Should sex workers still end up in handcuffs?

Lawmakers are looking into transforming New York's prostitution laws.
Lawmakers are looking into transforming New York's prostitution laws.
Varavin88/Shutterstock
Lawmakers are looking into transforming New York's prostitution laws.

Should sex workers still end up in handcuffs?

New York lawmakers are reevaluating the labor of lust.
February 9, 2020

On a February afternoon last year, about 150 people gathered in lower Manhattan’s Foley Square to kick off a campaign to radically transform New York’s prostitution laws. Cecilia Gentili, a veteranadvocate for the transgender community and former sex worker, strained to be heard over the raucous cheers. “It is incredibly, incredibly surreal to have the support of our elected officials for this,” she told the crowd. A lineup of state lawmakers – state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, and Assembly members Richard Gottfried, Dan Quart and Catalina Cruz – stood a few feet away, all openly supportive of the decriminalization of sex work. 

The new coalition, Decrim NY, aims to “decriminalize, decarcerate and destigmatize the sex trade” – in other words, to repeal criminal laws regarding the purchase or sale of sexual services in the state. It’s a radical idea, but not entirely unprecedented. New Zealand fully decriminalized sex work in 2003, and two states or territories in Australia have done the same. The World Health Organization, American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International are among the high-profile groups that publicly back the policy, citing its potential for reducing the spread of HIV and decreasing violence against sex workers, among other benefits. And Washington, D.C., considered a bill to decriminalize sex work in 2017 (though it has not passed yet, despite being reintroduced in 2019). Thanks in part to a recentprogressive shift in Albany (several of New York’s newest legislators, including state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi as well as Salazar, ran on platforms that included the decriminalization ofsex work), the once-unimaginable seems closer to reality than ever before: New York couldbecome the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize sex work.

In June, the final month of the 2019 legislative session, Salazar followed through on a campaign pledge by introducing the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, with Ramos and fellow Democratic state Sens. Luis Sepúlveda and Robert Jackson joining as co-sponsors. “What this bill does is it removes from the criminal code the buying or trading of sex between consenting adults,” Salazar explained recently, while leaving in place the portions of the law that address “coercion of minors (or) anything to do with minors” as well as trafficking and exploitation.

How has New York – a blue state, but one founded on the same Puritan values as the rest of the nation – found itself on the front lines of decriminalizingthe trade of sex for money? Combine millennial and Gen Z’s increasing rejection of strict binaries – gay or straight; male or female; slut or virgin – with a burgeoning gig economy in which people patch together all kinds of income sources, and it makes sense that Americans have become steadily more accepting of sex work. In a November 2019 poll of 1,029 voters conducted for Data For Progress, 52% of respondents reported being somewhat or strongly in support of fully decriminalizing sex work. For younger voters ages 18 to 29, support hit 65%. Shifting attitudes, along with widespread calls for criminal justice reform and the evolving discourse around economic disparities, have repositioned sex work from what was once taboo into yet another labor issue: a case of regular people trying to do their jobs.

According to sex workers and their advocates, this newfound enthusiasm among politicians to join in the push for decriminalizationis hardly the result of any one “blue wave.” It’s the outcome of a decadeslong campaign of public outreach and education led by current and former sex workers. It’s no easy endeavor to “peel back layers of prejudice” built up over time, Decrim NY member Jared Trujillo said. But by showing people “that sex workers are your neighbors, they’re not these horrid people,” the group hopes to speak a language politicians can’t ignore: public sentiment.

That work is gradual and grueling. And for that reason, despite the widespread press coverage, the backing of legislators and solid supporter turnout, Decrim NY organizer Nina Luo expressed cautious optimism on the day of the organization’s launch. She “wouldn’t have believed it” if someone had told her a couple of years ago that even a handful of legislators would come out to support a full decriminalization bill, but one promising day of public support was just the start. “You know, it’s easy to feel like a win is close when you have electeds with you,” she said. “We know that there’s a lot more work to do.” 

