New York Democrats announce plans to decriminalize sex work

With Democrats in full control of state government, groundbreaking bill to decriminalize sex work might pass

Published February 25, 2019 1:30PM (EST)

 (Shira Tarlo)
(Shira Tarlo)

Inspired by a recent wave of progressive candidates in New York who have vocally advocated for the decriminalization of sex work,  advocates launched a major push on Monday for a state decriminalization bill — a movement they hope to vault to the forefront of national politics, along the lines of the #AbolishICE movement that is currently unfolding.

Transgender rights activist and former sex worker Cecilia Gentili told Salon that sex workers and more than 20 organizations have launched Decrim NY, an 18-plus member coalition, to "advocate and organize to shape New York state and city policy to improve the lives of people who trade sex by choice, circumstances or coercion."

Decrim NY has three goals: to decriminalize sex trade-related offenses in New York and pass legislation that protects people in the sex trade; to end the incarceration of sex workers and vacate criminal records related to prostitution; and to "destigmatize the sex trades," according to a press release. The coalition also "supports evidence-based, harm reduction-rooted programs that empower people's safety."

State Sens. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn and Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, along with Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, announced their intention to introduce a comprehensive sex work decriminalization legislation on Monday. The bill has already received support from State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, and assembly members Dan Quart, D-Manhattan and Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan.

"When we criminalize people for the work that they do, it is not empowering and it doesn't solve problems," Salazar said at Monday's event. "It doesn't solve some of the challenges that sex workers face and that others who have been involved in the trade of sex have also faced . . . We need to work toward full decriminalization." She noted that her constituents in Brooklyn were disproportionately charged with "loitering for the purposes of prostitution," and that women, trans people, people of color and undocumented people are most impacted by New York's anti-prostitution policing.

The launch of Decrim NY and the intention to introduce legislation that will fully decriminalize sex work comes roughly six months after Salazar, a 27-year-old democratic socialist whose political campaign attracted national media attention, defeated four-term incumbent Martin Dilan in a primary to represent New York's 18th senatorial district during the 2018 midterm election cycle. Salazar became the first-ever politician to include the decriminalization of sex work in her campaign platform and then win election to major office — and sex workers and their advocates are still riding the wave of enthusiasm.

"Julia's win feels revolutionary because not only did she the support the decriminalization of sex work, but she vocally advocated for it," Nina Luo, a steering committee member of Decrim NY, told Salon. Luo helped Salazar craft her sex work platform. "She was tweeting about it. She was speaking about it. She had several campaign events around it."

Salazar's platform outlined steps toward decriminalization that would include an end to prostitution arrests at massage parlors (which increase the risk of immigration enforcement actions), working with prosecutors to cut back on processing prostitution-related arrests that predominantly affect women of color and the LGBTQ community; and repealing an exemption to New York's rape shield law, which says that prior convictions for prostitution are relevant to the credibility of a rape complaint. The exemption, sex workers say, furthers the misconception that they cannot be victims of sexual assault or violence and ignores the fact that they are actually at greater risk for abuse than the general population.

"If you are in sex work and something bad happens, you're usually less likely to report it to the police because of the criminality of what you do," sex worker Ginger Banks told Salon.

The latest push for the decriminalization of sex work comes about one year after President Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA, two laws designed to curb sex trafficking. Both bills — the House version known as FOSTA, which stands for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and its Senate companion, the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA) — were met with bipartisan support in Congress. Last February, the House passed FOSTA by a final vote of 388-25, while the Senate followed by passing SESTA by an overwhelming 97-2 margin.

FOSTA-SESTA creates an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that makes it a federal crime — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — to operate "an interactive computer service" with "the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person." That means online publishers would be responsible if third parties are found to be posting ads for sex work — including consensual sex work — on their platforms.

In spite of bipartisan support, the anti-trafficking legislation has received strong pushback from sex workers -- whom advocates of the bills purport to be protecting -- for its destabilizing and demoralizing effect. They say the bills are dangerous because they do not differentiate between illegal and consensual sex work.

