Politicians Are Getting Serious About Decriminalizing Sex Work
In the past, these proposals were meant to advance the conversation. Now they're designed to be passed.
Corey Torpie/Decrim NY
On Monday morning, New York lawmakers introduced a legislative package that would make the state the first to decriminalize sex work. The bill, called the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, represents the culmination of months of lobbying and advocacy work from Decrim NY, a coalition just four months old, made up of sex workers, trafficking survivors, and their allies.
The announcement arrives on the heels of a decriminalization bill in D.C., which was reintroduced last week after similar legislation died in the city council in 2017, having never been brought to a vote.
Jessica Raven, a former member of D.C.’s coalition to decriminalize sex work, said in a May interview with VICE that the 2017 legislation had been largely “symbolic.” With so little support from local lawmakers, the best Raven and her fellow organizers could hope for was to “start a conversation” about decriminalization.
Raven believes it has worked. The last few years has brought the fight for decriminalization—which has been led for years by sex workers—from the fringes of political discourse to the center. The question of decriminalization is no longer merely one for local and state officials, but 2020 presidential hopefuls, who have already been pressed to come out with positions on the issue, or made to account for their votes on FOSTA/SESTA, federal anti-trafficking legislation sex workers say has made it more dangerous to do their work. Now, the bills introduced in D.C. and New York are not just intended as symbols or conversation starters. Advocates and lawmakers say they’re proposals meant to be lobbied for, debated, and—though likely not in this legislative session—passed into law.
“The 2017 decriminalization bill was significant because it helped us anchor our advocacy, make decriminalization a key issue in local elections, and shift public opinion to set the stage for 2019 bills in D.C. and New York,” Raven, now a member of Decrim NY, said Monday. “Now, we're seeing decriminalization discussed on the national stage even among presidential candidates, and more people are taking this issue seriously.”
The New York legislation tackles nearly a dozen state laws that currently criminalize sex work. It would repeal sections of the penal code that make prostitution, “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”—a measure decriminalization advocates call the “walking while trans ban”— and “promoting” prostitution misdemeanors. (In some cases, "promoting" prostitution can be a felony as well.) The bill also proposes a number of amendments to the penal code, including a sweeping one that would make changes to dwelling law, public health law, real property law, and more, to ensure that sex workers aren’t criminalized by other existing laws once their work is decriminalized. And under the legislation, sex workers with prostitution-related arrests on their records would be eligible for criminal record relief. Decrim NY has emphasized that the new legislation doesn’t seek to change trafficking laws, an issue organizers believe will be abated with the decriminalization of sex work.
If sex work were decriminalized, Decrim NY members say, sex work would be treated much like a job in any other industry: Sex workers who are harassed, assaulted, or exploited could go to authorities for help without fear of arrest, create their own networks to keep each other safe, and even form unions to collectively bargain for additional protections. "Sex work is work" is a common refrain in activism for decriminalization.
Trans women, women of color, and trans women of color feel the effects of criminalization most acutely; many of them make up Decrim NY’s steering committee and have spoken at the coalition’s rallies about their brushes with arrest, incarceration, and abuse as a result of their work being criminalized.
At Monday’s press conference, held in Manhattan, steering committee member Cecilia Gentili recalled her time at Rikers Island, the result, she said, of being unable to tell authorities that she was being trafficked in the house they raided for drugs for fear that doing so would add prostitution charges to her arrest. TS Candii, another member of Decrim NY, told the crowd of reporters that she had turned to sex work when she lost her job due to discrimination during her gender transition and needed a way to pay for housing and bills.
“[Sex work] is a source of income where I’m not discriminated against—I don’t have to worry about getting fired because my boss hates trans people,” she said Monday. “Because of criminalization, however, I do have to worry about getting a prostitution charge on my permanent record, and law enforcement harassing me, taking my condoms, and having to perform sexual favors in exchange for them not arresting me. Because of criminalization, I worry about being profiled as soon as I walk out the door.”
“The harm caused by criminalization is hard to even quantify,” State Senator Julia Salazar, a cosponsor of the bill, said later during the press conference. “It keeps people—because of their gender identity and because of circumstances beyond their control—from what they need to survive and thrive in our society.”
Audacia Ray, a director at the Anti-Violence Project and member of Decrim NY’s steering committee, said it’s something many New York residents have begun to “intuitively understand”—that the “criminalization of sex work is the criminalization of poverty and of trans people trying to survive.” She said it’s also something lawmakers were receptive to when Decrim NY went to Albany last month to lobby for a repeal on the “walking while trans ban” and criminal record relief, two features of Monday’s bill that have been introduced as separate pieces of legislation.
Ray and others say the new political will to discuss sex work decriminalization in New York would not have been possible without the progressive gains of the 2018 elections. Many of Decrim NY’s biggest allies in the New York state legislature are women like Salazar and State Senator Jessica Ramos, who unseated centrist Democrats in their primary races and broke up the bloc of Republican-aligned Democrats many say stalled progress in New York.
“Some of the older folks around Albany said, ‘Just wait and see—all of these legislators are going to be much more concerned with getting reelected than fighting for radical change,’” Ray said. “It’s major that Salazar has kept her promise [to sex workers] since she was elected.”
Members of the D.C. council are moving left on the issue too, according to at-large Councilmember David Grosso, a co-sponsor of D.C.’s new decriminalization bill. On the phone Monday, he agreed with Raven that the 2017 version of his legislation had been intended to “expand the conversation.”
“This is a standard tactic that is necessary to take sometimes on thorny issues that people have been thinking about the same way for many years,” Grosso said. When he first proposed legalizing marijuana in 2013, at the forefront of debates over the issue, he said, none of his colleagues were willing to cosponsor it. When he reintroduced it this year, he did so with three other councilmembers, and last month D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she plans to file her own legalization bill for consideration. For Grosso, it’s a sign that ideas once considered fringe can eventually catch on, if one is persistent.
“I think the same will happen with sex work,” he said.
Since the D.C. council’s legislative sessions are two years long, Grosso has until January 1, 2020 to rally support for the bill and get it a hearing in committee—something the bill didn’t get in 2017. He’s hopeful: “It certainly helps that there’s a national conversation happening,” he continued. “We’re not the one outlier; we’re part of a bigger movement now.”
Raven and her co-organizers know there’s still much to do. With New York’s legislative session ending on June 19—a matter of days away—Decrim NY is looking ahead to more community outreach to educate the public about what decriminalization means, debunk misconceptions, and address any concerns.
Many Decrim NY members spoke of a long road ahead, but at the end of Monday’s press conference, Gentili said she felt differently.
“I’m optimistic that this isn’t going to be as long of a fight,” she said.
- sex work
- New York State Legislature
- sex work decriminalization
- Julia Salazar
- Decrim NY
- Jessica Ramos