More than 100 sex workers, trafficking survivors, and advocates traveled to Albany, New York, on Tuesday to lobby state lawmakers on legislation that could pave the way to the full decriminalization of sex work in the state.
After a packed rally on the Capitol’s ornate Million Dollar Staircase, the throng broke up into 18 small groups to take a total of 50 meetings with legislators. In the closed-door sitdowns, they shared personal histories, debunked misconceptions about sex work, and explained why decriminalizing sex work—which includes repealing statutes that make trading sex a crime, passing proactive legislation to prevent the police harassment and profiling, and increasing economic resources for marginalized communities—is the only way to keep sex workers safe.
These meetings were the product of Decrim NY, a coalition of activist groups that launched in February in collaboration with a handful of state legislators, whose support for the cause many advocates said was unprecedented. It wasn’t the first time sex workers had gone to Albany—but advocates said it was the first time lawmakers had sought out their opinions when considering the policies that would shape their lives.
“We’ve gone from sex worker advocates having to relentlessly follow up with folks to get any meeting at all to having legislative staff reach out to us directly,” Audacia Ray, a director at the Anti-Violence Project and member of Decrim NY’s steering committee, told me. “They may not be reaching out with 100 percent support—but they’re reaching out with curiosity and a desire to learn.”
Ray has been involved in sex-worker advocacy long enough to know a tipping point when she sees it. A former sex worker and longtime organizer, Ray helped spearhead New York’s Access to Condoms Coalition, a years-long initiative that resulted in the New York Police Department banning the use of condoms as evidence in the arrest of sex workers in 2014—a victory she said helped build the foundation for Decrim NY’s work. But though Ray ultimately succeeded in banning the police practice, she said some of the lawmakers she’d worked with had been reluctant to back the Access to Condoms Coalition, despite their quiet support of it.
“At that time folks would say privately they supported the bill, but that they couldn’t take the risk of appearing to publicly condone sex work,” Ray said. “I think that’s really shifted in the last couple of years.”
The movement to decriminalize sex work may be gaining the most traction in New York, but it’s not limited to the state. Jessica Raven, another member of Decrim NY’s steering committee, cut her teeth as an organizer for sex work advocacy working for its counterpart in Washington, DC, where legislators introduced a full decriminalization bill in 2016. Raven said the bill had been somewhat “symbolic,” because she and her fellow organizers knew it didn’t have a shot at passing—and it didn’t. But it started a conversation about decriminalizing sex work in DC, and spread that conversation to New York. Other states like Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Oregon, have also begun to examine their laws around sex work, and further legislation to protect sex workers.
New York is leading the way, however, in part thanks to the new makeup of the state legislature: In November, a slate of insurgent women candidates defeated conservative Democrats, and now appear as sponsors or co-sponsors on legislation supported by Decrim NY. “Because of how the Senate and Assembly are stacked, we no longer have to win over Republicans,” Ray said.
The goal of Tuesday’s lobbying day was to generate broad support for two pieces of legislation: The first bill, which is still in committee, would repeal a state penal code that criminalizes "loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution" and that advocates say targets trans women and women of color—whether or not they’re sex workers. The second would provide criminal record relief for trafficking survivors who have been convicted of sex work-related offenses; it passed on Monday in the Senate Codes Committee, which means the bill will advance to the floor for a vote.
Based on the momentum they’ve built over the last few months, and the meetings they had with lawmakers on Tuesday, members of Decrim NY are optimistic they’ll get a vote on both bills before June 19, the last day of the 2019 legislative session. “These bills aren’t controversial,” Raven said.
But some lawmakers who view the two pieces of legislation as common sense still have lingering questions about Decrim NY’s broader proposal of full decriminalization, a package of legislation expected to be introduced later this month. Some worry the decriminalization of sex work would embolden traffickers and further endanger their victims, while others still aren’t sure where their constituents are on the issue.
These kinds of concerns were on display in a more extreme form earlier this year when a coalition of local groups and women’s rights organizations held a rally in March in response to the formation of Decrim NY, warning New Yorkers that decriminalizing sex work could turn their state into the “Las Vegas of the Northeast.”
Many prominent members of the coalition support legislation decriminalizing sex work and eliminating police harassment of trans women and women of color. But advocates who lobbied in Albany on Tuesday said their rhetoric has perpetuated widespread myths conflating sex work and human trafficking—at the expense of those who willingly engage in sex work as well as those who are forced to. Sex workers say it’s often the case that they’re the ones most likely to become victims of trafficking because the criminalization of their work leaves them unable to go to authorities for help.
“Elected officials told us that they understood the issue, but they were concerned about the human trafficking piece,” Bianey García, the trans and gender nonconforming organizer at the immigration rights nonprofit Make the Road New York, said on the phone while riding a bus back to the Manhattan with other Decrim NY members. García is a trafficking survivor as well as a former sex worker who turned to sex work when she couldn’t secure other employment as a trans woman of color. “We were there to explain the difference between human trafficking and survival sex work,” she continued.
At the March rally opposing Decrim NY, some speakers called sex workers “ignorant” of their own oppression, and insisted that there was no way anyone could participate in sex work of their own volition. "There are so many different experiences within the sex trade," a sex worker named Adrian, who disrupted the rally, told VICE at the time. "Some experiences are horrible and exploitative. Other people have empowering experiences. Mostly, it's just a job—it can be very mundane.”
These discussions have begun to occur on a national level as well. Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris have both been asked on the campaign trail to answer for their votes on SESTA, anti-trafficking legislation sex workers said made it more difficult—and more dangerous—to do their jobs. In March, the Vermont senator’s vote sparked debate within the Democratic Socialists of America about whether the organization, which has rapidly gained influence within the Democratic Party, could use its endorsement of Sanders to push him further left on the issue.
Many sex workers have said that they don’t trust Harris, particularly after she spoke out in support of decriminalizing sex work while still defending her stance on SESTA. “The people who were running Backpage … [were] making money off of the sale of youth, and so I called for them to be shut down,” Harris said, referring to a website that sex workers once used to find work. “And I have no regrets about that.” Some argued that by not understanding how the anti-trafficking legislation harmed sex workers, if elected president, Harris wasn’t going to “stop locking up sex workers.”
Decrim NY members say they still have a lot of work to do by way of educating lawmakers as well as the general public. Still, many of them remain astounded that these policy issues have entered mainstream politics. Just years ago, advocates said they were explaining the basics to legislators—now they’re getting into the nitty-gritty details of policymaking.
“As a former sex worker, I didn’t imagine that the hot issue or hot movement would be the decriminalization of sex work,” Garcia said. “I’m so positive that this will be possible to pass to stop decriminalizing us.”