Luo suspects a decriminalization bill would pass much faster in a watered-down, “shitty” form, as she put it, perhaps one that simply moved prostitution charges into the civil code. For sex workers, Luo argued, making too many concessions means permitting more of the same harassment and arrests. Instead, she prefers the longer, more difficult route, taking advantage of the movement’s momentum and using it to build a wider consensus around more sweeping changes.

 

In 1973, former sex worker Margo St. James founded Coyote, or Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, the first American organization solely dedicated to securing rights for sex workers. Dubbing themselves a “loose union of women” (and sometimes, in their brassy humor, a “union of loose women”), the San Francisco-based group fought to end the stigmatization and criminalization of prostitution by hosting “hooker conventions” and public education forums. An outspoken feminist, St. James upended the assumption that all sex workers were inherent “victims,” poking fun at American prudery with cheeky Coyote slogans like “The Trick Is Not Getting Caught” and “My Ass is Mine.”

Coyote’s efforts kick-started a wave of sex worker community organizing outside of San Francisco. New branches formed across the country during the 1970s, and in 1976, sex worker Jean Powell launched Prostitutes of New York. Following St. James’ lead, sex work activism focused on repealing anti-prostitution laws. But organizers knew that eliminating the threat of arrest was only one of many necessary steps; eradicating the stigma that made it difficult for sex workers to secure resources, like health care and housing, was just as crucial.

Coyote and its sister organizations didn’t make much legislative headway, but they did force once-unmentionable issues into the public sphere. As women secured new rights throughout the 1970s – in 1972, single women won the constitutional right to acquire birth control, and a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court made it illegal to ban abortions with its ruling in Roe v. Wade – sex workers asked: What about bodily autonomy around pornography, prostitution and all other jobs in the sex trade?

Luo suspects decriminalization would pass much faster in a watered-down, "shitty" form. She prefers the longer, more difficult route.

They met fierce opposition, even among avowed supporters of the women’s liberation movement. The “sex wars” of the early 1980s pitted anti-pornography feminists (calling themselves “abolitionists”) against pro-sex feminists, who supported – and included – sex workers. The self-proclaimedabolitionists argued that pornography and prostitution were a direct result of patriarchal oppression and that all women participating in those trades were victims of exploitation and thus not true laborers with their own agency. Feminist sex workers bristled at the notion that they had no minds or wills of their own.

With the rise of Reaganism in the 1980s and the country’s subsequent conservative turn, the “radical right” surged, often campaigning specifically against the sexual expression and self-sovereignty of women and LGBTQ people. The AIDS epidemic only increased public squeamishness around sex. While sex worker advocates argued that decriminalization would help prevent the spread of HIV, few agencies or legislators responded.

Throughout the 1990s, gentrification pushed urban streetwalkers away from busy areas, while the rise of internet access drew many of them indoors. The personals sections of message boards and online listing services became lively commerce hubs where sex workers advertised their services. From behind computer screens, sex workers communicated with each other more freely, flagging dangerous johns to avoid and trading safety tips. Some sex workers still solicited outdoors and the trade was still illegal, but the internet created a much-needed safe harbor for many.

In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush’s administration presented advocates and organizers with a tricky new obstacle: the label of sex trafficking. Meant to describe the forcible, exploitative push of people into the sex trade, the term was so loosely defined and applied that it swept up consensual sex workers along with it. In the name of “rescuing” girls and women, Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University sociologist who is an expert on sex trafficking, said the Bush White House waged a “moral crusade” against all prostitution.

New York followed the Bush administration’s lead in 2013, throwing resources behind an experimental judicial systemintended to pull victims from the clutches of traffickers. Instead of incarcerating people picked up for prostitution, this system – called the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts – funneled them into required counseling sessions. If the defendant attends the mandatory appointments and avoids getting arrested again within six months, the charges (other than a loitering with the intent for prostitution violation, which is never sealable) are expunged from their records.