"When you look at who sex workers are really the most afraid of being harmed by, it's usually not their clients. They're usually worried about having negative interactions with the police," Liara Roux, a gender-queer sex worker and political organizer, told Salon.

"Decriminalization is a really important first step towards giving sex workers more of a sense of safety and helping to educate the public about what sex work really is for people,” Roux continued. "So many sex workers are afraid to talk about the discrimination they face because as soon as you’re out and show your face, that stigma is going to start affecting you."

While Salazar is the first election-winning politician to advocate for the decriminalization of sex work in her campaign, several other progressive candidates and elected officials have come out in support of sex workers and their right to have rights. Suraj Patel, a former Barack Obama campaign surrogate and business ethics professor at New York University, made repealing FOSTA-SESTA a key campaign issue in his race against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, one of FOSTA's co-sponsors, for her 12th district seat in New York during the 2018 midterm election cycle. Patel did not win, but came away with 41 percent of the vote — an impressive measure of support for a first-time candidate against a well-known incumbent.

Sex workers and their advocates said they reached out to progressive lawmakers and candidates like Salazar and Patel, because their views on other issues suggested they would consider using their platform to advocate for sex workers as well.

"New York City and New York state have always been a beacon of change and supporting progressive changes. We hope to be able to work with other states and other organizers to see if this [movement] can be replicated," said Gentili, the transgender rights activist and former sex worker who is organizing the decriminalization coalition.

Sean McElwee, the liberal political activist and think-tank founder (and former Salon columnist) who popularized the once obscure Twitter hashtag #AbolishICE into a rallying cry against the Trump administration's immigration policies, believes sex workers and their advocates could thrust the decriminalization movement into the mainstream political discourse with Salazar in the New York State Senate.

Democrats seized control of every branch of New York's state government for the first time in a decade in the 2018 midterm elections, a victory that could prompt major economic and political changes in the Empire State. While New York Democrats currently appear more progressive than the Democratic Party as a whole, McElwee said the decriminalization movement could come to Capitol Hill, where the freshman class of 2019 is younger, bluer, more racially diverse and far more female than any previous Congress in U.S. history.

"This is a time where the Democratic Party is out of the presidency, and it's time to think of new ideas, new policies and new constituents that will make up the next generation of the Democratic Party," McElwee told Salon. "There's been a lot of concrete organizing by sex workers. It's been very strategic organizing, it's been smart organizing and it's been aimed at a generation of Democrats for whom social media is a key way to say they understand and interpret politics.

"A lot of sex workers are active on social media and have used those platforms to raise awareness among rank and file Democrats, as well as what you might call elite Democrats or opinion makers or activists. Those activists have begun to see the organizing sex workers are doing as part of the broader tent of the Democratic Party," he continued.

Just before the publication of this story, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, announced that she would support the decriminalization of sex work, even though she voted in favor of SESTA last year. Harris is the first 2020 hopeful to call for the decriminalization of sex work. She did not respond to Salon's request for comment.

"When you're talking about consenting adults, I think that yes: we should really consider that we can't criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed," Harris told the Root in an interview. "But at the point that anyone is being harmed or exploited then I think we have to understand that's a different matter."

While sex workers and their advocates believe that progressive candidates and lawmakers have put the political spotlight on decriminalization, Luo said their support is a result of progressive voters becoming "more open to the idea of sex work as work, and thinking about decriminalization and tying it to other issues."

"From the outside, it seems like Julia [Salazar] pushed her constituency to think about sex work and decriminalization, but people were actually already ready to talk about it," Luo continued. "It's almost a moot point in a lot of criminal justice reform circles: Why criminalize people for working and surviving? How does incarceration address any of the problems people face when they engage in sex work?"

Emily Iris, a community organizer and advocate who helped arrange a private pizza party where Salazar met with more than 120 local sex workers and their allies, told Salon that Salazar understands that advocating for the rights of sex workers is intimately connected to other progressive ideas, like calling for racial equality, immigrants' rights and reforming the criminal justice system. She thinks that other progressive candidates could take up a pro-sex-worker stance once they make that connection.

