Call Off the Cops

The push to decriminalize sex work in New York

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TS Candii had already been awake for seven hours when she stepped up to a bouquet of microphones at the base of the elaborately carved Great Western Staircase in the New York State Capitol on the morning of May 7. Behind her stood more than one hundred sex workers and advocates, some holding up bright red glittery stilettos cut out of cardstock. The stairwell echoed with shouts of “Sex worker rights are human rights!” a chant Candii and her bus mates had practiced at dawn, riding from New York City through the Lincoln Tunnel and up I-87 North to rally in Albany and meet with members of the State Senate and Assembly.

Candii, a twenty-five-year-old black trans woman and a leader with the criminal justice group VOCAL-NY, told a cluster of business-suited legislative staff and members of the capital press corps that she has faced discrimination since she was thirteen: at home, at school, at work. “I got in trouble in school for wearing a bow in my hair,” she recalled. “The teachers pointed it out to my parents, and eventually my parents threw me out due to my gender. I was out on the street. I needed money to eat, I needed places to sleep, I needed to live. So, I started selling sex to survive.”

“Sex work saved my life,” she added. “We should not be criminalized for survival work.”

The event marked the first lobby day for Decrim NY, a new coalition of current and former sex workers and partner organizations who in February announced their intention to make New York the first state to decriminalize the adult sex trade. (Similar legislation was recently reintroduced in the District of Columbia.) Put simply, decriminalization would repeal laws that make it a crime for consenting adults to exchange sex for money, whether on the street or behind closed doors.

It is distinct from legalization: a regulatory model that, in the United States, is currently found in only ten counties in Nevada. In practice, legalization has created a “two-tiered system,” as Juno Mac and Molly Smith describe it in Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights. Legal brothels exist, but some workers can still be excluded. Those who can’t obtain a license, for example, might not be able to work legally. Same for those who don’t live in proximity to a legalized zone.

There are currently just two imperfect examples of decriminalization: New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia. In both places, most sex workers—excluding noncitizens—can work without fear of police raids. They benefit, as well, from labor laws prohibiting sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Models like these, Amnesty International argued in its 2016 statement on the human rights of sex workers, remove the stigma of crime that “routinely [forces] sex workers to operate at the margins of society in clandestine and dangerous environments with little recourse to safety or state protection.”

Decrim NY’s goal is to remove criminal statutes for the sale, purchase, and promotion of sex, as well as the civil penalties for engaging in prostitution included in state laws that govern public health and real estate. (Currently, allegations of prostitution can result in eviction and, in some cases, penalties to property owners.)

Collectively, they say, these changes would end the disproportionate arrests and stigmatization of vulnerable people who trade sex either by choice, because they are coerced by a trafficker, or, like Candii once did as a sex worker, out of economic necessity. Their proposal does not, they emphasize, touch the statutes used to prosecute abusers or people behind human trafficking of adults or children, which by federal definition must entail force, fraud, or coercion.

“The basic concept of the bill is that we want to get the government out of the business of demeaning or criminalizing activities involving sexual conduct between consenting adults,” explained Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who will sponsor the omnibus decriminalization bill. (Legislation had not been introduced by press time.) “The law should not be treating sex work as inherently evil, which is what the law does today.”

“Sex work saved my life,” said Candii. “We should not be criminalized for survival work.”

First, though, the coalition is pushing for two bills that would mark initial steps toward their ultimate goal. One eliminates the crime of “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.” Another expands the vacating (i.e., annulling) of previous criminal judgments for trafficking survivors, who often face barriers to housing and employment.

Some of Decrim NY’s staunchest opponents—among them anti-human trafficking groups and some mainstream feminist organizations—agree that people who sell sex should not be arrested. These initial Decrim NY bills have their vocal support, even as they maintain that the sex trade can, and should, be stamped out with the assistance of law enforcement.

The newly convened New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution (NYAALP), which includes the National Organization for Women and service providers like New York City–based Sanctuary for Families, says that police should double down on arresting, according to their literature, “pimps and sex buyers.” They see the sex trade as inherently exploitative and degrading, fueled by buyer demand.

This uneasy overlap has boosted the chances of Decrim NY’s early goals, even as it sets the stage for a longer-term legislative battle.

The Fear Factor

Overall prostitution-related arrests have declined substantially in New York City in recent years. There were reportedly about 1,800 arrests in 2018, compared to 4,000 in 2012. But law enforcement has continued to commit significant harm against people in the sex trades and those profiled as such, ranging from arrest—and, for noncitizens, the associated risk of deportation—to verbal and sexual abuse, and even, in one prominent case, death. In November of 2017, a thirty-eight-year-old immigrant massage worker from China named Yang Song fell four stories to her death during an NYPD Vice raid of her Flushing, Queens, workplace. A subsequent investigation by the Queens District Attorney found no wrongdoing in her death, stating that Yang Song died “attempting to flee apprehension by law enforcement officers, as a result of her unlawful conduct.”

