New York, NY – Today, Decrim NY and legislators unveiled Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, a package bill to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York. It is the first statewide bill of its kind in the nation's history. Decrim NY is a coalition of 30+ organizations working across LGBTQ, racial justice, har reduction, and immigrant rights spaces. It launched in February with heavy publicity. Since launching, the coalition has also brought 100+ sex workers, trafficking survivors, and advocates to Albany for a lobby day in May.
Lead legislative sponsors on the bill are Senate Women's Health Committee Chair Julia Salazar, Senate Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos, Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, and Assembly Asian Pacific American Task Force Co-Chair Yuh-Line Niou. Bill co-sponsors include Assembly members Dan Quart, Ron Kim and Catalina Cruz.
The bill upholds laws concerning human trafficking, rape (including statutory rape), assault, battery, and sexual harassment. The bill amends statutes so that consenting adults who trade sex, collaborate with or support sex working peers, or patronize adult sex workers are not criminalized. It also amends the law so that people can trade sex in spaces where legal businesses are permitted, while upholding that maintaining an exploitative workplace where coercion and trafficking takes place is a felony.
New York state law has more than two dozen anti-prostitution penal codes, about half of which pertain only to sex work between consenting adults, while the other statutes focus on trafficking, exploitation of minors, and coercion in the sex trades. The bill upholds all of the anti-trafficking statutes that are designed to hold accountable traffickers and people who seek to buy sex from minors or otherwise sexually exploit minors.
The bill also amends the gendered language of existing penal code to reflect the diverse gender identities of LGBTQ communities, who participate in the sex trades at high rates. Finally, the bill adds the option for sex workers and trafficking survivors to apply for criminal record relief for crimes they were previously convicted of that are repealed under this bill.
Progressive voters support this kind of bill. In May, Data for Progress in collaboration with Decrim NY, released a national poll that found Democratic voters support decriminalizing sex work by a 3-to-1 margin (56% support, 17% oppose, the remaining 27% are neutral or don't know).
"Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state," said Senate Women's Health Committee Chair Julia Salazar. "Our 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."
"Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults in New York will protect many of my neighbors - people who have found themselves in situations because of employment and housing discrimination," said Senate Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos. "We will finally make strides against trafficking by empowering sex workers to report violence against them. Sex work is work and everyone has an inherent right to a safe workplace."
"Trying to stop sex work between consenting adults shouldn't be the business of the criminal justice system. It hasn't worked throughout history, and it makes things worse," said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried. "Working in an underground illegal environment means sex workers face increased violence, abuse and exploitation. Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults is harm reduction. Sex workers would have better access to legal assistance, health care, and rights as working people. Working legally would give them greater ability to screen and refuse clients, which is critical to personal safety. Keeping sex work criminalized makes it harder to enforce laws against human trafficking and sex with minors."
"For too long, the criminalization of sex work has negatively terrorized a community of disproportionately minority, female, LGBTQIA+, and/or undocumented individuals," said Assembly Asian Pacific American Task Force Co-Chair Yuh-Line Niou. "In particular, Asian & Pacific Islander American immigrant and migrant women have been brutally targeted by law enforcement, as exemplified by the death of Yang Song in 2017. Yang Song's story is unfortunately not unique. Our community members are some of the most overlooked individuals and have no support systems in place to assist them. We deserve to have the opportunity to utilize our justice system without fear and receive support from language-accessible and culturally sensitive resources. Our system is not built to serve our community members and we must change it so it works for us today. The time is now to end the horrific treatment of our community. I am proud to co-sponsor this new legislation with Assemblymember Gottfried and look forward to continuing to drive true reform for equity in our system."
"For so many marginalized groups, sex work is a means of survival," said Assemblymember Dan Quart. "The communities hit hardest by the continued criminalization of sex work are overwhelmingly LGBTQ, they're people of color, and they are undocumented immigrants. Be it for survival or other reason, sex work is not going away and decriminalizing it is the only way to protect people's agency, fight against trafficking and violence, and ensure the dignity and rights of all."
"Poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw; those who create the conditions of poverty should feel all the shame and weight of the world," said Assemblymember Ron Kim. My constituent Yang Song, deserved to live out her full potential, free from the unyielding structural limitations placed on her. Do not stigmatize her life; stigmatize those who let her struggle to survive, let her die. As a leader, I fight against everything that exploits, that dehumanizes, that demoralizes a human being to feel less than, which is why I believe in signing onto this legislation."
