New York Activists Are Leading the Charge on Sex Work Decriminalization

The struggle for sex workers’ rights is ramping up around the U.S. Over the winter, the Decrim NY coalition came together in New York City to win sex workers the right to survive and not be harassed by state law enforcement. In May, 100 current and former sex workers, trafficking victims and advocates who were part of the coalition traveled to Albany, where they spoke to legislators about how the existing laws governing the industry enable the profiling of trans people for allegedly selling sex. They also pushed for expanding relief for those with criminal records.

This week, Albany lawmakers introduced additional legislation that would decriminalize sex work between consenting adults while maintaining existing anti-trafficking laws. The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act would end the criminalization of both sex workers and buyers across the entire state. The bill would also strike down restrictions on sex workers working together, either in person or online, which is a crucial part of staying safe in the industry. If passed, New York would become the first state in the country to decriminalize sex work.

This has been the culmination of years of organizing.

Activists saw some hopeful signs, though the fight is far from over. In late January, the state legislature began discussing a bill that would prevent police from using loitering as a pretext for making prostitution-related arrests. In early May, legislation that would expand the number of offenses trafficking victims can have vacated from their records advanced to its third reading.

Decrim NY also brings together community organizations, lawyers and lawmakers to overturn a legal environment that has been blatantly hostile to people engaged in the sex trade. Queer and trans people of color have been targeted by laws that criminalize loitering and carrying condoms, which police have claimed demonstrates intent to engage in prostitution.

Back in February, sex worker organizers and their supporters announced Decrim NY’s launch with a rally in New York’s Foley Square. Many of the speakers were veterans of this struggle, which has long been a part of the battle for LGBTQ liberation in the city. “Years ago, I had only dreamt of being here today talking about decriminalization of sex work,” said Cecilia Gentili, vice president of Transcend Legal, an organization that advocates around trans rights.

Jared Trujillo, an attorney from New York City’s Legal Aid Society who represents individuals targeted by police over sex work allegations, spoke at the rally. “In New York City, trans and queer kids, particularly trans and queer kids of color, engage in sex work at seven to eight times the rate of their cisgender and heterosexual peers,” he said. “They might do that for survival and they might do that because they want equity over their bodies. But no matter what reason they’re doing it, over-policing them is not the solution. It creates stigma.” Trujillo went on to explain that this sort of policing draws these youth into the criminal punishment system and upsets their lives since “prosecuting them only gives them permanent records” that could complicate immigration status, prevent access to housing, and bar them from finding work outside of the industry.

Trujillo went on to discuss how New York City law continues to allow cops to use condoms as evidence of sex work. “There can be no liberation when … sex workers are still arrested and have the condoms that they’re carrying to keep themselves protected used against them as evidence,” said Trujillo as he remarked upon the everyday attacks trans and queer people of color still must endure.

Trujillo discussed the connection between Decrim NY, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and history of fighting for equity and liberation for queer and trans people. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the trans women of color who led the uprising, were also sex workers.

Elected leaders echoed some of Trujillo’s remarks at the rally. Among them were State Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, both supporters of the legislative push for decriminalization. Salazar said repealing the charge of “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” is part of a path to full decriminalization. She also noted that such laws are deeply discriminatory, noting that 94 percent of those on the receiving end are Black women.

Ramos, who represents the Jackson Heights area of Queens, sharply criticized the role police have played with regard to the industry, saying that they “have not fixed anything, especially in communities like mine. All they’ve done is further criminalize the undocumented and transgender population and anyone who engages in sex work, including communities with disabilities.”

Richard Gottfried, assembly member for New York’s 75th district, spoke in favor of applying a harm-reduction approach to the industry. Gottfried said criminalization only increases “health hazards, violence, oppression, and exploitation and abuse.”

The fact that Decrim NY has the backing of some political leaders is historic in itself.

“It is so surreal to be here,” said Gentili, alluding to the impact of decades of stigma on sex workers, and the fact that for many years, the question of sex worker decriminalization was considered off-limits for politicians. “It feels incredibly, incredibly surreal to have the support of our elected officials.”

After the recent trip to Albany, the coalition also gained more support from lawmakers. Among the growing body of legislative allies are Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart and Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres, who have joined an initiative to investigate the NYPD’s Vice Squad. The unit is notorious for targeting sex workers.

Currently, the movement for decriminalization is led by women and queer people of color. In New York City, this has been a trend that has developed over the course of years. In 2013 and 2014, a coalition led by LGBTQ youth of color that included local nonprofit Streetwise and Safe, campaigned against the use of condoms as evidence and solicitation arrests. This was a crucial precursor to the launch of Decrim NY.

Another important factor on the national scale was the advent of the Movement for Black Lives. Organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and BYP100 helped craft a racial justice lens that has been crucial in exposing the extent to which the policing of prostitution has entailed the targeting of Black women. This has essentially transformed the movement for decriminalization, shifting to emphasize the intersection between gender, sexuality and incarceration.

The impact of nationwide movements like BLM also serves as a reminder that the battle for decriminalization is being waged in many different states and municipalities, including Rhode Island, New Hampshire, California and Washington, D.C. Like New York, Washington, D.C., is a decriminalization trailblazer. Last year, the D.C. city council began debate on the legislation.