“Criminalization makes everyone really afraid and really ashamed of what they are doing, and it’s dangerous when people are afraid to speak out about when something bad happens to them,” said Kate Zen, thirty-two, a member of Decrim NY and organizer with Red Canary Song, a grassroots group in Flushing that began organizing with massage workers after Yang Song’s death. “Whether it’s wage theft from their bosses or customers, or day-to-day violence or abuse. People don’t feel entitled to rights, so people live in danger.”

The vast majority of people affected by current enforcement methods are nonwhite. Arrests for the prostitution-related loitering charge spiked more than 180 percent over a ten-month period in 2018 compared to the year previous, and more than 90 percent of people arrested were either black or Hispanic. In a class action lawsuit backed by the Legal Aid Society, plaintiffs argued that police unfairly issue the loitering charge based on a person’s appearance and dress—a short skirt, say—targeting in particular trans women and women of color. The suit was settled in early June, with the NYPD agreeing to new non-discriminatory enforcement policies.

A small bloc of New York Assembly Members and Senators have aligned themselves with Decrim NY, including several who defeated incumbents last year as part of a statewide push to oust centrist Democrats. One, Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens, has made it a point to refer to sex workers as her “neighbors” when she advocates for their rights in the press. She’s joined veterans like Gottfried, who ten years ago stood by sex workers calling for the exclusion of condoms as evidence of prostitution in criminal cases in New York.

The decriminalization of sex work has also become a campaign issue—nationally, on the presidential trail, and locally, in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, who will oversee the city’s largest and most diverse borough. “I will decline to prosecute all offenses related to sex work, including the prosecution of customers and landlords,” DA candidate Tiffany Cabán pledged at a candidate forum in March. “As a queer Latina, I understand that our trans communities of color are disproportionately affected by these laws.”

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat whose office Decrim NY lobbied in May, later told me that she is “open to” decriminalization, sharing the story of a sex worker in her district who went to jail for allegedly stealing from a customer. “What was an economic issue became a criminal issue,” Walker said. If sex work were not a crime, she predicted, the matter might have been resolved in civil court.

Yet several legislators are quiet or outright concerned. Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Scarsdale Democrat, is sponsoring the Assembly version of the loitering bill, in which she says she is “absolutely confident.” But she opposes decriminalization overall. “I have a great deal of problem decriminalizing the patrons,” she told me recently. Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman, who is sponsoring the loitering bill in the Senate, declined to comment on decriminalization before legislation overturning additional crimes is introduced.

Neither the loitering bill nor the records-clearing bill had gained priority status by late May, but Gottfried expressed confidence that month that they’d reach floor votes before summer recess. The omnibus decriminalization bill, by contrast, he likened to some of his once-derided priorities, like medical marijuana and marriage equality. “That’s a bill that will require a lot of changing of minds among a lot of the public,” he said.

Decrim NY has no illusions. Yet the timing is strategic, as press attention builds. Ashley Rendon, a thirty-seven-year-old trans Latina sex worker from Queens, carried one of the sparkly, stiletto-adorned signs on lobby day. She recounted times police stopped her, even when she wasn’t working, because they assumed she was selling sex.

“I’m not scared here,” she told me inside the capitol building. “It’s good for the future generations that we win this battle. For us now, and for the future, new girls.”

Stuck in Trafficking

In the Manhattan conference room of a prominent corporate law firm in April, an urgent panel discussion was taking place. “We’re here today in part because there’s this movement, Decrim NY, we’re all talking about and thinking about,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the legal center at Sanctuary for Families, a service provider that is strongly opposed to the decriminalization of the sex trades.

Leidholdt was addressing a group of prosecutors, high-ranking police officers, and anti-human-trafficking activists in the twenty-seventh floor offices of Proskauer in Times Square. Sun slanted through the floor-to-ceiling windows facing uptown and west, where New Jersey was visible across the Hudson River.

Throughout the evening, NYAALP speakers invoked criminal justice reform. Trafficking survivors need “an end to stigmatization,” Leidholdt said. “And treating them as criminals undermines what they need.” But police intervention is central to her vision: the precise extraction of “prostituted people” from an otherwise criminalized industry. This approach has been adopted in countries including Canada and Sweden and is known variously as the “Nordic” or “Equality” model. “There is an appropriate place for stigma,” panelist Jess Dannhauser of the homeless and disadvantaged youth service provider Graham Windham told the crowd. “The stigma against buying sex is necessary, or we will unleash a demand, and our kids will become the farm system.”

The Decrim NY movement is intentionally amplifying the voices of the most vulnerable in the sex trades: people of color, trans women, immigrants, and queer young people.

