Members of DecrimNY took their campaign to a new level on June 10 when they stood alongside a handful of legislators in a State Assembly hearing room in Lower Manhattan and announced a bold, comprehensive bill that would decriminalize sex work for those who trade sex consensually and wipe out laws that criminalize those who assist sex workers.
The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act represents the most significant step forward yet for DecrimNY, a coalition made up of dozens of advocacy groups that has injected serious momentum into the movement led by current and former sex workers to decriminalize their occupation and send a message to legislators, law enforcement, and the general public that “sex work is work.” The coalition has managed to shift public opinion on the issue by conveying the realities of sex workers, many of whom are LGBTQ people of color facing discrimination, stigmatization, and over-policing simply for trying to make ends meet.
Manhattan Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou are lead sponsors of the bill in the lower chamber, while Senators Julia Salazar of Brooklyn and Jessica Ramos of Queens are carrying it in upper house. Assemblymembers Dan Quart of Manhattan and Ron Kim and Catalina Cruz of Queens are co-sponsoring it.
The bill, which is written in a gender-neutral manner out of respect to the diverse community of sex workers, addresses statutes and parts of the penal code that criminalize not just those who trade sex, but folks who help sex workers in various ways such as driving them to work, providing a facility for them to work, and offering other means of assistance. It also delivers criminal record relief for people who have been convicted of the crimes targeted in the proposed bill.
Advocates are also pushing state lawmakers to move on eradicating a part of the penal code that criminalizes folks for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” which is commonly referred to as “walking while trans” due to the targeting of transgender people under that provision.
Importantly, DecrimNY and lawmakers are strongly emphasizing that existing laws pertaining to trafficking, coercion, sexual abuse, abuse of minors, and rape will remain in place. Advocates believe that this law would help encourage sex workers to report those cases of abuse, whereas the current threat of criminalization keeps too many victims in the shadows.
TS Candii, a black trans woman and former sex worker who told a deeply personal story about her experience in the industry, said at the June 10 event that sex work saved her life on multiple occasions.
“I first started selling sex to survive when I was 13 because I was young and homeless,” she said, before adding that she went on to work several years as a private investigator but was fired and had to return to sex work to pay rent. “It’s a source of income where I’m not discriminated against.”
Jared Trujillo, a defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society who is a former sex worker and has been a leader with the DecrimNY movement, reminded folks that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two heroes of the city’s LGBTQ rights movement who will receive a monument near the Stonewall Inn, would have been criminals under the current law because they engaged in sex work.
“During Pride Month when New York City has shown the dedication to lifting up people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, we need to do that here,” Trujillo said.
Ramos, the Senate Labor Committee chair who has been a prominent voice on the issue since she took office in January, framed decriminalization as a way to alleviate trafficking issues.
“When we decriminalize sex work, we will be making a huge leap toward ending sex trafficking,” Ramos said, referring to the notion that reducing a culture of criminalization would empower victims of trafficking to feel more comfortable speaking out about the abuse they have suffered.
Salazar, who chairs the Women’s Health Committee and has been a champion of the movement to decriminalize sex work since she was elected at the same time as Ramos, similarly said that current policies “only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows.”
“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,” she added.
Quart, meanwhile, criticized diversion programs, which are designed to help sex workers avoid incarceration but often involve requiring them to receive certain services. If sex workers do not adhere to the conditions attached to diversion programs, they can end up being prosecuted all over again.
“Don’t let anyone fool you,” Quart said. “Diversion is not decriminalization.”
Gottfried, a longtime supporter of social justice causes during his four-plus decades in the State Legislature, noted the longstanding existence of sex work throughout human history and pointed out what he believes is the upside of proposing such a bill even when it might not pass this session.
“The last vestige on prohibitions of sexual activity between consenting adults is sex work,” Gottfried said. “I think as more and more New Yorkers talk about the topic, I think it is inevitable change.”
Gottfried compared the movement to the years-long push to legalize same-sex marriage, saying that “putting a bill on the table helps to shape public opinion.”
Lawmakers remain aware that the bill faces an uphill battle in the State Legislature. With just days remaining in the legislative session, expectations are not high at this point, and Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 11 said he had not yet reviewed any bills pertaining to the decriminalization of sex work.
Lawmakers, who said they are working to gain more co-sponsors on the bill, have just six working days remaining in the legislative session, which wraps up on June 19.