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‘Sex work is work’: Advocates push to decriminalize prostitution

Opponents of legislative blueprint say it would increase trafficking


Insisting that their labor is no less legitimate or indispensable than that of other professions, a coalition of sex workers has joined with lawmakers to push for legislation that would decriminalize paid consensual sex among adults.  

The bill, by Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, would stop treating sex work between consenting adults as criminal activity and permit people to offer and solicit sex in exchange for money. The legislation, known as the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, would also strike from the record previous convictions of crimes repealed by the legislation. Sex work involving minors, intimidation, coercion and trafficking would remain against the law. 

“The government should not be dictating what New Yorkers do with their bodies consensually,” Queens State Senator Jessica González-Rojas said during a rally at the statehouse last week attended by dozens of sex workers, advocates and lawmakers. 

González-Rojas, who represents neighborhoods with a high population of sex workers, said the bill would make the sex-work trade safer in large part because it would reduce the adversarial relationship between sex workers and cops, thereby making it more likely that sex workers would report trafficking. “Criminalization of any kind is violence,” she said. “We can address human trafficking and decriminalize our streets as well.”

Depending on a person’s role in sex work, criminal offenses can range from a Class B misdemeanor for offers and solicitation, which carries a maximum of 90 days in jail, to a Class A misdemeanor for promoting prostitution, or pimping, which carries a penalty of up to a year in jail. Managing or controlling a prostitution business with more than one person doing sex work is a Class C felony and conviction could bring seven years.The offenses and punishments are categorically more serious when minors are involved. 

The city’s district attorneys have by and large stopped prosecuting prostitution offenses. The Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx DA’s offices instead steer people into programming. All continue to go after traffickers. 

'A form of survival'

Nonetheless, sex workers and their advocates, including progressive lawmakers, say the police often go after sex workers, sometimes with tragic consequences. And cops have on several occasions been implicated in the sex trade themselves, complicating police’s role in the enforcement of sex-work offenses. 

Salazar’s legislation, first introduced four years ago but yet to make it to full floor votes in either the Assembly or the Senate, is backed by numerous advocate organizations, including Make the Road New York and The New Pride Agenda as well as by the New York Civil Liberties Union. 

The World Health Organization, in 2012, and Amnesty International, in 2016, have also called for the decriminalization of sex work. 

“Where sex workers face the threat of criminalization, penalization or loss of livelihood when or if they report crimes against themselves to police, their access to justice and equal protection under the law is significantly compromised. This, in turn, offers impunity to perpetrators of violence and abuse against sex workers,” Amnesty concluded in its report on sex workers’ rights.

Many of the legislation’s proponents argue that sex work is a viable profession. Others say that the trade is driven by necessity. All agree that criminalizing it is farcical. 

“Make no mistake, sex work will never cease to exist. It is a form of survival for so many of us, including black and brown trans women. … Poverty drives demand,” said Elisa Crespo, the executive director of The New Pride Agenda and a former sex worker. And since the trade is here to stay, she added, “we must do what we can to ensure everyone’s safety and bodily autonomy.”

SX Noir, spokesperson with the sex-industry coalition Decrim NY, said passing Salazar’s bill is critical for reducing harm in the trade. 

“Comprehensive decriminalization enables sex workers to screen clients … and work collaboratively without the fear of criminalization,” she said at the rally, which was punctuated periodically by shouts of “Sex work is work!” by dozens of backers assembled on the capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase. 

“It is important to remember that people participate in the sex trade mostly because of economic circumstances,” SX Noir said, and as such the legislation would allow sex workers to get medical and legal help when they need it "without fear of economic consequences or legal repercussions.”

But the legislation has been denounced as dangerously misguided by the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, Gloria Steinem and others. Calling the legislation the "Pimp Protection Act,” they argue that decriminalization will legitimize the more sordid aspects of prostitution and return some parts of the city to its notoriously sleazy past. 

Competing legislation, introduced by Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, would decriminalize prostitution but, “to discourage exploitation,” increase penalties for pimps, traffickers and, most notably, sex buyers.

It would impose fines based on income and number of offenses, with half of monies collected funding grants to victims of sexual exploitation and the other half funding victims’ programming, prevention measures and training of first responders. 

Krueger’s bill encompasses key aspects what’s called the Nordic or equality model, which its proponents say protects people engaged in sex work but penalizes those who exploit them. 

According to advocates and organizations championing the equality model, full decriminalization increases prostitution, the likelihood of trafficking and a host of parallel problems, such as violence against sex workers. 

Alternately, countries that have instituted the model, notably Norway, France, Canada, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Sweden and Israel, have seen a decrease in prostitution, trafficking and violence associated with sex work, the model’s proponents contend. According to a summary of the bill, Krueger’s legislation would “provide a nuanced and holistic approach to address the sex trade, prostitution in particular” and “discourage exploitation.” 

But Crespo, the New Pride Agenda director, discounted those arguments, saying that there was “no credible data” suggesting that decriminalizing sex work leads to increased trafficking. “There is nothing equal about it,” she added about the Nordic model. 

“Comprehensive decriminalization,” she said, would reduce both coercion and violence. 

“You will not put us on an unequal footing when it comes to negotiating our boundaries with our clients,” Crespo said. “And we will not allow a prohibitionist model that leads to criminalization of sex workers that live and work together for their own safety.” 

Both bills are in committee. 



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