Sex. Sex and work. Sex as work. Sex workers. Depending on who you are, those ideas can either inspire great passion or great ideological fury – and in most cases some form of violence.
“We need justice for sex workers, not crackdowns,” said Sebastian Kohn, project director for sexual health and rights at the Open Society Public Health Program. The Open Society Foundations (OSF) supports Decrim NY, which is the sex trade advocacy group that majorly is pushing for sex work legalization across the state.
“At the city level, policymakers can make a big difference by, for example, changing the way sex work is policed and ensuring that sex workers have access to health and social services free from stigma and discrimination,” said Kohn.
The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act strives to stop penalizing adult sex workers and keep them out of jail in New York. State Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) introduced the legislation last June with the backing of advocacy groups like Decrim NY.
The sex trade act caused a lot of controversy in the city last year. The proposal says that it will continue felony anti-trafficking measures and criminalize people who sexually exploit minors, while protecting consenting adults in the sex industry.
“Making full decriminalization a reality in New York is going to take a lot of education, especially education from sex workers themselves, to change public perceptions and assumptions about who sex workers are and what they need,” said Gottfried, about the future of the sex trade.
The bills are currently in committee, but that doesn’t stop advocacy groups from raising awareness and education about such a contentious issue. For instance, The Sex Workers’ Pop-Up exhibition happening on March 10, backed by OSF, will feature artwork and performances about sex work from around the globe.
OSF spokesperson Erin Greenberg said the organization gave more than $1 million to sex work groups across the U.S. that are battling The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and to allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Acts (FOSTA/SESTA). FOSTA/SESTA was supposed to curb online sex trafficking but has instead significantly hurt sex workers by removing the safety net the internet provided to vet clients.
“Some want to crack down on sex workers,” said Kohn, explaining that there are different stances often encountered in the fight to legalize sex work, “others want to crack down on sex workers’ clients.”
City Councilmember Peter Koo (D -Queens) denounced sex workers and vowed to clean up Flushing through a combination of law enforcement and community engagement in March 2019. Three years ago, Yang Song, who was a Flushing massage parlor worker, took a suicidal jump off a balcony during a police raid. Her death was in the unofficial ‘red light district’ in Queens, between 40th Road and Prince Streets.
To understand New York’s approach to policing sex work, you’d have to review its long history with criminalizing prostitution and who it affects.
According to a 2017 Urban Institute report that studied over 1,400 people charged with prostitution-related offenses, the “modern incarnation in New York City is inextricably intertwined with ‘broken windows policing,’ which originated in the early 1990s. Broken windows policing, exemplifies the theory that crime will decrease if law enforcement eliminates visual and physical signs of crime, such as graffiti, panhandling, and street prostitution. Those involved in the most visible, easily criminalized mode of the commercial sex industry—street prostitution—were frequently low-income women of color.”
The report stated that 98 percent of the people interviewed were women; 68 percent were Black or Latinx, and 32 percent were Asian.
“Violence is a major concern for many sex workers,” said Kohn, “Generally speaking, street-based sex workers face higher rates of violence, as do women of color, especially Black women, and trans women.”
Most women in the report had some history or experience with violence, and said they were being treated as criminals and not victims by police or the court system.
“Sex workers know firsthand what working in a criminalized environment means: danger, violence, isolation, and a lack of access to fundamental services, from health care to safe housing,” said Gottfried. “I sponsor the bill to fully decriminalize sex work between consenting adults because I choose to listen to sex workers telling me exactly what they need instead of making assumptions about what is best for them.”
The notion that sex workers have rights and can be victims is a fairly novel concept in the criminal justice system. Even national women’s organizations that believe in the protection of people in prostitution and anti-trafficking, like LifeWay Network and National Organization for Women (NOW), split hairs over comprehensive legislation.
Lifeway Network actively goes against “full decriminalization” which is what the sex trade act in New York would call for the entire industry, not just victims. The organization states that fewer consequences for pimps and sex buying would lead to more demand and violence.
When the bills were introduced, NOW protested outside of City Hall. Reportedly, the organization has chapters that support the bills, but the national sentiment is that they are completely opposed to the legislation’ passing.
Neither organization could be reached in time for comment.