New York lawmakers introduce sweeping bill to decriminalize sex work

If passed, the bill would make NY the first state to decriminalize sex work and free incarcerated sex workers

By Shira Tarlo
Published June 10, 2019 2:45PM (EDT)
 (Shira Tarlo)
(Shira Tarlo)

New York lawmakers and sex worker rights advocates on Monday unveiled a sweeping legislative package in the state house that vows to realize what sex workers in the Empire State have publicly fought for for decades: the full decriminalization of prostitution. The bill would be pioneering in the United States: if passed, it would make New York the first state in the nation's history to fully decriminalize the practice of adults trading consensual sex.

The measure, co-sponsored by state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, along with Assembly Members Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou, seeks to end the criminalization of adults who sell or buy sex, repeal parts of the law which have criminalized sex workers' places of work and eliminate the prohibition of "loitering for the purposes of prostitution" in public. It would also expunge the criminal record of those previously convicted of charges related to prostitution.

"Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults is harm reduction," Gottfried said. "Sex workers would have better access to legal assistance, health care and rights as working people. Working legally would give them greater ability to screen and refuse clients, which is critical to personal safety."

News of the legislation, "Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act," comes just months after sex worker advocates across the state introduced Decrim NY, a coalition made up of more than two dozen current and former sex workers, criminal justice reform advocates and a host of non-profit organizations, like Womankind, Make the Road New York and Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).

The legislation extends beyond criminal justice reform, as it seeks to address issues of economic justice facing sex workers.

Jessica Raven, a community organizer and former underage sex worker, wrote in an op-ed Monday, "I became homeless as a young person after I ran away from sexual violence in the foster system. When I was 15, like thousands of youth experiencing homelessness in New York City, I started trading sex in exchange for housing. I didn't see sex as the problem; I saw lack of safe housing as the problem. Sex was my survival strategy."

"New York criminalizes adults for trading sex for resources but falls short in addressing root causes," she continued. "Instead, we subject sex workers and the people who live and work with them to state violence. Criminal records make it harder for people in the sex trades to access resources such as housing, services and other employment."

The latest push comes just months after New York Democrats seized control of every branch of the state's government for the first time in a decade in the 2018 midterm election cycle. Though sex workers and advocates have been campaigning to decriminalize the world's oldest profession for decades, efforts to do so have been widely and repeatedly dismissed by lawmakers, the legal system and the media — who, sex workers believe, have failed to comprehend how decriminalization intersects with other issues championed by the left.

"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," Emily Iris, a community organizer and advocate, told Salon.

Iris noted that, during the 2018 midterm elections, Sen. Salazar "confidently spoke through a macro-lens that connected these progressive battles to the decriminalization of sex work." She added, "I believe that more politicians will follow suit once they too connect the dots."

Salazar, a 28-year-old democratic socialist and political novice, unseated a four-term incumbent last November. She was 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 have been riding a wave of enthusiasm.

Their renewed efforts also come roughly a year after President Donald 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.

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 said. "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 New York Democrats currently appear more progressive than the Democratic Party as a whole, there have been not-so-subtle hints that the movement is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, where the freshman class of 2019 is younger, bluer, more racially diverse and far more gender-diverse than any previous Congress in U.S. history.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, announced in February that she would support the decriminalization of sex work, even though she voted in favor of SESTA last year. Harris was the first presidential hopeful to call for the decriminalization of sex work — though sex workers and their advocates, including Decrim NY, expressed concern that the California Democrat is not calling for full decriminalization but for a system inspired by the "Nordic Model," which criminalizes individuals who purchase sex.

"It is criminalization, and it puts people who trade sex at increased risk of violence, economic instability, and labor exploitation," Decrim NY said in response to Harris' stance.

As of this writing, there are 23 Democrats vying for the 2020 the party's presidential nomination but just three candidates have expressed support for decriminalization of sex work: Harris, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

Though few candidates have spoken out in favor of decriminalization, a recent poll revealed 56% of Democratic voters support the move. Among voters of all parties, 45% support decriminalization, while 27% oppose it.

The survey, conducted by Data for Progress, "represents a new line in the sand being drawn in progressive politics. Increasingly, Democratic voters are connecting this issue with issues they already support: the rights of workers, immigrants, communities of color, and LGBTQ people. This is especially key as all these communities are under attack in the era of Trump," said founder Sean McElwee, the liberal political activist and former Salon columnist. "Public opinion is fully supportive of decriminalization, the question is when politicians will respond."

The bill in New York will not change any laws against human trafficking, rape, assault or sexual harassment. Legislators and advocates pointed out that decriminalization will prevent violence and help combat trafficking.

"Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults in New York will protect many of my neighbors — people who have found themselves in situations because of employment and housing discrimination," State Sen. Jessica Ramos said. "We will finally make strides against trafficking by empowering sex workers to report violence against them. Sex work is work and everyone has an inherent right to a safe workplace."

Shira Tarlo

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