In 2017, sex work organizers in New York saw a glimmer of possibility when the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform published a landmark report. Celebrated by many for calling for the closing of Rikers Island, the report also recommended movingNew York’s laws relevant to the exchange of sex for money between consenting adults from the criminal code to the civil summons system – basically, likening a prostitution summons to something more like a parking ticket. While New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to close Rikers Island within the next 10 years, he reasoned that the second suggestion would make it difficult for officers to identify and rescue sex trafficking victims. Then-New York City Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill dismissed the need for any changes. Pointing to the city’s overall reduction in prostitution arrests, he said that officially decriminalizing prostitution wasn’t necessary. While arrest data provided by the NYPD showed that specific prostitution arrests in New York City dropped 62% from 2016 to 2018, Documented reported a simultaneous major uptick in arrests under a different statute: loitering for the purpose of prostitution – a charge that allows NYPD officers to arrest anyone they believe might be trying to sell sex.

Not long after the commission’s report, organizers turned their attention to a more pressing matter: FOSTA-SESTA. A two-part piece of federal legislation, FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) aimed to thwart online sex trafficking, specifically through the blocking of adult online advertisements. Holding websites liable for any trafficking that they “knowingly” allow to take place on their platforms (a technicality advocates for internet freedom argue is too vague), the new legislation made it difficultfor sex workers to operate their businesses and communicate with one another online. Craigslist shuttered its personals section days before the law was signed in April 2018, and the popular personal ads host Backpage.com was seized by federal forces. By winter, Tumblr, a once-popular porn destination, moved to block all adult content. With the mayor unlikely to back the reform recommendations and with FOSTA-SESTAencroaching on sex workers’ income, activists ramped up the fight at the state level. As Gentili, the former sex worker, put it, her community wasn’t about to let lawmakers “just fuck with our livelihoods” without a fight.

 

Immediately after FOSTA-SESTA passed the U.S. Senate in March 2018, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who co-sponsored the bill, sent out a celebratory tweet: “Survivors and law enforcement now have the tools to seek justice and prevent others from being trafficked online. #TimesUp.” Her message spurred an immediate outpouring of angry replies from the sex work community.

“Takes some nerve to slap #TimesUp on a policy that will make it dramatically *easier* for predators to abuse sex workers,” one critic tweeted. Sex work organizer Liara Roux accused Maloney’s bill of making sex workers “even more vulnerable” without safe access to the discussion boardsand chat rooms “where we used to be able to tell (each other) how to avoid violent clients.”Another simply asked Maloney, “How could you get this so wrong?”

For her part, Maloney now says she agrees that “equality, rights and protections” for those working consensually in the sex trade are “long overdue,” though her thoughts on decriminalization are less clear. (She expressed being open to “gradually” moving from a Nordic model, where only buyers are criminalized, toward full decriminalization, though one does not create an obvious pathway to the other.)

When Luo read the outraged reaction to Maloney’s FOSTA-SESTA position, she saw an opportunity. “I realized, this is the kind of tremendous pain and anger that can mobilize a vote of her out (of office).” Luo reached out to her friend Daphne Weinstein, co-chair of the lower Manhattan branch of the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, the leftist organization whose nationwide membership has exploded from roughly 5,000 to over 40,000 people since late 2016. Through mutual connections in leftist politics, Weinstein helped put Luo in contact with Maloney's primary rival, Suraj Patel. Advised by Luo and others from the sex work community, Patel denounced FOSTA-SESTA, citing harm reduction as the main reason behind his decision. The move garnered attention, and Luo didn’t let it go to waste. Flattering coverage for Patel could be found on Bustle and The Daily Beast. In a widely shared op-ed for Vice, Patel called FOSTA-SESTA a “continuation of our country’s policies profiting off the mass incarceration of already vulnerable people.” He then held a sex worker town hall – reportedly the first one ever hosted by a congressional candidate. As “risky” as he said it felt to step in the “minefield” of the FOSTA-SESTA debate, the move helped him build some much-needed name recognition. Better still for Luo, she now had proof that “you could even get some good headlines for taking a stand” on something as controversial as FOSTA-SESTA – and maybe other policies impacting the sex trade.

