Manhattan Is Moving to Decriminalize Sex Work. Kind Of.

The borough will no longer prosecute “prostitution,” but sex work advocates say that’s not enough.
Sex workers and their allies marched through Jackson Heights and Corona for the Third Annual Slut Walk on Sept. 18, 2020.
Sex workers and their allies marched through Jackson Heights and Corona for the Third Annual Slut Walk on Sept. 18, 2020. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Manhattan will no longer prosecute people on “prostitution” and “unlicensed massage” charges, its district attorney’s office announced Wednesday, a staggering shift that pushes the biggest city in the U.S. closer to fully decriminalizing sex work.

But not quite. 

Sex work is still not totally legal in the borough. Instead, the office will focus its efforts on prosecuting people who buy sexual services instead of those who sell them. Sex work advocates have long said that kind of sex-work prosecution model threatens workers’ rights and safety, because it still incentivizes law enforcement to interfere with their business.


“Not only would the police continue to police our bodies, but in order for the police to get to the buyers, the police would still have to use surveillance, watch the sellers,” TS Candii, a sex worker and the founder of Black Trans Nation, which advocates for trans and sex workers’ rights, told the Appeal earlier this year about the push to decriminalize sex work in New York. “It would put the eyes on us from the police, so that they can get to the johns. And then the johns that they are getting is our family members, is our brothers, is our sisters.”

Abigail Swenstein, a staff attorney with the New York City-based Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project, said in a statement Wednesday that her organization welcomes Vance’s decision. But she urged the New York state Legislature to act to fully decriminalize sex work.

“We thank the DA’s office,” Swenstein wrote. “However, this policy should not supplant the need to pass legislation that would fully decriminalize sex work and provide for criminal record relief for people convicted of prostitution offense.”

Several of the people running to take over Vance’s job also made it clear that they believed the district attorney needed to go further. Vance is not running for re-election, and his departure from office will likely pour gasoline on the push to decriminalize sex work in New York City.


“This victory goes out to justice advocates—not Cy Vance, who could have done this years ago,” tweeted Tahanie Aboushi, a candidate for Manhattan district attorney. “We still need full decriminalization of sex work.”

“Am I glad that someone in a position as powerful as the Manhattan district attorney’s office is finally speaking out and saying that we shouldn’t be prosecuting people for engaging in their jobs? Of course I’m glad,” Eliza Orlins, another district attorney candidate and a former public defender, told the New York Times. “But do I think that he deserves to be held out as heroic by the movement when he has not done enough and acted quickly enough? No.”

As part of the new policy announced Wednesday, the DA’s office will continue to prosecute sex traffickers. While sex work is inherently consensual, sex trafficking is not.

Vance has asked a judge to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, as well as 5,080 cases involving charges for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” 

“By vacating warrants, dismissing cases, and erasing convictions for these charges, we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach,” Vance said in a statement. “These cases—many dating back to the 1970s and 1980s—are both a relic of a different New York, and a very real burden for the person who carries the conviction or bench warrant.”

Vance’s announcement follows other changes in New York that have also sought to reduce prositution-related charges. 

Back in March, the New York state legislature repealed the law that made loitering for the purposes of prostitution a crime. That measure was infamously known as the “walking while trans” law, because, critics said, it was used to target trans people and people of color. More than 150 people were arrested using that law in 2018, according to Gothamist. Most were women; 42 percent were Latinx and 49 percent were Black.

Vance isn’t the only district attorney in New York City that’s moving to ease up on sex work prosecutions. Over the last four months, district attorneys in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens have all moved to dismiss hundreds of sex work-related prosecutions.