NEW YORK ― Sex workers could be released from prison and no longer fear arrest under a new bill announced on Monday by New York state Democrats.
The Democratic and Republican parties have both historically ignored the needs and demands of sex-working people. But first-term state Sens. Julia Salazar (D) and Jessica Ramos (D), who will work with Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D) on drafting the legislation, are part of a younger group of more progressive Democratic politicians and candidates who have been vocal about sex workers’ rights. And now there’s an actual chance to get their legislation passed.
Salazar was the first person to include sex workers’ rights on her campaign platform and go on to win her election. Sex workers and their allies celebrated the win, and now, just three months after being elected, the 27-year-old democratic socialist is staying true to her word.
“The climate of fear of intimidation caused by criminalizing sex work makes it very difficult for sex workers to seek any kind of redress for labor issues or to report the various kinds of abuse many endure in silence,” Salazar said at a press conference Monday. “Sex work is work, and we need to start treating it as such.”
Ramos, who chairs the state Senate’s Committee on Labor, represents New York’s District 13. It includes the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which has the largest population of transgender people in the country.
“I’ve seen sex workers on Roosevelt Avenue nearly my entire life,” she said. “Decriminalizing sex work will protect [them] from exploitation, allow them to seek protection from trafficking, and will help victims of sex trafficking seek justice.”
New Yorkers must “recognize the most marginalized of our neighbors.”
The legislation already has some co-sponsors. Assemblymembers Dan Quart (D) and Catalina Cruz (D) spoke at the press conference to show their support. After Democrats took control of all three branches of the state government in the midterm elections in November, the topic of sex workers’ rights shifted from fringe issue to the mainstream.
“This is a taboo topic,” Quart said on Monday. “But it can’t be taboo anymore.”
Decriminalization vs. Legalization
The state legislators shared the mic with members of Decrim NY, a coalition of LGTBQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups. Members of Decrim NY actively called for decriminalizing sex work rather than legalizing it. Sex worker activists have long spoken out in support of decriminalization rather than legalization, saying that legalization does not actually protect workers.
Decriminalization removes criminal penalties for the trading of sex between adults and consenting adult sex workers, Nina Luo, steering committee member Decrim NY, told HuffPost on Monday. Decrim NY will work with Salazar, Ramos and Gottfried on the new legislation.
“The challenge with legalization is that it oftentimes restricts the trade in such a way that it basically still criminalizes workers,” she said.
She pointed to Nevada as an example, where prostitution is legal but regulated in such a way that brothel owners and managers are more empowered than workers. With decriminalization, sex work is regulated the same as any other kind of work ― thus giving sex workers more power to report labor violations such as assault and theft by their clients or law enforcement, she said.
“Sex work is work and we need to start treating it as such.”
Decriminalization would also reduce the need for police involvement.
Law enforcement officers have long victimized the sex-working community through harassment, assault, coercion and even rape. On Monday, members of Red Canary Song, an activist group supporting Chinese migrant massage workers, honored Yang Song, a young migrant sex worker who fell to her death during an NYPD massage parlor raid in 2017.
“Chinese massage parlor workers need decriminalization and destigmatization, so that they are not persecuted for survival, and can seek help in cases of labor exploitation,” Kate Zen, an organizer with the group, said on Monday.
Support services for sex workers are often only provided post-arrest through the criminal justice system ― but those arrests and stings are often humiliating and terrifying, Luo said.
With a bill that decriminalizes the sex trade, sex workers can access social services through other means than the criminal justice system.
An Emphasis On Decarceration
Part of Decrim NY’s vision for this legislation is to release sex workers serving time for prostitution. This would also include clearing prostitution and loitering charges from criminal records.
Cecilia Gentili, a former undocumented sex worker and trans woman who is a member of Decrim NY, spoke about her experience of being arrested and sent to Rikers Island. She grew emotional while the crowd of 150 supporters cheered her on.
“It feels surreal to be talking about this,” she said. “As a transgender woman who did sex work, I have experienced oppression and prejudice from the police, immigration authorities and even social service organizations because I was trading sex.”
“Until we decriminalize sex work, the people most impacted by criminalization ― trans people, people of color and undocumented people ― will continue to be treated as less than the full humans they are.”