In the June 2018 primary, Patel lost to Maloney. Nonetheless, Luo was encouraged. She saw early signs that her electoral strategy could work – if she found the right candidates. Though Luo wasn’t a member herself, she knew the DSA was a well of progressive activists and candidates, including one running for state Senate: Julia Salazar. Salazar was challenging an eight-term incumbent, state Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, from the left. Weinstein connected Luo with Salazar, who was seeking to represent Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

Sex workers had tried to help elect allies before, Luo noted, but the community had never seriously coalesced around candidates for public office. As a result, Weitzer said the decriminalization organizers he has studied have historically been “unable to get any of their views manifested in policies.”

 

On a Saturday afternoon in July 2018, Salazar met with Luo, who would soonhelp her campaign attract national attention. Walking into SoHo’s Ground Support cafe with two members of her team, the future state senator was already “supportive of the decriminalization of sex work," but unsure of the specifics.

The idea of full decriminalization was discussed relatively little, Salazar recalled, because it seemed a bit premature. Republicans still controlled the state Senate, after all. Instead, the conversation focused on steps to protect sex workers right away, including repealing the loitering for the purpose of prostitution statute. By the end of their 90-minute conversation, Luo had succeeded: Salazar agreed to publicly support sex workers’ rights in her campaign.

Luo set out to make sure her efforts with Salazar’s campaign sent a loud message. “With Julia,” Luo said, the plan was to drive “more community engagement” to prove that candidates could attract organizers, volunteers and voters based on vocally supporting sex workers’ rights. Successfully introducing Salazar to the sex work community in the coming months would mark the first step.

By mid-August, Luo had recruitedabout 40 sex workers and allies to canvass in Salazar’s district, and the first-time activists went door to door specifically talking about sex workers’ rights. From Luo’s perspective, itwas a triumph. “I think we knocked on, like, 600 doors” to an overwhelmingly positive response, she recalled. “No one made a weird face, you know?” A few weeks later, Salazar easily defeated the Democratic incumbent, then coasted to victory in the November general election.

 

A couple weeks before taking office, Salazar made an announcement on Twitter: She would be “introducing legislation to repeal the harmful ‘loitering for the purpose of prostitution’ statute.” Longtime advocates supported her interest in repealing the law, but pointed out that state Sen. Brad Hoylman had introduced such legislation in the previous session.

A devoted advocate for LGBTQ rights, Hoylman had acted on the loitering statute after The Legal Aid Society and law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP filed a joint class-action lawsuit against New York City and “certain named officers of the New York City Police Department” in 2016 to repeal the law. When the Manhattan lawmaker read in the suit that the NYPD targeted and profiled transgender women of color, he was moved to draft the first piece of legislation to repeal what he called the “classist, racist and profoundly discriminatory” loitering law.

While Salazar settled into her new role in Albany, advocates and organizers looked for other decriminalization allies in the state Legislature. During an event celebrating the passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which banned conversion therapy and discrimination based on gender identity, transgender community members approached Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. The activists primed Gottfried on the next priority in their agenda: the full decriminalization of sex work. “We think there needs to be a bill,” they told him, and they wanted him to help carry it. Would he do it? A member of the Assembly since 1971, Gottfried said he had “believed for decades” that the harms associated with sex work were “overwhelmingly the result of the illegality of it.” He said he would. Two of his colleagues in the Assembly, Dan Quart and Catalina Cruz, signed on as co-sponsors soon after.