"If you look back to recent movements that were previously perceived as radical to the general public, such as gay marriage, legalizing recreational marijuana or even more recently the call to abolish ICE, you can catalogue a supportive shift in popular opinion over an impressively short timeline. The rally to decriminalize sex work intersects with the above issues in regards to ending mass incarceration, LGBTQ issues, racial equality, immigration reform, privacy and bodily autonomy," Iris said. "Julia confidently spoke through a macro-lens that connected these progressive battles to the decriminalization of sex work. I believe that more politicians will follow suit once they too connect the dots."

But while Iris said Salazar's state senate win makes her feel hopeful that more candidates and elected officials could advocate for decriminalization in the future, she said it remains a taboo topic — even on the left.

"The various realities of sex work remain largely misunderstood, underrepresented and often forced into an unhelpful binary. The more the left continues to engage with community organizers, sex workers themselves and allies, the more they will learn,” Iris explained. "Sex work activism is nuanced, extremely relevant to progress battles and contains a rich history to learn from. We just need people to open their ears and listen."

Pushback to FOSTA and SESTA has propelled many sex workers and allies to mobilize and speak out publicly about how the legislation is affecting their community. Earlier this year, sex workers from coast to coast converged on Capitol Hill to participate in the first National Sex Worker Lobby Day. Activities such as meeting with congressional representatives, hosting workshops on legal aid and gender justice, and community outreach initiatives were planned in cities across the country including Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

"I have never felt this kind of energy," Gentili said. "There was always a group of people that had a history with sex work or were allies, creating the narrative and doing the work. Now, people who are actually engaged in sex work are finding their voice and saying, 'We are here, and you know we have arrived.' It's very refreshing to see it. I thought I'd never see something like this."

Mateo Guerrero, a leadership coordinator at Make the Road New York, an organization working with Decrim NY that has advocated for sex workers in the queer community, told Salon that FOSTA and SESTA have especially endangered transgender people who trade sex, because it has forced a population that already lives in fear of police violence and criminalization to find work on the street, effectively putting them at a higher risk of abuse and arrest.

"For a transgender woman to carry two condoms, that was once considered proof or evidence of sex work,” Guerrero said. "If a cisgender man carries two condoms, he will be congratulated by the police."

Luo called the legislation "a true humanitarian crisis." She explained that, as a result of the legislation, "Dozens of people have gone missing, dozens of sex workers have been reported dead. Many people were displaced economically. Many were evicted, and are now homeless and working outdoors."

She added that while trafficking exists in the industry, that does not mean sex workers should not have full labor protections and human rights. In fact, she said, if sex work were decriminalized, more people would come forward about the abuse they face and trafficking would decrease.

Sex workers also say that FOSTA and SESTA's failure to differentiate between trafficking and consensual sex work furthers the stigma surrounding their work, which they say should be treated like any other job.

"We are laborers. We work. We should have the same sort of protections in place as other laborers," Banks said. "The places we go to work should follow the same rules and regulations, OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards."

Luo also said stigma against sex workers "makes it seem like sex work is an issue that affects fewer people than it actually does."

"Everyone knows a sex worker – they just don't know that they know a sex worker," Luo said. "People don't disclose their status, because they don't want to have the lifelong label applied to them, as well as the potential for criminalization and arrest."

For Banks, decriminalization is important because "it's one of the basic concepts of bodily autonomy and getting to choose what you do with your body."

"There seems to be this huge contradiction. There are a lot of people who talk about bodily autonomy but have negative views about sex work,” Banks continued. “A lot of it has to do with assuming all of us are being forced into this industry. That seems to be a huge stereotype still."

Gentili adds that the decriminalization movement is coming "at the right time."

"Sex work is not just about sex work — it's about taking charge of your body and making decisions that you need to make because you want to or because you need to make them to survive," she said. "This is a very important moment and the right moment to have this conversation. For many people, it's going to be an uncomfortable conversation, and that’s fine."

By Shira Tarlo

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