For example, massage parlors that offer illicit services are easy to find, committee members were told. One website lists more than a dozen so-called erotic massage parlors around Vermont.
A Bennington County prosecutor said she was unable to charge anyone in connection with two massage parlors that offered a sex service because Vermont doesn't outlaw it.
Other states, including New York and New Hampshire, outlaw it, Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She said other factors hamper prosecution as well. There is often a language barrier for foreign-born massage parlor workers. "People who run the spas, it's difficult to keep track of them," in part because they move frequently, she added.
Another challenge, committee members agreed, is that Vermont's sex-crimes laws haven't been updated since 1919.
Sen. Jeanette White, a Windham Democrat, read from an old statute and asked, "What on earth does 'the offering or receiving of the body for indiscriminate sexual intercourse without hire' mean? I mean, it seems probably three-quarters of Vermont could be charged with prostitution."
Legislators heard from one advocate who said the people performing sexual services often are exploited and coerced into doing so.
Courtney Gabaree, a youth services worker with H.O.P.E Works, a group devoted to helping people caught up in such exploitation, said instances akin to prostitution range in Vermont from the frequently foreign-born massage parlor workers to young runaways who trade sex for lodging and food.
"I've never heard of an instance of prostitution without some element of force fraud or coercion," Gabaree said. And committee members agreed that any new law should target not the prostitutes themselves, but their customers and the proprietors of the places where they work or the pimps who arrange their meetings with customers.
When Gabaree mentioned trading sex for lodging and food, White said she worried that trying to crack down on that might cast too broad a net.
"There are situations where that could be called marriage," White said, in which someone "enters into a marriage for protection or because they have no place else to go. ... It gets really murky if you're talking about adults."
Committee chairman Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, asked that advocates and law enforcement officials meet and draft specific suggestions for legislation and return to the committee in two weeks with them.