Another supporter, first-term state Sen. Jessica Ramos, said standing up for sex workers felt like the right thing to do. “I can’t say that I had a very good understanding of the experience of sex workers,” she said, until they started showing up at her office in Queens and explaining it to her. “This pretense that some people have that we are going to get rid of sex work altogether is, I think, false,” Ramos said. She looked at her district and thought about the sex workers she’d seen walking up and down Roosevelt Avenue her “entire life.” In the end, she concluded that decriminalizing sex work was about “empowering the worker, trusting the worker and hopefully allowing them to create their safe environments in which they’re able to take care of themselves and take care of each other.”

That brought the count of legislators willing to push for full decriminalization to five, with a few more signing on later. On Feb. 25, 2019 – the day of the Decrim NY launch – Salazar and Ramos published an op-ed in the Daily News announcing their position. While they said they recognized “the tremendous public education required to pass such a bill,” they believed New York could “and should be the first to decriminalize sex work fully.”

 

In early March 2019, protesters took over the steps of New York City Hall for an anti-decriminalization rally. Hosted by the New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution with a strong presence from the National Organization of Women’s New York City chapter, attendees hoisted signs above their headsthat read “PIMP FREE NY” and “Stop Buying Women.” Maloney spoke at the rally. Counter-protesters soon arrived, with one captured on video pacing back and forth in front of the steps, holding a neon poster board with the words “LISTEN TO SEX WORKERS” written in black marker.

Weitzer, the sociologist, said for the most part that mainstream women’s advocacy groups are “content” not to deal with sex work until a specific piece of legislation is introduced. Now that one has, the contentious feminist debate around sex work has reignited, this time causing flare-ups between proponents of decriminalization and supporters of the Nordic model, a policy that punishes patrons for purchasing sex, but not the people selling it (theoretically, at least). Sometimes referred to as the equality model (or wrongly labeled as decriminalization), this approach has already been implemented in Canada, France and Sweden.

Rebecca Zipkin is a senior staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit serving victims of domestic violence and other gender violence that strongly supports the criminalization of “sex buyers, pimps, brothel owners, traffickers, anyone who profits off of the sex trade,” while decriminalizing the act of selling sex. “We see prostitution as a form of exploitation,” Zipkin said, “not an individual choice, but (part of) a system that is inextricably linked to sex trafficking.”

Many feminist groups, not to mention the world’s most prominent feminist, Gloria Steinem, support this approach. “The Nordic model guarantees better treatment of men, women and children in prostitution,” Steinem told The Guardianin 2015. “If you decriminalize everybody, that’s it. And, of course, you’ve decriminalized the pimps and traffickers. If you follow the Nordic model, you are obligated to offer services and alternatives to the people who are prostituted. You don’t arrest them.”

"We cannot argue that it's my body and my choice when it comes to abortion, but not sex work." - state Sen. Jessica Ramos

Yetcritics say the Nordic model pushes streetwalkers – already some of the most vulnerable people in the sex trade – into increasingly dangerous situations. Activists and authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith warned in their book “Revolting Prostitutes” that the model drives sex workers to meet clients in hidden locales far from police surveillance, pushing them to accept more dangerous propositions, such as unprotected sex or appointments with more unpredictable customers, to make up for income lost by regulars scared off by the threat of arrest. A 2016 report from Amnesty International examining the effects of the Nordic model in Oslo backed up those claims. Norwegian social services providers said that the purchasing ban had created a “buyer’s market” that left sex workers with little power, while allowing “perpetrators of violence against sex workers” to act with what they considered to be “relative impunity.”

Decrim NY members found this ongoing debate to be exasperating. Sex workers often say that they certainly do not support coercion and resent being cast as “anti-anti-sex trafficking” when criticizing the Nordic model or other modes of criminalization. To Luo, the matter of contention between the two schools of thought is a fundamental disagreement over the role of policing. “There is a way of thinking about addressing social issues that relies on the criminal justice system; that believes policing is effective and good for these communities who are largely black, immigrants and undocumented,” she said. “And that’s just not where Decrim NY is.”

