A group of Democratic lawmakers in New York state introduced a bill Monday that seeks to decriminalize sex work and make it legal to engage in the consensual sale of sex.
The bill, which follows similar legislative efforts in other states, including Massachusetts and Maine, would go further by vacating prior convictions of people engaged in activity that would no longer be considered criminal. Supporters stressed that the legislation would not alter current laws on sex trafficking or the exploitation of minors.
At a news conference in New York, legislators and advocates with Decrim NY, the coalition pushing for the bill, said that legal attempts to crack down on sex work have historically failed and that an overburdened criminal justice system shouldn’t be used to prosecute consenting adults.
In addition, advocates noted that current state laws disproportionately affect women of color and members of the trans community who are the most vulnerable and susceptible to violence and are regularly targeted by law enforcement.
Such people are “having to face stigma, discrimination and abuse in trying to advocate for their rights to be treated with dignity and to be treated like human beings,” said state Sen. Julia Salazar, a sponsor of the bill, who represents Brooklyn, New York City.
In New York, prostitution is treated as a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $500. Those found guilty of soliciting a prostitute could face prison and a fine as well.
New York’s decriminalization bill — a version of which was also introduced in the state Assembly — is broad, and it’s unclear what kind of support it will have among most Democrats and across party lines.
Nevada is the only U.S. state to allow some form of legal prostitution in certain counties through the operation of brothels.
TS Candii, a sex worker from the Bronx, New York City, said police have previously stopped her and she was once threatened with jail even though she was simply leaving her apartment and not engaged in any criminal activity.
During the news conference, she lamented how she was discriminated against as a trans woman in traditional jobs, so turning to sex work felt like her best option to stay off the streets.
“Because of sex work, I have consistent money to provide for myself. Money to pay for gender-confirming health care, rent, food, my phone bill. It’s a source of income where I’m not discriminated against,” Candii said. “I don’t have to worry about getting fired tomorrow because my boss hates trans people.”
But Candii said she must still tread carefully because of her situation.
“On one hand, the trans community faces discrimination and violence at every turn,” she added. “On the other hand, the state criminalizes and makes it unsafe, one of our best means of survival.”
The newest bill, however, may not get to the heart of the problems within the illegal sex trade industry, some advocates say.
The group Sanctuary for Families, which advocates for survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence, has said that decriminalization legislation doesn’t go far enough, and would only legalize a system that would turn mostly women and girls into “commodities to be bought and sold.”
“It’s beyond comprehension why anyone would want to decriminalize an industry of abuse and violence which profits from the commodification of human beings,” attorneys for the group wrote last month. “We need a legislative model shown to reduce the commercial sex market, increase safety, provide services for survivors, and hold men accountable for the crimes they commit.”
“The answer is not making it legal to pimp or buy sex,” they added. “The answer is ensuring that we respect the full equality and dignity of every human.”
Jessica Raven, a Decrim NY organizer and former sex worker, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News on Monday that until safe housing and a living wage are made available to all, people who choose to sell sex to survive should be afforded laws that make their lives safer — not put them in danger.
“For us, this is a bodily autonomy issue — our bodies, our choice — but more than that, it’s an economic issue,” she wrote. “And it’s personal.”