The movement to end what many argue is the unfair prosecution of sex workers is gaining serious momentum in New York, where state lawmakers are mobilizing alongside advocates to prepare a decriminalization bill in the State Legislature.
More than 20 groups — including several LGBTQ organizations — and a handful of local politicians are joining forces with DecrimNY, a new coalition of sex workers and advocates focused on “decriminalizing, decarcerating, and destigmatizing” their lives and livelihoods. The coalition kicked off on Monday during a press conference with advocates and politicians.
Manhattan State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who heads up the Health Committee, and State Senators Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, and Jessica Ramos of Queens are leading the effort in Albany to pass a bill that would be the first of its kind in the nation. Hoylman, an out gay lawmaker who played a key role in spearheading the passage of two pro-LGBTQ laws earlier this year — a transgender civil rights measures and a ban on conversion therapy practiced on minors — said “decriminalizing and destigmatizing the sex trade will ensure our laws target those who exploit sex workers rather than the workers themselves.”
Hoylman added, “What our current laws treat as a crime is, for many marginalized New Yorkers, a tenuous lifeline and a livelihood. Criminalization renders them vulnerable. It disproportionately impacts LGBTQI+ New Yorkers, immigrants, and people of color, and furthers a devastating cycle of violence and incarceration. This has to end.”
The DecrimNY effort also aims to wipe out past prostitution conviction records. Lawmakers are folding into the bill a pair of existing proposals to allow survivors of sex traffickers to vacate their prostitution convictions and to repeal criminal provisions related to loitering for the purpose of prostitution, often used to harass people whether or not they are engaged in sex work.
Decriminalization would allow law enforcement to focus on the perpetrators of human trafficking instead of targeting victims, advocates say.
“Full decriminalization of sex work is desperately needed both because it safeguards the human rights and safety of sex workers and because it is an essential step towards being able to effectively investigate and disrupt human trafficking networks,” Salazar said.
Some of the main concerns addressed by the DecrimNY movement include the mistreatment of sex workers by law enforcement and the stigma attached to the work, which relegates those in the industry to a vulnerable underclass. Many sex workers are also immigrants, and the criminalization of their livelihood places them at risk of possible deportation and abuse from those exploiting their fear of deportation.
“I am a trans woman and former sex worker,” Bianey Garcia, Make the Road New York’s TGNCIQ justice organizer and a DecrimNY Steering Committee member, said in a written statement. “At the age of 18, I started my transition together with my other undocumented trans friends. We did sex work to survive in New York City. One by one, they were deported, and for them I’m fighting to decriminalize sex work. We are tired of being criminalized, marginalized, abused, and arrested for doing a job for survival.”
Jared Trujillo of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys noted that an Urban Institute report on sex work in New York City found that LGBTQ youth are seven times more likely than straight youth to have traded sex for a place to stay. The same report found that transgender youth in particular are eight times more likely to do so.
“The over-policing of these youth further isolated them, and creates barriers to accessing healthcare and to reporting abuse,” Trujillo said. “Decriminalizing sex work is the essential first step of empowering these young people, and enabling them to have a future.”
Ramos and Salazar wrote a joint op-ed in the New York Daily News this week and described the effects of current laws and systems on the lives of sex workers. In that piece, the pair asked other lawmakers to join their cause. “We recognize the tremendous public education required to pass such a bill, but we believe New York can and should be the first to decriminalize sex work fully,” they wrote.
Housing Works, Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, the National Lawyers Guild Queer Caucus, the Democratic Socialists of America NYC Queer Caucus, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys LGBT Caucus are among those involved in DecrimNY, according to the coalition’s website.