Though she hasn’t changed her policy position, Gentili’s own relationship to her history in the sex trade has grown more nuanced over time. “I always said, you know, ‘I choose this, I choose to be a sex worker, right? This is my choice.’” More recently, she has wondered about the meaning of choice in a brutal economy and discriminatory world. “How much of a choice is it if it’s your only choice?” A National Center for Transgender Equality report published in 2015 found that 69.5% of transgender people surveyed who engaged in sex work had experienced “being denied a job or promotion or being fired because of their gender identity or expression.”

“Not for nothing,” Gentili added, many trans Latina women feel like they “have to do sex work because they don’t have a way to make a living,” a point that also applies to black trans women, a group that comprises a “disproportionately high percentage” of sex workers.

Ramos said she was “a little more surprised by the position of some feminist groups,” specifically organizations that have done “incredible, monumental work when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose.” The Queens lawmaker added, “We cannot argue that it’s my body and my choice when it comes to abortion, but not sex work.”

 

As Luo predicted a year ago at Decrim NY’s launch, the coalition succeeded in pushing for the introduction of a full decriminalization bill last year. Also in line with her expectations, it’s still sitting in committee, a long way from passing. “I think we’re at least a couple of years away” from seeing Decrim NY’s goals realized, Luo said.
In 2020, public discussion around the issue will be further complicated by state Sen. Liz Krueger’s intention (along with Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright) to introduce Nordic model legislation this session.

“I firmly believe that to be a progressive is to stand up for less powerful people against systems that exploit them,” Krueger said. “Johns and pimps are taking advantage of the marginalization and dire economic circumstances of adults and children in the sex trade,” adding that she views the industry as “fundamentally harmful, dehumanizing, and (it relies on a) coercive business model.”

Trujillo said the conclusions that Krueger reached are a combination of misinformation and decent intentions. “You can pass the Nordic model, but people often do sex work because they need income to survive,” he said, adding that it is a systemic problem the Nordic model isn’t equipped to address. “(If such a bill passed), all you really get is you drive (the sex trade) further underground and you make people less safe. But you get to pat yourself on the back at the end of the day because you think you did something progressive.” 

For now, sex work organizers see years of work ahead of them to achieve their goal of the full, statewide decriminalization of consensual sex work. In the meantime, activists focus on the incremental, immediately achievable steps they can work on side by side with some of the staunchest opponents to decriminalization.

“Especially early in the session, you’re going to see mostly stuff on (the) walking while trans (ban),” Luo said. “2019 was really exciting because it brought a lot of activity in New York (around decriminalization).” She added: “There are a lot of national and local groups all over the country working on this issue now, and we’re just going to continue to see more conversation. Legislators in New York can be on top of that, or they can fall behind.”

 

Before the sun rises on a January weekday, a bus with around 70 members of the sex work and advocacy community pulls out of Union Square. After two and a half hours heading north on U.S. Route 9, this group will meet with a wide range of legislators in Albany, pushing each of them to co-sponsor a bill to repeal the loitering for the purpose of prostitution statute. 

Group leaders distribute purple folders, passing them back from seat to seat. Each one contains detailed itineraries and specific talking points to use with elected officials. With materials in hand, a bus that was humming with friendly chatter moments ago goes quiet as the passengers study. As Albany approaches, Briana Silberberg, a community organizer from the New York City Anti-Violence Project and Decrim NY member, gets on the bus loudspeaker to lay some ground rules. Stick with your group, leave each meeting with a signed “asks” sheet – and don’t bring up the full decriminalization bill to legislators. Getting sidetracked into any expansive discussion beyond the specific walking while trans ban isn’t helpful to today’s cause. A voice shouts from the back of the bus, “Stepping stones!” A few minutes later, the driver opens the door and deposits the crowd outside the state Capitol. Folders tucked tightly under their arms, they push against the wind, hustling to make it inside the building where change happens.

Lisa Peterson
is a freelance culture journalist.
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