NYAALP frequently uses the term “pimp” to describe men who they say profit off of the exploitation of women and children in the sex trades. Under decriminalization, they warn, pimps will have free reign. They also reject the term sex work (NYAALP prefers “prostituted people”) because they say it makes the sex trade sound like a viable career path. “New York will become a pimp state,” predicted Reverend Que English of the anti-trafficking group Not On My Watch! in a recent phone call. “That’s where we’re heading.”

Defense is an unfamiliar posture for NYAALP member groups, who’ve long enjoyed communicative relationships with legislators and law enforcement. Sanctuary for Families was instrumental in expanding New York’s anti-trafficking legislation in 2007 and 2015, increasing penalties for sex and labor trafficking. A 2007 anti-trafficking law also increased the charge for patronizing a prostitute to a Class A misdemeanor. Last year, though, Sanctuary for Families supported the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA): federal legislation that made websites liable for third party content. Many sex workers could no longer advertise safely online and began organizing, drawing unprecedented national attention. Recently, Leidholdt told me, she fears her side hasn’t gotten a fair shake in the press: “People don’t know why we care so much about our issue.”

Inconsistent messaging hasn’t helped their case. NYAALP’s first rally, on the steps of New York City Hall in March, got considerable coverage because the British anti-transgender group Object! participated, raising their banner—“No to the sex trade, surrogacy, and transgenderism”—behind the day’s speakers.

Sanctuary for Families opposed Object! in a statement that day and said the group had not been invited. But Decrim NY responded with a strongly worded press release. “I’m not surprised the trans community was targeted here,” Mateo Guerrero-Tabares, a trans advocate with Make the Road NY, said at the time. “We fight to decriminalize the sex trades because it is a matter of survival for our community.”

Pejorative characterizations of Decrim NY also emerged during the Proskauer panel in April. Chitra Raghavan, a psychology professor at John Jay College specializing in forensics and trauma, dismissed Decrim NY during her remarks as a group of sex workers “from a class where you get to choose when . . . and who to sleep with.” A privileged group, in other words, that confuses sexual exploitation with empowerment. Speaking next, Leidholdt suggested that Raghavan’s assessment might be overbroad. “I’m not saying that no one in this Decrim NY movement has suffered,” she said. “There’s some diversity there.”

Choices and Non-Choices

With dark, curly hair and a steady gaze, Audacia Ray, of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, is a veteran of the sex worker rights movement. Fifteen years ago, she says, it would have been valid to criticize some serious blind spots within it. At that time, she was involved with the early efforts of Sex Worker Awareness and $pread, a since-folded magazine by and for sex workers based in New York City. Her own fight was for the legitimization of sex work as a job and for bodily autonomy. “As an indoor sex worker who is white and cis, has a Masters degree, I was never really at risk of that kind of criminalization,” she told me recently. “I was not harassed by police.”

The Decrim NY movement, by contrast, is intentionally amplifying the voices of the most vulnerable in the sex trades: people of color, trans women, immigrants, and queer young people. To do this, Ray and her fellow steering-committee members have enlisted the help of established grassroots organizations that understand sex worker rights as a criminal justice issue, an affordable housing issue, an immigrant rights issue. Ray’s own organization has recently become involved in VOCAL-NY’s years-long campaign for bail reform in New York. Make the Road NY is fighting for decriminalization alongside statewide protections for low-income renters and driver’s licenses for undocumented New Yorkers. Together, they’ve begun testing out hashtag-ready demands: in the spirit of #AbolishIce, #AbolishVice.

As long as the sex trades remain criminalized, police will continue to intrude on sex workers’ lives in dangerous ways.

Bianey Garcia, a trans woman and community organizer with Make the Road NY, has been part of the movement shift ever since her involvement with the condoms-as-evidence fight in the aughts. She says she came to New York City undocumented at age fifteen and was kidnapped by a man who eventually demanded that she sell sex for money. When she refused, he threatened to call immigration enforcement. Garcia eventually escaped but was fired from a restaurant job when she began to transition. After a futile job search, she returned to sex work. “Nobody was forcing me, nobody was telling me what to do, and I was doing sex work to survive,” she told me recently, while flyering for Cabán, her chosen Queens DA candidate, in the Corona neighborhood. If she were to lose her current job, she says, she’d likely have to return to selling sex.“I do understand the difference between sex work and human trafficking because I’m a survivor of both things.”

Intruder Alert

Leidholdt invited me to her Manhattan office for a discussion in May with a handful of NYAALP leaders. An advocate for domestic violence survivors since the 1970s, she speaks confidently and precisely, alluding to her decades of experience advising police and legislators. Leidholdt acknowledges that police responding to trafficking and prostitution allegations have been known to demand sex on the job and have even been indicted in high-profile trafficking busts. But she sees a partial solution in force-wide sensitivity training. A new white paper from Sanctuary for Families demands this. “Police can be part of the problem or part of the solution,” Leidholdt said.

