Out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on May 16 voiced his opposition to the full decriminalization of sex work, breaking from other progressive politicians — including those who share his constituents — and drawing stinging condemnation from multiple advocacy groups that have championed the issue.
Speaking to the media during a press gaggle following an event at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Johnson said he supports the Nordic model (also known as the equality model), which stops short of prosecuting sex workers but would still go after clients who purchase sexual services.
Johnson also said he supports an effort in the State Legislature to pass a bill that would repeal a law prosecuting folks for loitering for the purpose of prostitution. That legislative effort is led in part by two politicians whose districts overlap with Johnson’s: out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assemblymember Dick Gottfried.
“I don’t support the DecrimNY proposal,” Johnson said, referring to the local advocacy group that has generated significant momentum in the push to decriminalize sex work. DecrimNY insists on decriminalizing sex work for both sex workers and those who purchase sex.
“I think that we need to provide support services for women and individuals who have been trafficked and are part of the sex trade,” Johnson explained. “But I don’t support saying that there could be no penalties involved for other individuals who are looking to purchase sex in that way, because I think if you do that you create demand, and you create a market where you could have more victims, more people exploited, more people trafficked.”
Johnson noted that he is moving forward with a proposal to fund a center that would provide services for sex workers, but a spokesperson for the speaker did not respond to questions seeking further details about that idea.
Nina Luo, a spokesperson for DecrimNY, said the group “appreciates the speaker’s support for the passage” of the bill to repeal the loitering law and added it is looking forward to working with him and others in government in pursuing solutions.
But in a joint letter signed by the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, DecrimNY, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Make the Road New York, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, VOCAL-NY, and WOMANKIND, the organizations ripped the speaker for his support of the Nordic model, saying that he “is positioning the city to further marginalize the very same communities the service centers will benefit.”
The group said the Nordic model disproportionately impacts people of color, hurts LGBTQ communities that are burdened by employment discrimination and youth homelessness, and leads to the criminalization of sexual behavior in the LGBTQ community even when people aren’t engaging in sex work.
“Criminalizing clients of sex workers and sex workers’ peer networks will lead to further housing instability, police surveillance, and brutality,” the groups said in the statement. “In addition, it will create more barriers to life-saving HIV/ AIDS-prevention and gender-affirming health care since having a criminal record is one of the primary ways in which people are hindered from accessing housing and other services.”
A growing number of elected officials have embraced the movement to decriminalize sex work, and the issue has especially been brewing in this year’s race for Queens district attorney. A candidate in that race, Tiffany Caban, who identifies as a queer Latina, told Gay City News that she would not prosecute sex workers, those who purchase sex, or those who facilitate locations where the sex work takes place.
Last month, Gay City News broke the news that Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez joined the movement to stop prosecuting sex workers when he said that he believes in decriminalization. A different member of the City Council’s LGBT Caucus, Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, also told Gay City News this month that he is supportive of the effort to decriminalize sex work — and Torres is interested in running for Congress in 2020.
By supporting certain aspects of the effort to decriminalize sex work but opposing some of the most prominent demands, Johnson appears to be signaling a shift to the middle on some issues that are sensitive to citywide constituents as he weighs a bid for mayor in 2021.
The speaker has similarly shown reluctance to speak out about the homophobia of fellow city lawmakers who represent outer borough districts that could be crucial to any mayoral candidate’s path to victory in 2021. He has refused to publicly criticize bigoted Brooklyn City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, who boasts an extremely anti-LGBTQ voting record and has been blasted by advocacy groups for failing to embrace queer causes in the veteran’s community. When asked in January about Deutsch’s long history of homophobia, Johnson said, “It is my job to collaborate with all councilmembers and demonstrate a good working relationship — whether we agree on everything or not.”
Johnson also had expressed admiration for homophobic Bronx Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., at a 2017 holiday event and courted his support as he vied for the speakership, so much so that he visited the elder Diaz in the hospital on multiple occasions. The speaker only moved to strip Diaz of his committee after the Bronx councilmember’s latest round of homophobic comments — about gay control of the Council — led to widespread public outcry.