Wyoming Senate Will Hear Bill To Outlaw 'Sexual Contact' As Prostitution

Only the Wyoming Senate’s two Democrats voted against a bill that would add "sexual contact" to the definition of prostitution, with one saying laws to protect prostitutes from exploitation would be better. 

Clair McFarland

February 13, 20244 min read

The 2024 Wyoming Senate meets on Feb. 13, 2024.
The 2024 Wyoming Senate meets on Feb. 13, 2024. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

A bill that would criminalize hand sex as prostitution passed its introductory vote Tuesday in the Wyoming Senate.

Senate File 76 would add “sexual contact" to the definition of illegal prostitution in Wyoming. Currently, illegal prostitution includes only acts of “sexual intrusion.”

The bill needed a two-thirds approval on its introductory vote to enter the Senate during this year’s budget session. It exceeded that threshold, with 29 senators in favor and two against it.

The Senate’s only two Democrats cast both no votes.

“We should focus our efforts on preventing sex trafficking rather than finding new ways to prosecute prostitutes,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, told Cowboy State Daily in a Tuesday text message. “We don’t need more fines and jail time for prostitutes; we need laws that protect them from violence, abuse, exploitation.”

Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, did not immediately respond to a Cowboy State Daily message requesting comment.

Neither of the two Democratic senators is on the committee tasked with vetting the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee, a factor that could improve its chances of advancing.  

Six Months Jail

Both the acts of committing prostitution and soliciting it are punishable by up to six months in jail and $750 in fines.

SF 76 would not change that, though it would broaden the law’s scope to punish, for example, people who perform sex acts with their hands in exchange for goods.

In urging her fellow lawmakers to approve the bill, Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said its aim is to prevent sex trafficking. The state’s human trafficking taskforce and other concerned groups asked her to carry the legislation, she said.

“(Sexual contact) acts generally are an entryway for victims to enter full-blown prostitution and become victims of human trafficking,” said Ellis. “This has been a problem in a number of our communities in Wyoming.”

Local and federal authorities searched a Rock Springs massage parlor in November, 2023, searching for evidence of sex trafficking. As of Tuesday, law enforcement had not given a final report on that case to the Sweetwater County Attorney's Office.

Doesn’t Change Trafficking Law

Ellis’ bill could discourage gateway prostitution as she described – which could in turn curb sex trafficking – but it does not broaden a prosecutor’s ability to charge a pimp with sex trafficking.

That’s because sex trafficking falls in a different section of Wyoming law and uses a broader definition: It outlaws the marketing of “commercial sex acts” rather than “prostitution.”

Commercial sex acts include any sexual act for which anything of value is given in exchange – a definition that appears to encompass acts of hand sex already.

Anyone caught coercing, forcing or tricking a victim into performing a commercial sex act could face between five and 50 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

If the victim is a child, the bar is even lower, implicating people who “recklessly offer” opportunities for minors to perform commercial sex acts.

Rothfuss said the sex-trafficking laws were “very well drafted” with the help of former House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.

“That’s where we need to focus our resources,” he added.

Failed Last Year

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, proposed a House version of this same bill in last year's legislative session, but the state House did not consider it and the bill died.

Stith is a co-sponsor on SF 76, along with Republican Sens. Bo Biteman (of Ranchester), Evie Brennan (Cheyenne), Bill Landen (Casper), Wendy Schuler (Evanston) and Cheri Steinmetz (Lingle); and Republican Reps. Scott Heiner (Green River), JT Larson (Rock Springs), Martha Lawley (Worland), Tony Niemiec (Green River) and Art Washut (Casper).

So four of the bill's 12 sponsors are from Sweetwater County, which is the county in which police raided the massage parlor.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter