New York is on the bring of decriminalizing sex work which would make U.S. history. Find out more in our feature.

Is New York About to Legalize Sex Work?

Could New York be about to follow Nevada in legalizing prostitution?

A draft bill has been introduced in New York that might not see the state become the second region of the United States where prostitution is legalized but they could become the first to decriminalize sex work. In a package of measures aimed at decriminalizing certain aspects of sex work, the bill faces a lengthy and uphill battle to gain approval but is already being hailed as a major turning point for addressing the rights of sex workers. The proposed reform follows several high-profile incidents involving th state’s sex work laws including the death of an Asian massage parlor worker who was killed during an NYPD vice raid in 2017.

In this feature, we take a look at the latest developments in the State of New York which propose to decriminalize certain aspects of sex work and could give New York the most comprehensive new laws on prostitution in the country.

Current Legal Status of Prostitution in U.S.

At the current time, prostitution is illegal across all of the United States with the exception of Nevada. Even in this state, sex workers can only legally make a living if they conduct business in one of just 21 licensed brothels.

Current legislation in NY means that loitering laws can be used to anyone the NYPD suspect is a prostitute. Image via Flickr.

In a recent poll conducted by YouGov in 2015, public opinion on whether to legalize prostitution in America was split right down the middle. 44% of people polled said they were in favor of decriminalizing sex work whilst 46% were not. Democrats were found to be more supportive of a change (50% vs 40%) whilst, unsurprisingly, Republicans were not (34% vs 54%).

The same report showed that the public were more supportive of ‘Johns’ being punished (18%) rather than sex workers themselves (7%); though 74% thought that both should be punished equally.

So, why is New York considering a repeal of laws that current criminalize prostitutes? And can they do this?

The reason behind the current proposals to amend the state laws is twofold and relates to the use of antiquated laws of ‘loitering with intent to prostitute’ which are (it is claimed) used by police to discriminate against minority groups; namely, people of color, migrants and members of the LGBTQI+ communities. It is estimated that 94% of people who are arrested in the Queens and Brooklyn areas under this current ruling are black women.

The campaign for change grew momentum after the death of a Taiwanese sex worker, Yang Song, who fell four stories to her death during a vice squad raid in November 2017. In 2018 alone, around 1500 people were arrested on charges relating to sex work and the vast majority of these individuals came from migrant backgrounds, where people of color or transgender sex workers.

The NYPD is often criticized for abusing the anti-prostitution loitering laws. Image via Pixabay.

Another motivating factor for these proposals is to help protect victims of trafficking. Under current legislation, all sex work is judged by the same criteria and does not differentiate the circumstances involved in individual cases. If a woman is arrested for prostituting then she is guilty of trading sexual services even if she has been coerced into doing so.

The planned new laws aim to tackle this issue as well as those of discrimination and other aspects of the outdated criminal laws relating to prostitution. Whether you are in favor of, or against, sex work, most people agree that the current legislation does not go far enough to protect innocent people nor the victims of sexual abuse, sex trafficking or other vulnerable sex workers.

That aside, there are others who believe that sex work is still work and people who work in the trade should be afforded the same protection and rights that any other employees enjoy.

As for whether the New York state can do this. In accordance with the Tenth Amendment, every state has the exclusive right to regulate, restrict and control prostitution as it wishes; in this regard the federal government has no superiority.

So, if the state of New York wants to legalize sex work then it can.

Decrim NY: Changing Public Opinion and Policy?

So, who is behind these new proposals and what exactly is being tabled for change here?

There are several main faces fronting this change to the prostitution laws of New York, namely Senators Brad Hoylman, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar along with Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Along with the coalition, Decrim NY, these lawmakers have been working hard to address the stigmatization of sex work and to ready draft changes to the current legislation.

Decrim NY’s aim is to Decriminalize, Decarcerate and Destigmatize. Image via Decrim.

Launched in February 2019, Decrim NY’s aim is to improve the lives of people who work in the sex trade either through choice, circumstance or coercion. They want to do this by decriminalizing sex work, changing public opinion and decarcerating those people who have been jailed as a result of (some of) the current prostitution laws.

The group has been working with Senators Ramos, Hoylman and Salazar over a period of years to draft legislation that will specifically:

  • protect individuals in the sex trade from violence and economic exploitation.
  • free individuals from jail who have been arrested on sex trade related offences and remove their criminal records.
  • work to help improve the public image of sex workers.
  • improve access for sex workers to public services such as housing, health care, education and employment.

As well as lending their support to the current proposed changes to legislation the coalition is also planning public education initiatives, specifically targeting those areas where public support for decriminalization faces most opposition.

The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act

The draft proposals to the change in legislation has been called the ‘Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act’ which, along with an additional bill, outlines the following proposed changes to the law:

  • Vacate sex-trade related convictions of those individuals who have been trafficked.
  • Remove criminal convictions for adults selling and buying sex.
  • Repeal the ‘promotion of prostitution’ laws.
  • Strike prohibitions on keeping a house or place of assignation for lewd persons.
  • A repeal of the anti-prostitution loitering laws.

The first part of this bill has already received a great deal of support and has passed through committee stages for state legislature and should be voted on fully shortly. However, the other measures are yet to gain the same kind of momentum and face opposition in both houses.

As ever, prostitution is at the center of a heated debate between proponents who support free-choice, protection via legislation and those in opposition such as religious groups, some feminists and even anti-trafficking groups.

It is an important differentiation that the proposed changes in New York will not make prostitution legal but it will decriminalize certain aspects of sex work which should a) help protect vulnerable members of society from discrimination by the abuse of these laws and b) allow sex workers to be free from police harassment. It is reported that these changes will also help police and federal services to more effectively tackle sex trafficking by freeing up officers from ‘petty’ crimes and focus on organisations and individuals that are involved in these sex-trade rings.

There is still a long way for these amendments to go before (and if) they are enshrined in law but this marks an important turning point for the state. And, New York is not alone in this endeavor, with Washington D.C. also re-tabling statutes that would seek to fully decriminalize sex work between consenting adults.

Under new laws, sex in the city of New York may become more common. Image via Flickr.

Whether or not the act will be passed is a matter of some debate but what is important here is that the conversation about addressing outdated laws which contain language like ‘lewd persons’ has been opened up. History teaches us many things about prostitution; namely that in every era it has thrived and will continue to play a part in modern society. It is up to the lawmakers to introduce policies that protect those people who are vulnerable within this industry and to prevent both abuse and discrimination.

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