Lawmakers introduce bill to decriminalize sex work

“Here we are to affirm today that sex work is work,” State Sen. Jessica Ramos said.  Eagle  photo by Victoria Merlino.

“Here we are to affirm today that sex work is work,” State Sen. Jessica Ramos said. Eagle photo by Victoria Merlino.

By Victoria Merlino

With sex workers standing beside them, state lawmakers unveiled a historic package of legislation on Monday that, if passed, would make New York the first state to completely decriminalize sex work.

“Here we are to affirm today that sex work is work,” Queens State Sen. Jessica Ramos said during a press conference unveiling the bill.

The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act was born out of the advocacy of Decrim NY, a coalition of more than 30 sex worker, legal, harm reduction, LGBTQIA+ and health groups, that launched an official campaign for decriminalization and incarceration back in February.

“As a sex worker I have ended up in Rikers Island, and it’s an experience that I would not wish to anybody, not even my worst enemy,” said Cecilia Gentili, a steering committee member of Decrim NY. “If New York — the state of New York and the city of New York — continues to utilize this narrative that we are the most progressive space in this nation, we have to show it with specific steps, and in this case it’s legislation.”

The package follows a decriminalization model, which would repeal and amend certain statutes so that consenting adults who trade sex or collaborate with other sex workers will no longer face arrest, and those who previously were convicted under current law will have their criminal record expunged. Advocates at the press conference argued that decriminalizing collaboration between sex workers, family and friends would help to keep those in the industry safer.  

The bill  contains gender neutral language to include the diverse identities that participate in the sex trades, especially the LGBTQIA+ community.

“We want sex workers to be able to stand up for themselves and to stand up for each other,” said Ramos, chair of the Senate’s Committee on Labor.

The new act would also repeal a controversial section of the penal code that made “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” illegal, a law that advocates say often unfairly targeted transgender people for simply “walking while trans.”

The NYPD recently agreed to update its patrol guide to prevent profiling based on factors like gender, clothing, location or arrest history, as previously reported by the Eagle. More than half of the 121 prostitution-related loitering arrests took place in Queens last year.  

Laws around trafficking, rape, assault, battery and sexual harassment would be upheld if the act were to pass.

Advocates also argued that “end demand,” or the “Nordic” model, which criminalizes clients of sex workers, is not helpful to those in the trade because it still criminalizes their source of income and forces them into the shadows.  

“Sex work saved my life,” said TS Candii, VOCAL-NY leader and former sex worker who started selling sex at 13 after her parents abandoned her because she was transgender. After facing discrimination at a private investigation job as an adult, sex work provided consistent money for her to afford basic necessities like food and housing, she said.

Decriminalization would enable sex workers to better screen their clients and talk more about precautions like condom usage, she said.

Though the lawmakers said they do not believe the bill will be passed in the current session, the sponsors —Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and State Sen. Julia Salazar — said that proposing the bill will raise more awareness to issues surrounding sex workers.

Audacia Ray, a Decrim NY steering committee member and a former sex worker, spoke about increased conversations around sex worker rights following the passage of FOSTA-SESTA. The controversial national law was created to curb online sex trafficking, but shuttered safer online sex work options, some sex worker advocates argue.

Ray and Gentili said that Decrim NY was advocating at the city level by talking to district attorneys, councilmembers and city agencies. They said they are also addressing issues that sex workers face, though Gentili said that many at the city level were not ready to have the conversation.

Gentili said that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson supports the Nordic model, something that was also reported by Gay City News in May.