Sex workers demanding prostitution be decriminalized at downtown Phoenix rally

Sex workers and advocates gathered outside Footprint Center on Monday, saying the increased attention about human trafficking isn't needed.
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 10:12 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- More than a million people are expected to participate in the Super Bowl, WM Phoenix Open and its events. With those huge events in the Valley, police departments have been warning about a possible spike in human trafficking. However, those that take part in sex work or have in the past have another perspective.

More than a dozen people gathered outside Footprint Arena for a protest Monday evening. They said the increased attention on the issue of human trafficking or sex trafficking just isn’t needed and that it’s doing more harm than good. “I started as a teenager in high school,” Juliana Piccillo said.

Piccillo said she had a rough childhood and needed a way out. Sex work provided that. “I felt very safe there, I felt very protected and I made the money I needed to get out and go to college,” she explained. Years later, she came back to it. “I was getting out of an abusive marriage and I had two young children and one of them was disabled,” Piccillo said.

She said she was an adjunct professor at ASU, but that job didn’t pay the bills. She was a high school teacher, but she still struggled. “Sex work saved my life. It saved my life as a teenager getting out of a rough home and it saved my life as an adult getting out of an abusive marriage,” she said.

It’s why she became an advocate for sex workers. Others at the rally outside Footprint Arena told similar stories. “That’s how I paid for college; that’s how I graduated from college,” said Monica Jones, a former sex worker turned advocate. “When I got into sex work, I felt empowered; I had power over my body,” said Amber Nickerson, a sex worker and advocate.

They argue human trafficking is not as pervasive a problem as authorities here make it out. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2021, there were 217 cases and 337 victims. In 2022, there were 193 cases and 371 victims. The vast majority were sex trafficking.

Advocates point out that the workers, the supposed victims, are often charged. Nickerson said she spent five and a half years behind bars. It was devastating to her and her two children. “We lost our home… I lost health insurance, I lost all of our material belongings,” she explained.

That’s why these protesters are calling for sex work to be decriminalized. “Sex workers biggest fear is law enforcement, it’s not bad clients, but when you’re hiding from the police you often have to take shortcuts,” Piccillo said.

Others argue no one would willingly do this kind of work. Arizona’s Family reached out to Phoenix police for their side of things and was told no one was available for an interview. Prostitution is considered a class one misdemeanor and carries with it a minimum of 15 days behind bars.