New York could decriminalize sex work. But will he do it in a safe and responsible way? | Geoffrey Mak

Jhe New York State Legislature is debating two bills that decriminalize sex work. The bills agree on the need to decriminalize sex workers, but offer very different approaches to doing so. The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act aims to completely legalize the sex trade. The Justice and Equality for Survivors of the Sex Trade Act, adapted from the Nordic model, would decriminalize sex workers while maintaining laws criminalizing pimps and clients.

In a bizarre twist, the first bill, which takes a libertarian and liberal approach to sex work, is backed by left-leaning groups including the Democratic Socialists of America. Sex trafficking survivor groups, political moderates and prosecutors mostly supported the more cautious and regulated approach. I believe the proponents of both bills want the best for sex workers. But the first approach – a general decriminalization of sex work, including pimps and clients – may make sex workers less safe, not more.

Nobody disputes that sex workers face serious and constant problems risk of violence, and that the status quo is unsustainable and unjust. Since sex work is illegal in all states except Nevada, sex workers – who are at high risk of violence from clients, pimps and police – do not usually have no way to organize for better labor protection or to report violence without risking criminalization. In other countries, the decriminalization of sex workers has made them safer. Studies from Sweden and Northern Ireland found that even partial decriminalization reduced street prostitution, thereby reducing client violence.

Decriminalization also aims to break the vicious cycle of police violence, incarceration and deportation. “I have so much trouble with the vice squad,” New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, who co-sponsored the Stop Violence bill for full decriminalization, told me. She accuses the police of doing too much or not enough.

When a Queens vice squad raided a Flushing massage parlor in 2017, a worker fell from a second-floor balcony and deceased. In 2018, New York police officers, including members of a south Brooklyn vice squad, were stopped to ensure the protection of a sex trafficking network. The ring worked in every borough – including the neighborhood that Ramos represents, where most Latina sex workers, some of whom are undocumented immigrants, walk the streets.

“The people most often targeted for police harassment, arrest or violence – due to or related to sex work – are women, the poor, people of color, immigrants and trans people,” said Mark Mishler. , New York State Legislative Director. I was told so by Senator Julia Salazar, who sponsored the Stop Violence Bill.

There is evidence that arrests of sex workers in New York may already be declining on their own. The NYPD cites an overall decline in prostitution-related arrests (including buyers and pimps as well as workers) in recent years. Arrests increased from 1,069 in 2019 to 193 in 2021. In an emailed statement, an NYPD spokesperson told me, “NYPD enforcement priorities changed in early 2017 and prosecuted, resulting in fewer arrests in recent years of sex workers for prostitution and a greater share of arrests of those who buy sex and promote sex for sale.

Nonetheless, advocacy for full decriminalization has been accompanied by broad and growing support from the left for police abolition. Left-wing and sex worker groups have adopted the abortion rights slogan “My body, my choice”, re-adapting it to the freedom of sex workers to do whatever they want with their bodies. Under the slogan “Sex work is work”, the DSA sees full decriminalization as “a central fight for the labor movement and for socialist feminism”.

May be. But misguided legislative intervention can do more harm than help. In 2018, for example, Congress passed Fosta/Sesta, a law banning online sex ads – inadvertently throwing more sex workers onto the streets, where hasty negotiations put them at even greater risk of perpetrated violence. by customers.

The movement for total decriminalization is anti-discrimination, anti-prison and anti-police. But what do his arguments say about the concrete reality of sex trafficking? The Stop Violence Bill may be more photogenic ideologically, but its opponents worry that full decriminalization could provide loopholes — or carte blanche — to sex trafficking, a prospect Stop Bill supporters Violence do not seem to recognize.

Alexi Meyers, a former prosecutor and consultant for the Partial Decriminalization Bill, told me that while the Stop Violence Bill repeals a law criminalizing the “promotion of prostitution” (which refers to pimps) in level of crime, it would take “the bread and butter out of the trafficking business”.

In New York, sex trafficking laws look for material force — such as drug use, physical violence, kidnapping by withholding someone’s passport, or destruction of property — as evidence of sex trafficking. But the force is often psychological, with fabricated consent.

Cristian Eduardo, a Mexican immigrant and survivor of sex trafficking, told me that his traffickers often made him believe he was choosing life. It was in 2015, when he was living in an apartment in Queens operated by traffickers who gave him food, shelter and life-saving HIV medicine – that they convinced him he couldn’t get elsewhere – in exchange for sex with the client they had assigned to him.

“Sex buyers are often very violent and abusive,” Eduardo said of his years in trafficking. “I never knew what was going to happen. The only thing I knew was that I was going to be used as an empty vessel.

He says that if he had been asked in court if he had consented to his treatment, he probably would have said yes at the time. “I didn’t know it was exploitative, I thought it was my fault and my choice,” he said.

Meyers, who has worked on trafficking cases at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, added: “We don’t always have victims who cooperate with prosecutors – whether they’re so heavily traumatized by what they’ve lived or terrified of their trafficker. This is why anti-pimping laws are all the more important; they are a way to get traffickers off the streets without having to prove in court that their victims have been permanently constrained.

Yet proponents of full decriminalization often seem blithely uninterested in this dilemma. When I asked Mishler, Julia Salazar’s legislative director, about trafficked workers who might be reluctant to testify against their traffickers for fear of violence or homelessness, he replied, “It’s not our problem. The law is the law. »

I posed the same question to Mariah Grant, director of research and advocacy for the Sex Workers Project, which supports full decriminalization. “You’re not going to stop to get out of this problem,” she said. “What we need is money that is wrongfully diverted into trafficking cases – which, in fact, are not actually trafficking, but adult people consenting to work in the sex trade – to be transferred to social services instead.”

But this position – “not really trafficking” – looks like willful ignorance, ethically lazy or naive in the extreme. Yes, trafficked sex workers need social services, but they also need laws, not ideals, to protect them. You can’t make girlboss your way out of traffic.

According to at the New York State Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking, there were approximately 1,000 confirmed victims of sex trafficking in New York between 2007 and 2019, a number that Meyers says is likely an understatement. count of actual victims. If the Stop Violence Bill passes, that number could increase. A 2013 study of 150 countries showed that, on average, countries where prostitution is legal reported higher flows of human trafficking. For example, sex trafficking in Germany gradually decreased until 2001, then – after the decriminalization of sex work in 2002 – started to increase again.

Full decriminalization has compelling benefits. Sex workers could unionize. Third-party workers, such as those operating phone lines or customer checkers, could work without fear of being sued as pimps, creating a safer workplace. Increased buyer demand, once decriminalized, would give sex workers more bargaining power. A 2007 study in New Zealand showed that after full decriminalization, almost 65% of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients and 57% reported an improvement in police attitudes towards towards sex workers.

But even though “sex work is work,” the sex trade cannot be treated like any other service industry, as most service industries are not inextricably linked to violence and organized crime. . Any law decriminalizing sex workers must address the sex trade as a whole and prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged. It is possible to reduce violence against sex workers while protecting traffickers; partial decriminalization would achieve this.

“It’s so sad that people are like, yes, sex work is empowering, sex work is work,” Eduardo said. “And I’m like, you’re not fighting for the vulnerable when you’re not fighting for the needy. You fight to give more power to those who already have it.

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