Lawmakers in New York introduced a first-of-its-kind bill to decriminalize sex work throughout the state on Monday.
The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act is a legislative package that “decriminalizes and decarcerates” the sex trade in New York, according to a press release from organizers at the Decrim NY coalition. If passed, it would be the first measure in the country to legalize prostitution statewide.
“Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state,” state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) said at a Monday press conference.
“Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows,” Salazar added. “New York state needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces.”
New York currently has over a dozen anti-sex-work statutes, according to Decrim NY. Under the new legislation, laws that criminalize the sale and purchase of sex between two consenting adults would be repealed. Laws that protect victims of human trafficking, sexual assault, harassment, battery and statutory rape would stay on the books.
The bill would give sex workers and trafficking survivors the option to apply for the expunging of any criminal record of prostitution. Additionally, the measure would edit the gendered language of the remaining anti-prostitution laws ― which focus largely on cisgender women ― to include LGBTQ people, who participate in sex work at higher rates.
The legislation is co-sponsored by Salazar, state Rep. Richard Gottfried (D), state Rep. Yuh-Line Niou (D) and state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D).
“Many sex workers fall prey to people who steal from us and commit violence against us because our criminal status makes it hard for us to pursue justice.”
Several organizers, politicians, former sex workers and trafficking survivors spoke at Monday’s press conference.
Kate Zen, a former sex worker and current organizer with Red Canary Song, talked about how she turned to sex work to pay her way through college. As someone new to the business, Zen said, she was tricked by a man into crossing state lines after which he assaulted and stole from her. Zen tried to report the crime to police but because she was engaging in illegal sex work, she said the officer told her she would “not look sympathetic as a victim.”
“I am not alone,” Zen said. “Many sex workers fall prey to people who steal from us and commit violence against us because our criminal status makes it hard for us to pursue justice. Our fear of being criminalized is an impediment to getting justice against traffickers and other people who steal from us and harm us.”
“I am here calling for the decriminalization of sex work because criminalization is a root cause of trafficking. We need raids and rights, not rescue,” she added.
Bianey Garcia, a formerly undocumented transgender woman of color who was once a sex worker and is a trafficking survivor, said that she, not the government, is the best person to make the day-to-day decisions about protecting herself from violence and exploitation.
“This economy doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes, sex work is the best option for people like me. That’s my choice,” she said. “And criminalizing our clients, housing, loved ones, and the sex workers we collaborate with to keep each other safe means taking away our only means of survival.”
Read the full Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act below.