Sex workers, lawmakers, and advocates say it’s time for New York to decriminalize sex work. On Monday, state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) and Assembly member Richard Gottfried (D) introduced legislation to do just that with Decrim NY, a coalition of former and current sex workers who want to “decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize” sex work.
New York has more than two dozen penal codes that in some way punish sex work. The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act amends those statutes to ensure that sex workers can work in safer conditions and without the threat of incarceration, advocates say. Current and former sex workers said at a press conference Monday that the legislation would save lives and prevent assault and sexual violence against sex workers.
The legislation — which is also co-sponsored by Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou (D) and Sen. Jessica Ramos (D) — upholds felony anti-trafficking statutes.
As Gottfried advocated for the decriminalization of sex work, he pointed to the criminalization of other kinds of consensual sexual activity between adults in recent history, including sex between people of the same gender.
“The last vestige of prohibitions on sexual activity between consenting adults is sex work,” Gottfried said. “… It isn’t going to be an easy change to enact in New York but I believe as more and more New Yorkers think about and talk about the topic, I think it is inevitable change.”
Salazar said criminalization of sex workers hurts the LGBTQ community and black and trans women in particular, who are profiled as sex workers regardless of whether they are sex workers.
“This is a movement against discrimination and I’m so grateful to be leading the end of decriminalization of sex work in New York,” she said.
The bill would repeal sections of the penal code like: prostitution; promoting prostitution in the third and fourth degree, which essentially criminalizes sex workers who coordinate with each other for safety; and loitering for the purposes of prostitution, which often involves profiling of people of color and trans people. The definition of advancing prostitution would be amended to ensure young people between the ages of 17 and 21 are not criminalized for working together. The criminalization of patronizing an adult for prostitution would be repealed.
The legislation also amends the multiple dwelling law, public health law, real property actions and proceedings law, real property law, and vehicle and traffic law to further ensure sex workers have protections, such as not being evicted by landlords. It also changes the current prostitution and sex trafficking penal codes to acknowledge all genders instead of using only he or she pronouns.
Kate Zen, an organizer at Red Canary Song, a group advocating for the labor rights of migrant massage parlor workers in Queens, said her sex work helped her attend college.
Zen said that one time, after she crossed state lines with a client, she was attacked, had her wages stolen, and was forced to provide sex work without protection. But when she sought help from police, they told her she wasn’t a sympathetic victim because she broke the law.
Audacia Ray, director of community organizing and public advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project and a former sex worker, said she has seen so many examples of sex workers who died because they had poor access to health care, were murdered by clients, killed by police, or died by suicide.
“I have mourned so many peers,” Ray said.
Former and current sex workers said that focusing on criminalization of clients, often referred to as an “end demand” approach, is wrongheaded because it removes sex workers’ income. Ray said that approach also disproportionately affects black and Latinx men.
This is one more step in Decrim NY’s ongoing efforts to advance legislation that, it says, would benefit sex workers in the state. In May, current and former sex workers and allies went to the New York state capitol to push for bills meant to curb bad policing practices and end police punishment of trafficking victims. One piece of legislation sponsored by Salazar and Ramos would vacate trespassing and larceny convictions for sex trafficking victims if they can convey that they were coerced by traffickers. Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) and state Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D) sponsored a bill that would eliminate a statute that criminalizes loitering for the purposes of prostitution, also known as the “walking while trans” ban. Advocates for these bills took 50 closed-door meetings with lawmakers and their staff.
In Washington, D.C., Decrim DC is also pushing legislation to decriminalize sex work. Last week, Councilman David Grosso (I) introduced legislation to do just that, after having introduced similar legislation in the past. He now has the support of Councilmembers Anita Bonds (D) and Brianne Nadeau (D) who have joined him in co-introducing the bill. Grosso announced plans to introduce this legislation, with advocates from Decrim DC and LGBTQ and health organizations. On the same day, across the street from the press conference, two activists from the LGBTQ collective No Justice No Pride advocated for decriminalization by climbing flagpoles to drop a banner that read, “Decrim now, our liberation depends on sex work decriminalization.” Park police took down their banner and arrested them.