"This effort has been decades in the making," Audacia Ray, Director of Community Organizing at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Decrim NY Steering Committee member, and former sex worker, said. "We cannot emphasize enough for how long the LGBTQ community and people trading sex, especially trans women of color, have struggled to end violence against our communities. In the last year, decriminalization efforts have ramped up with post-SESTA/FOSTA organizing. We have made gains at the state level with more progressive legislators who are listening to sex workers about what we need, but we still have many years ahead of us of hard conversations with our neighbors about what keeps our communities safe."
"I first started selling sex to survive when I was 13 because I was young and homeless," TS Candii, VOCAL-NY leader and former sex worker, said. "As an adult, I worked several years as a private investigator. But as I was transitioning, I faced discrimination at my workplace. I was fired from my job and had to go back to sex work again to pay rent. Black trans women like me face a lot of discrimination in employment. As a result, 40% of black TGNC people self-report having traded sex at some point. Today, my heart is heavy with the news of the death of another trans woman: we lost our beautiful sister Layleen Polanco Xtravaganza, who was found dead in her cell at Rikers. On one hand, trans community faces discrimination and violence at every turn, on the other hand, the state criminalizes and makes unsafe one of our best means of survival."
"While transitioning, I was especially afraid of harassment and discrimination in public and from potential employers, because I knew that I was not "passing" as a cisgender person, male or female," Audrey Melendez, Outreach Specialist at Housing Works and former sex worker, said. "Sex work allowed me to earn the income I needed to feel comfortable in my own body, at the pace I needed to pay for my gender-affirming healthcare. While doing sex work, I had a financially exploitative manager that I left with the help of other fellow sex workers. We pooled our money together so that we could leave the manager and rent housing together, which we lived in and worked out of. We would protect each other and make safety plans with each other in case something with a client went wrong. Working together with other sex workers kept us safe from violent clients and helped us leave an exploitative manager, but this kind of harm reduction and anti-violence work is currently criminalized New York's "promoting prostitution" laws. That's why we're changing these laws with this bill."
"I became homeless as a young person after I ran away from sexual violence in the foster system. When I was 15, like thousands of youth experiencing homelessness in New York City, I started trading sex in exchange for housing. After turning 18, I continued to trade sex when I was short on rent or needed to pay a bill," said Jessica Raven, member of Decrim NY's Steering Committee and former sex worker. "New York criminalizes adults for trading sex for resources, but falls short in addressing root causes. Instead, we subject sex workers, and the people who live and work with them, to state violence.
Neither young people nor adults should have to trade sex to meet their needs.
But until safe housing and a living wage are accessible to everyone, many of us will continue to sell sex to survive. In the meantime, we must decriminalize sex work so that it's safer for the people doing it."
"As a formerly undocumented trans woman of color, I know what I need to be safe from violence and exploitation," said Bianey Garcia, former sex worker, trafficking survivor, TGNCIQ Justice Organizer at Make the Road New York, and member of Decrim NY's Steering Committee. "This economy doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes, sex work is the best option for people like me. That's my choice. 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.
"Increasingly, Democratic voters are connecting this issue with issues they already support: the rights of workers, immigrants, communities of color, and LGBTQ people. This is especially key as all these communities are under attack in the era of Trump," said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. "Public opinion is fully supportive of decriminalization, the question is when politicians will respond."
"Every Democrat who supports workers' rights and bodily autonomy should support decriminalization," said Evan Roth Smith, Co-Founder of Slingshot Strategies and former policy director for Suraj Patel's congressional campaign. "Democratic voters aren't interested in half-measures while the Republican Party launches a full-blown assault on the dignity of all work and the right of every person to control their own body. Last year's elections proved that passionate, principled candidates win on these issues."
"Lambda Legal's analysis is clear-we see no constitutionally adequate basis to criminalize sex solely because one consenting adult pays another," said Richard Saenz, Senior Attorney at Lambda Legal. "It's been 50 years since the Stonewall riots defied police persecution and criminalization but unfortunately, that same persecution and criminalization is still happening today, mostly against transgender women of color who are arrested or harassed while walking because of how they look or what they are wearing. We look forward to seeing New York State move to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize the sex trades.