To escape a domestic violence situation more than 20 years ago, Newark resident Janet Duran needed to find work that would pay well enough to support herself and her child, and not interfere with attaining a college degree.

Alexey Klementiev, ThinkStock
Alexey Klementiev, ThinkStock

"The easiest way out," she says, was entering the world of sex work. Since then, on and off, she's "dabbled in a bit of everything" sex trade-related, except webcam services, to make ends meet. And it's still helping to pay the bills.

"I just go out. If someone's interested, they'll come speak to me," she said. "I just kind of bounce around from city to city."

Today, Duran — who would not share her real name, only the name she uses for her activism work — is a mother of three, but does not have custody because she was outed as a sex worker by the children's father.

She's also the co-founder and North Jersey regional director of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, which has been defending and advocating for the rights of sex workers in the Garden State since 2013.

A red umbrella is the international symbol for sex workers. Duran said sex workers include "anyone in the sex trade who is not coerced." It could also include exotic dancers, pornography actors and the cashier behind the counter at your local adult shop.

The alliance has essentially been operating under the radar for the past few years, having mostly a presence online. But Duran hopes to see an amplified presence from the group in the months and years ahead.

"Being criminalized, sex workers do not come out so easily for events ... They don’t come out publicly because then they become targets by law enforcement," Duran said.

According to the latest crime statistics from the State Police, more than 800 arrests in 2015 were related to prostitution. The year prior saw 976 arrests.

"These are things that shouldn't be happening," Duran said. "They shouldn't be targeting the most marginalized people that are on the street."

According to Duran, if someone is choosing to exchange sexual services for any means they may need met, there are bigger problems the government should address — such as poverty. She says arrests accomplish nothing.

"The hypocrisy that's there is, 'Okay, we're going to arrest you for this. It's illegal, and we know you're living in poverty and you have no other means, but we're still going to take the money ... for payment and fines,'" she said. "What you do in your bedroom without money being involved is private business. So with the money factor coming in, it shouldn't bring the government into your bedroom."

Duran noted there's a significant distinction between sex work, which many people depend on for income, and sex trafficking. In fact, decriminalization could make it easier to reveal bad actors in the trade, she said.

A number of national and international organizations are in favor of the decriminalization of prostitution, Duran noted. She said as long as sex work is seen as a demeaning job — by both the public and law enforcement — they'll continue to be disrespected by both.

According to Duran, "a lot of the abuse" faced by sex workers comes from law enforcement who don't treat them as human beings, but reporting the abuse could make the problem worse.

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