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Sex worker advocate in Juneau lobbying for change to Alaska law

By Emily Carlson 1:36 AM February 4, 2015
ANCHORAGE –

Lawmakers see all kinds of lobbyists during the legislative session in Juneau. But one sex worker advocate who showed up this week is causing quite a stir in the halls of the Capitol.

Terra Burns is in Juneau to fight for the rights of prostitutes. Before she made the trip she was in Fairbanks, where she’s spent the past year studying the trade of sex for money. She is also a grad student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her thesis revolves around the lives of 40 prostitutes in Alaska.

“I absolutely think people have the wrong image of sex workers,” Burns said. “There are so many people who engage in sex work and a lot of them are older woman, single mothers, and they are very educated.”

Under Alaska law, prostitutes can be charged with sex trafficking. Burns says that stops sex workers from calling police when they’ve been abused.

“People have had a lot of bad experiences with them and generally don’t want to report to them,” said Burns, who has experience in the industry. “That’s who you’re supposed to call on for protection is the people who hunt you down and arrest you.”

Armed with her report and donations from an online crowdfunding campaign, she’s headed to Juneau to school lawmakers on what it’s really like to work the streets. She says Alaska’s laws are targeting the wrong bad guys.

“They really target things that people in the sex industry do to increase their own safety,” Burns said. “Things like working indoors or working together or even buying condoms for each other.”

She adds that Alaska’s well-intended legislation has unintended consequences.

“I think it shows they are more likely to victimize workers themselves than they are to protect the workers,” she said. 

Burns hopes lawmakers will not judge and that they will listen to her. She is perhaps the first advocate for sex workers to lobby lawmakers in the state Legislature’s 102-year history.

Burns is currently living in her camper in Juneau, where she plans to stay all session. Rght now, there has only been one sex-trafficking bill introduced, Senate Bill 21, which would allow Alaskans charged with prostitution crimes the defense of being the victim of sex trafficking. But the sponsor of that bill, Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner, says the bill would not protect voluntary sex workers.

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