With little public attention, New York City has reversed how it polices prostitution, going from 20,000 annual arrests in 1985 to barely more than 100 this year.
The plunge in arrests, gradual over the last decade, accelerated last year with decisions by borough district attorneys to stop prosecuting sex workers and dismiss thousands of open cases against those charged with selling sex.
Those policy decisions coincided with the implementation of two state laws that altered how law enforcement approaches sex work: One ended police officers’ power to arrest people suspected of loitering for the purpose of prostitution, and another allowed for old prostitution-related convictions to be erased. Supporters of those changes argued enforcement of prostitution laws had long disproportionately affected transgender people and people of color.
Statistics compiled by Gothamist show just how stark the shift has been. As of mid-December, 115 people had been arrested this year for prostitution-related offenses across the five boroughs, an NYPD spokesperson said. In 1985, a peak year for New York City’s vice crackdowns, cops made 19,991 prostitution-related arrests, according to FBI data.
“It's completely different,” said Becca Zipkin, a former prosecutor who is now the policy director at the sex-trafficking survivor group World Without Exploitation. “The landscape in New York City is very different from what we see in other parts of America and even in upstate New York.”
Prostitution remains illegal under state law. But like marijuana, it operates in New York City in a sort of legal netherworld — subject to arrest in certain circumstances, but not others.
State lawmakers have decriminalized recreational marijuana possession, and soon it will be sold in stores and regulated by the state government. But they have yet to figure out a legal fix for prostitution, which is now more commonly called sex work. Two bills in Albany have been proposed to decriminalize certain prostitution-related crimes, but haven't been brought to a vote.
The debate over how to decriminalize sex work centers around how it might affect sex trafficking, which is differentiated from consensual exchanges of money for sex in that it involves force, fraud, coercion or an underage victim.
Advocates for survivors of sex trafficking are concerned that if sex work is fully legal, New York will become a hub of sex tourism. Jayne Bigelsen, vice president of advocacy at the youth shelter Covenant House, said sex traffickers already lure vulnerable girls and young women into prostitution right outside her facility near the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan.
Bigelsen said the would-be traffickers offer drugs, money, a place to stay, or even just the possibility of loving attention, to homeless youth. “I had one young person tell me her pimp was the first person to ever give her a birthday cake,” Bigelsen said.
Traffickers target young homeless people “because they don’t have anyone looking out for them, and it’s also easier to control them” through threats of violence, or “perceived love,” she said. They’re sold for sex through ads on the internet, at massage parlors, or on the street.
Partial or full decriminalization?
Bigelsen supports what’s known as the partial decriminalization of prostitution, meaning that law enforcement would direct its efforts away from targeting sex workers, whom Bigelsen sees largely as victims, and toward sex traffickers.
A bill that takes that approach, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, hasn’t moved through the Legislature since it was introduced last year, but a spokesman for the sponsor, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), said she will push it in 2023. The bill removes criminal liability for sex workers, and penalties on those who pay for sex work are downgraded from incarceration to income-based fines. The proposal would also fund social services for those leaving the sex trade. Penalties for pimping, trafficking and brothel-owning would remain unchanged.
But civil libertarians, LGBTQ organizations and sex worker advocacy groups say partial decriminalization doesn’t go far enough, and would continue to keep sex work in the shadows and susceptible to violence. A full decriminalization bill, the Stop the Violence in the Sex Trades Act sponsored by state Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), removes penalties for buyers and promoters of sex, and will be reintroduced in the new year, according to Salazar’s office.
Trafficking arrests are few
While prostitution-related arrests have declined since 2014, when there were 2,682 arrests, enforcement priorities shifted most significantly in 2017, according to an NYPD spokesperson. That’s when sex workers became less of a target for law enforcement, and officers focused more on those who were pimping workers or paying for sex.
Today, investigations target sex trafficking, indentured servitude, and the exploitation of children, the NYPD said, and sex workers who are arrested are diverted to programs as an alternative to prosecution.
But law enforcement’s policing of the sex trade is proving to be limited. Felony arrests of alleged pimps and traffickers has dropped over the last several years, the data show. There were 152 such arraignments in 2017 and just 61 last year, mostly in Queens, according to data compiled for Gothamist by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College.
Zipkin, policy director at World Without Exploitation, said the prostitution arrests of yesteryear were relatively straightforward. Police could just go to the streets that sex workers were known to frequent and make arrests.
Now, with those arrests deprioritized, and many paid sexual encounters arranged on the internet, arresting pimps and traffickers “is much more cumbersome and requires more resources and is a harder job, and we don't see much of that happening,” Zipkin said.
If sex work were fully decriminalized, Zipkin said it would be even harder to stop the trafficking of children.
“Imagine what would happen when the police, when law enforcement, when the FBI can't so easily get a subpoena to go into a brothel, because that brothel is now a legitimate business,” she said. “So they would have to have actual evidence that the people in there were children, or not being paid… to actually investigate that brothel.”
Proponents of full decriminalization say their approach would actually reduce trafficking, in that people in the sex industry know better than anyone who is being exploited and trafficked, and would be free to report such activity to law enforcement without consequence.
Who are trafficking victims?
”Trafficking” might be perceived as involving the crossing of state or national borders, but most people trafficked in New York state were born and raised there, according to data cited by Nora Cronin, an adjunct professor at John Jay College, at a recent Albany Law Review forum.
Some victims are recruited online — like an alleged trafficker in Queens who met his victim on Instagram, and another who lured women with an online ad to work at a Brooklyn massage parlor, only to force them to have sex with clients at all times of day, seven days a week. Both have been indicted.
Earlier this month, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez indicted a man and woman for sex trafficking a 16-year-old girl. The couple allegedly forced the girl to walk what’s known as “the track” on Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York and have sex with several men in exchange for money that she wasn’t allowed to keep.
Immigrants are also trafficked to New York. Those who provide services to trafficking victims say immigrants arrive under false pretenses. In February, five members of a family-run prostitution ring from Mexico were sentenced to decades in prison for luring young women and girls to New York City with promises of marriage and a better life, only to force them into prostitution.
Consensual sex work
These sensational stories don’t reflect much of what constitutes sex work, according to Zola Bruce, a who is communications director for the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center and a BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) sex worker.
“They're saying, ‘You must be doing something you don't wanna do, you must be trafficked.’ And that's just not true,” Bruce said, arguing that legitimate sex work is too often conflated with trafficking, because sometimes pimps are just boyfriends, or business managers.
Bruce wants to reframe sex work as a job and an industry, with protections that keep it safe for those selling sex. Lifting penalties against people selling sex is not enough, Bruce said.
“You're saying that you're not gonna put sex workers in jail, but you're gonna criminalize their clients? How’s anybody supposed to make money?” Bruce asked. “I don't think that it's helpful to take more rights away from us.”
Bruce said partial decriminalization would force sex workers into dangerous situations and deprive them of full labor rights. Bruce supports full decriminalization.
“People need to take sex workers seriously and understand adult consensual sex work is not a sex crime,” Bruce said. “They don't really think of sex work as an art, but it is… We need to stop this criminalization of sex and sexuality in general and change the trajectory around that so that people can see sex work as a job.”
Back at Covenant House, Bigelsen worries about New York City if sex work is allowed to take place legally, buyers will flood the market and the demand for sex workers will outpace the number of people willingly engaging in the work, Bigelsen said.
“So it just gives the traffickers more of a reason to recruit more people into the trade. Who do they recruit? They recruit Covenant House kids,” she said. “They're already doing it. But at least now we can call the police.”