However, the launch of organizing efforts like Decrim NY has come up against intense opposition. Sex work is largely a survival industry. Sex workers are often people who are trying to make ends meet, yet they are conflated with trafficking victims by law enforcement and activists whose sole concern is with abolishing the sex trade. This bias is the product of an incredibly well-funded and less-than-transparent anti-trafficking lobby that refuses to acknowledge the existence of voluntary sex work. Anti-trafficking groups tend to seek either the total abolition of sex work or a partial decriminalization that would keep the criminalization of clients in place. This brand of activism ultimately supports the status quo, because its punishment-driven approach to the industry encourages law enforcement to harm women — predominantly women of color, trans and cisgender alike — by either reducing their life stories to ones of abject victimhood or attacking their livelihoods. In the former scenario, anti-trafficking advocates imagine that the cops will save women from highly organized networks of pimps and traffickers rather than treating them as suspected criminals. Sometimes, as in the case of former massage parlor worker Yang Song, the consequences can be deadly.

Anti-trafficking organizations’ view of the industry rests on a foundation of shaky data, though. For instance, it is common for anti-trafficking organizations to claim that the average age people begin sex work is around 13 years old. This claim has been widely debunked, however. Moreover, it does not consider adults entering the industry due to economic necessity rather than coercion.

The ubiquity of myths like the “age of entry” narrative muddy the waters around defining “coercion” and “trafficking.” Under the current laws, for instance, simply assisting someone who has been identified as a trafficking victim, regardless of whether one is helping them with housing or dealing with a client who may be less than trustworthy, can lead to a charge of facilitating trafficking.

This has dire implications for younger, queer people of color who are engaged in sex work and brings up another contentious legal issue: vacatur. An individual taken into police custody during a trafficking-related arrest can have prostitution-related charges against them vacated from their permanent record. A disproportionate number of minors in New York City are arrested for trafficking-related offenses. The reason for this is that youth (generally youth of color) who engage in survival sex work tend to be safer when they work in groups and rely on others for support. Currently, vacatur is not available during non-trafficking related arrests and is not retroactive. As a result, when two or more young sex workers are arrested by police, they enter a situation in which they are pressured to incriminate each other. Some exit custody after having been identified as victims of trafficking. This allows for their records to be vacated. Their companions, however, are implicated in trafficking and carry a charge that, unless the system is reformed, could follow them for life.

Despite the built-in hazards of this legal environment and the complexity behind an individual’s decision to enter the industry, the anti-trafficking worldview cannot abide the idea that sex work could be key to someone’s ability to escape abuse or simply earn a living. In fact, many of the women who spoke at the Decrim NY unveiling in February attested to just that.

To date, however, anti-trafficking activists have often been successful in winning the laws they seek. “Trafficking legislation happens at every single level,” says Kate D’Adamo, who works as an advocate at Reframe Health and Justice, a consulting organization that develops holistic solutions to address social injustices. “In the coming year, most states are probably going to see something called trafficking legislation get introduced. Whether it moves forward is kinda dependent on the state.”

Anti-trafficking lobbying has tremendous federal clout as well. For instance, such nonprofits were instrumental in driving forward the notorious SESTA/FOSTA bills, which Congress passed into law last year. This legislation has increased the risk that sex workers and trafficking victims might be exploited by denying them online platforms that allowed them to safely advertise.

Back in 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) went into force. This mammoth bill — which has a lineage that can be traced back to the Mann Act, an incredibly racist piece of turn-of-the-century legislation that categorized sex work as “white slavery” — played a crucial role in defining the crime of trafficking as it is presently understood. The TVPA has been reauthorized and modified four times since its introduction. A 2017 extension of this legislation also empowered the government to take down websites that could be used for sex-work-related activity. Additionally, it established a role for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to play in anti-trafficking initiatives.

Issues of trafficking and sex work criminalization have gained significance on the national stage, to the point that presidential candidates are starting to weigh in. Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who has come under fire for her enthusiasm for incarceration-driven approaches to law enforcement, recently affirmed her support for the “Nordic model,” an approach to regulating sex work that targets clients for arrest as well as people who rent to sex workers or provide them transportation. Although the Nordic model does not involve incarcerating people for engaging in sex work, this is a far cry from decriminalization. Sex worker activists have decried the model as a result, and it also faces criticism from UNAIDS and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women. Harris has been criticized for shooting down a 2008 proposition that would have decriminalized sex work in San Francisco during her time as district attorney.

Fellow Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard, on the other hand, says she supports full decriminalization. Gabbard’s taking this position on an issue that impacts the lives of many vulnerable queer and trans people is noteworthy, given her “recent reckoning” with her past anti-LGBTQ stances.

Harris, Gabbard and every other congressional Democrat running for president supported SESTA/FOSTA. Former Vice President and current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden was among those candidates who did not answer questions regarding decriminalization.

On the local level, Mina Malik, who is running for Queens district attorney, has echoed Harris’s position. Tiffany Cabán, another Queens district attorney contender, is backing full decriminalization.

The assault on sex workers’ rights has been multipronged, affecting local, state, federal and international politics. In light of this dynamic, D’Adamo says that “it’s important for folks to really look at their local context and see where it’s most impactful to work,” whether that means working at the municipal, state or federal level.

New York now faces the question of whether or not it will stand on the right side of history and shuck a legal framework that has overwhelmingly harmed marginalized people.