NYAALP is also advocating for city-funded service centers for people in the sex trades to access housing, health care, and legal assistance without law enforcement intervention. The group celebrated on May 16, when City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced plans for the first such center during a speech in Manhattan. (The news also drew praise from Decrim NY, even as Johnson clarified that he is opposed to decriminalization.)

But as long as the sex trades remain criminalized, police will continue to intrude on sex workers’ lives in dangerous ways, says Kate D’Adamo, a sex worker advocate and consultant who is allied with Decrim NY. This, in turn, is an “incredibly effective barrier to anyone reporting exploitation.” D’Adamo points to a recent report from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, featuring interviews with almost two dozen people in the sex trades. Canada adopted the Equality Model in 2014. Since then, efforts to stamp out the sex trade “have justified the escalation of law enforcement intrusions in sex workers’ workspaces,” the authors write.

In these situations, there isn’t always a clear distinction between people who sell sex and people who are charged with promoting it. “A few cases stand out in my mind where two people have been working together and have essentially been helping each other,” said Abigail Swenstein, a staff attorney in the Exploitation Intervention Project at the Legal Aid Society. In one instance, “it was really just two people using the same space. But they were alternating, so every other date would be one person’s job. So, when the undercover [officer] came, it wasn’t my client’s turn, so she was charged with promoting.”

Kate Mogulescu, director of the Criminal Defense and Advocacy Clinic at Brooklyn Law School, notes that “pimp” is a colloquialism lacking any legal definition, one with racialized undertones. “These references to monsters and demons—we can’t let that control how we make policy,” she said. Decrim NY’s legislative proposal, Mogulescu added, doesn’t remove “any tools that law enforcement would need” to prosecute coercive or abusive behavior.

Ray also believes that the coalition will eventually need to propose labor regulations to guard against wage theft and harassment.

Decrim NY also notes the disparities in the policing of sex buying, which show racial bias similar to arrests for offenses like turnstile jumping and marijuana possession. In 2018, state data show, 78 percent of the 1,017 people arrested for patronizing were black or Hispanic. “Like other policing practices, arrests of the clients of sex workers or people profiled as such, disproportionately impact people of color,” the group said in a recent statement.

During NYAALP’s April panel, NYPD Inspector Jim Klein assured the audience that a paradigm shift in policing prostitution is underway in New York City, one aligned with their demands. “There aren’t enough handcuffs to go around,” he said. “So we decided to target pimps and johns, something that we’re doing quite successfully.”

But Klein cannot envision a future for New York City where sex workers are not arrested. This year, he said, 911 complaints about prostitution are nearly 50 percent higher than the same period in 2013. While arrests have declined in recent years, “I personally don’t see it going to zero because we have a responsibility to our community that we work in partnership with to address their complaints.”

Sex Work in Progress

Ray appreciates that the momentum behind Decrim NY brings a new set of challenges. “We have moved past those ‘101’ conversations” she told me during a recent phone call. “We’re not having as many of the like, ‘What is sex work?’ conversations. People are starting to ask us really hard questions that we actually don’t know the answers to.”

For example, Decrim NY is pushing back against NYAALP’s assertion that decriminalization will prompt brothels to proliferate across the state. “I don’t expect that there would be anything like the volume of activity that [the opposition is] trying to portray,” Gottfried says. In part because “a municipality would have existing authority under zoning to spell out where activities could take place.” But this raises questions about who decriminalization might exclude.

Ray also believes that the coalition will eventually need to propose labor regulations to guard against wage theft and harassment. This will likely complicate efforts to communicate the distinction between decriminalization and outright legalization. “Speaking for myself,” she said, “I actually don’t think there is a universe where we can strip away all of the bad laws and then replace them with nothing.” For this, there is no comprehensive precedent. “It is both enough and not enough to say, ‘We want decrim because we know that criminalizing communities is not helping people.’”

For now, though, there’s the challenge of talking openly about what it’s like to be criminalized, in the same halls where these criminal laws were written. Waiting for the charter bus from Albany back to New York City this spring, Candii admitted that it had not been easy to tell her story to reporters and legislators. In fact, she explained, she’d never told her story publicly before. “Today, for me, honestly, it was very emotional on the inside,” she said. “It was challenging in a way, for the fact that it’s the press, and the world now knows.”

During her own remarks that morning, Ray turned away from the scrum of reporters and toward the crowd standing on the ornate staircase behind her. “This part is not going to be easy,” she warned. “People are going to say awful things to us and about our experiences. But I know that our resilience as survivors, and as hustlers, is going to get us through.”

Emma Whitford is a journalist based in Brooklyn.

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