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Sex Work Gets One Step Closer To Being Decriminalized In NY

Protesters rally for protections for sex workers on May Day
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Protesters rally for protections for sex workers on May Day Kathy Willens/AP/Shutterstock

The DecrimNY coalition took a big leap towards its goal of decriminalizing sex work in New York on Monday when state lawmakers announced the introduction of legislation that would allow adults to purchase and sell sex in spaces “where legal businesses are permitted.”

The bill would repeal or amend a range of statutes criminalizing sex work and allow people to apply to clear their records of offenses that are no longer considered crimes. Advocates who spoke at a press conference in Manhattan argued that the legislation would allow marginalized groups to support themselves while making it easier to report exploitation, violence and trafficking to the police.

“Because of sex work, I have consistent money to provide for myself, money to pay for gender-affirming health care, rent, food, my phone bill,” said Candii, a speaker at the event who said she turned to sex work after being fired from her job as a private investigator when she started to transition from male to female.

The only jurisdictions in the U.S. that currently have some form of legal prostitution are a handful of counties in Nevada. But that may soon change. Bills to decriminalize sex work have recently been introduced in Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., raising the profile of the decriminalization movement nationwide.

In New York, a growing number of city and state elected officials are signaling that they support some form of decriminalization, but many have stopped short of endorsing DecrimNY’s platform. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, is among those who say that people should not be arrested for prostitution but that the police should still target customers, a position often referred to as the “end demand” model.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation Monday. Asked about the legislation in a radio interview on Tuesday, the governor declined to offer an opinion.

State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a sponsor of the bill, was dismissive of the suggestion that the state should create regulations to promote health and safety in the sex industry at the same time that it’s decriminalizing it. But State Senator Jessica Ramos said regulations could be forthcoming, adding that she wanted to listen to sex workers’ recommendations.

“Sex workers like any other workers should be organizing as a collective and creating demands, because nobody understands the industry better than workers themselves,” said Ramos.

As DecrimNY seeks to win the support of state legislators in the coming months, it will likely face pushback from the cohort of anti-trafficking organizations that views the commercial sex industry as inherently exploitative and unsafe, regardless of its legal status. While these groups say people should not be arrested for prostitution, they also don’t want it to be normalized and say law enforcement should continue to go after “pimps and Johns.”

“DecrimNY is painting a false image of what the commercial sex trade really looks like," said Lori Cohen, director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, which has interviewed more than 1,000 people involved in the sex trades as part of its work with the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts in Brooklyn and Queens. "There are a range of voices speaking on behalf of DecrimNY saying that this is a lifestyle choice, that this is empowering, that it's a decision people make, and our clients are not telling us that. It's reckless to say this is a job like any other job."

Cohen added that the DecrimNY argument that people would be more likely to report exploitation and trafficking if sex work was decriminalized is the "height of hypocrisy because that same movement has been slamming law enforcement as being unable to do their job properly."

Advocates said they don’t expect the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act to pass before the state legislative session ends on June 19.

Last month, state legislators introduced two of the less controversial pieces of the DecrimNY agenda as standalone bills. One bill would repeal a statute that criminalizes “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” while the other would allow people who have been trafficked to clear their records of crimes they were coerced into committing. Both have advanced in the Assembly but have not yet been scheduled for a full vote.

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