposium, “Combatting Commercial Sexual Exploitation through Equality Model Policies and Laws,” panelists discussed why the Equality Model is the most effective legal model to address the harm caused by commercial sexual exploitation and how the Equality Model has been implemented overseas and domestically in the United States.

This week, the CSE Institute invites you to watch the panel, “Maine: Successful Advocacy Lessons Learned.” The panelists included: Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan, PhD, Vice President and Director of Public Policy, National Center on Sexual Exploitation; Tricia Gant, Executive Director, Just Love Worldwide; Lois Galagay Reckitt, Maine State Representative; and Nate Walsh, Assistant District Attorney, Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office. The panel was moderated by Yasmin Vafa, Co-founder & Executive Director, Rights4Girls.

With extensive experience in and knowledge of Maine’s handling of commercial sexual exploitation and with their work experiences in the topic, the panelists discussed how the state of Maine is the first and only state in the United States that has passed Equality Model legislation into law. First, Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan credited Lois Galagay Reckitt for her role in getting the bills passed. Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan said “Lois’s leadership is the largest explanation for why the equality model bill passed in Maine . . .  I know how beloved she is in the state of Maine. So when she and I started talking about her bill in 2020, that would introduce the equality model, I knew that she would be a person who could break through the barriers because she mixes everything up. Everyone loves her… She is the perfect champion to do something utterly innovative.””

All of the panelists discussed how the Equality Model legislation was passed in Maine and how it looks in practice. Nate Walsh discussed how he worked with law enforcement to train them to “focus on John Strings” when implementing the bills in practice. “John Stings” are something which Nate Walsh has pushed for instead of prostitution stings since he accepted his position. He pointed out that he would “go out and tell my department: do not arrest these people because I am not going to prosecute these cases. If you bring me an arrest for engaging in prostitution, I am going to no compliant it before your ink dries on your arrest affidavit. So what do we do instead, we are going to start doing john stings.”

All the panelists spoke about their support for the Equality Model, also known as the Nordic Model, abolitionist model, or partial decriminalization.  The panelists detailed the four basic tenets of the Equality Model: (1) decriminalization of the prostituted person; (2) criminalization of sex buyers and facilitators with a commitment to treating buying sex as a serious crime; (3) a public education campaign about the inherent harms of prostitution; and (4) funded, robust, holistic exit services for victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

The discussion of the Maine Equality Model legislation was focused on two separate bills.  The first is an act to reduce commercial sexual exploitation, which repealed the crime of engaging in prostitution and increased penalties for buyers of sex with minors and certain disabilities. The second is an act to provide remedies to survivors, including sealing prostitution convictions. These two laws serve separate but related purposes. The first aims at the substantive topic of commercial sexual exploitation while the second provides a procedural remedy to those affected by criminalization.

A large part of the discussion focused on the fact that that passing legislation is the first step, but implementing new laws is where the real work begins. The panelists discussed the history of the initial opposition to passing the bills in 2021 led primarily by law enforcement.  Specifically, Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan spoke about the opposition to the Equality Model in Maine and how supporters of the bills “blew through the disinformation campaigns that were quite feeble in Maine.” The opposers concerns about the Equality Model expressed surrounding the mechanisms for getting people from prostitution into exit services. In 2023, the opponents of the bills came from those who support full decriminalization.

Additionally, Tricia Gant discussed her work in the sex buyer accountability program. She discussed that commercial sexual exploitation is “not a victimless crime.” This program is a 10-week diversionary program for sex buyers which encourages them to engage in reflective interviews and discussions of loneliness, trauma, porn, and the harms of commercial sexual exploitation. The panelists discussed how buyers drive the market for commercial sexual exploitation and that educating the buyers of the harms of purchasing sex, while also fighting for legislation criminalizing the buyers, could be an avenue to help the fight against this pervasive issue.

Lastly, the panelists summarized how prostitution is a system of violence and that survivors need to be supported through exit services. Tricia Gant as a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation discussed how exit services can support survivors. The panelists discussed the importance of implementing Equality Model bills in more states and that “survivors need to be at the table,” as said by Tricia Gant. Further, they mentioned that bringing in the survivor perspective is integral to getting this type of legislation on the books in other states.

Thank you again to our incredible panelists! The panel was moderated by Yasmin Vafa, Co-founder & Executive Director, Rights4Girls. The panelists include:

  • Eleanor Kennelly Gaetan, PhD, Vice President & Director of Public Policy, National Center on Sexual Exploitation
  • Tricia Gant, Executive Director, Just Love Worldwide
  • Lois Galagay Reckitt, Maine State Representative
  • Nate Walsh, Assistant District Attorney, Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office

Watch the full panel and experience the impactful and wise statements of these panelists for yourself here.

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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