New York Could Be First State to Decriminalize Sex Work

Supporters of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act crowd a conference room in New York during a press conference about the act. (Photo by Emily Nonko)

A press conference led by former and current sex workers marked the first step toward New York becoming the first state in the country to fully decriminalize prostitution.

At the event, inside a 19th-floor conference room in downtown Manhattan, advocates with the organizing group Decrim NY stood alongside politicians to introduce a bill based in both criminal justice reform and economic justice policy. The bill, called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, removes criminal penalties associated with adults selling and buying sex, and repeals parts of the law criminalizing sex workers’ places of business.

“This is the most comprehensive sex working decriminalization bill in the nation,” Audacia Ray, director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project, told the crowd. Ray, a former sex worker, recalled 15 years of challenging advocacy work witnessing sex workers being harmed or killed from inadequate healthcare, suicide, drug use, violence and police brutality. “This bill, the Stop Violence Against Sex Trades Act, is really important to me, and our entire community, to stop this violence,” she said.

Though advocates spent years fighting for decriminalization, the pace of this proposed legislation took many by surprise. Decrim NY only launched this February as a coalition representing people from sex trades who entered through choice, circumstance or coersion. The coalition aimed to link sex worker’s rights to the broader movement against the criminalization of minorities, LGBTQ and low-income New Yorkers.

A few months prior to Decrim’s founding, New York’s midterm elections brought a Democratic majority to the state senate with a number of young, female and minority politicians elected to both houses. Two newly elected women — Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar — spoke at last Monday’s press conference.

Salazar campaigned on decriminalizing sex work and introduced the bill with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. Ramos, who represents a district in Queens where sex work is heavily policed, spoke of a visit by two dozen sex workers to her office soon after her election. “I listened intently, I asked questions, and I tried to understand why our society has decided to marginalize a group of people who are seemingly different, but are really not,” she recounts.

Ramos is chair of the New York Senate Labor Committee, and spoke of the bill as an economic justice issue. “What we want to do is ensure people who are making the demand and producing the supply are able to do so with consent and not coercion,” she says. “And as the chair of the Senate Labor Committee, after we pass this bill and probably while we pass this bill, we will begin to have a conversation about real labor rights and workplace protection for sex workers.”

This bill strictly addresses New York’s anti-prositution penal codes. There are more than two dozen of them, about half of which pertain to sex work between consenting adults. The other half focus on trafficking, coercion and exploitation of minors.

The bill upholds laws pertaining to human trafficking, rape, assult, battery, sexual harrassment and exploitation. But it amends statues “so that consulting adults who trade sex, collaborate with or support sex working peers, or patronize adult sex workers are not criminalized,” according to a Decrim NY press release.

Not all New York politicans and service providers are in agreement of legalizing sex work. Decrim NY stands behind removing policing and criminalization from the industry altogether, a departure from the so-called “Swedish model,” which decriminalizes the seller of sex while criminalizing the client. (Corey Johnson, the City Council Speaker, supports the Swedish model; New York-based organization Sanctuary for Families also came out against full decriminalization.)

But members of Decrim NY have maintained that partial decriminalization shares the same goals of the current laws: “to push women out of sex work, whether through criminalizing them or their customers, and to use police to do the pushing,” according to the Appeal.

The proposed bill goes further than legalization for both parties. It amends the law so people can trade sex where legal businesses are permitted, while still upholding felony status for maintaining an exploitative workplace where coerction or trafficking takes place. It also amends language throughout the penal code to make references to buyers and sellers gender neutral.

The Stop Violence Against Sex Trades Act is joined by two separate standalone bills: one tackling record relief and another repealing a “loitering-for-prostitution” law that went into effect in 1977. The first allows trafficking survivors to vacate convictions for crimes committed while they were being trafficked. It is due to be scheduled for a full vote. The second bill, which has stalled, would repeal an anti-prostitution loitering law criticized by advocates who say it targets trans people and women of color based on appearance.

Assembly Member Gottfried believes passing the slate of bills will be “an uphill battle.” Despite New York’s significant democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, it forces politicians, advocates and the public to grapple with a controversial issue not often discussed in the public sphere. Gottfried believes introducing the bill is the first step is increasing public discussion.

Still, New York isn’t alone in confronting this issue. A revised decriminalization bill was introduced in Washington D.C. this month with the backing of four district council members. And questions around sex work are already a part of 2020 campaigns.

Decrim NY is planning public education initiatives around the issue and will canvass in areas where it has faced opposition. The coalition will also conduct a needs assessment with sex workers throughout New York.

“Nationwide, there’s been a conversation about what we can do at the state level to protect people in the sex trades,” Ray says. “The reason we’re doing this now is it’s based on many decades or organizing and we really feel the time is right.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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