New York State Prepares to Decriminalize Sex Work

By Ayana Byrd Jun 12, 2019

In another sign of the impact of its new Democrat majority, the New York State Senate is looking to pass the nation’s first law decriminalizing sex work. Supporters see it as a positive move to protect women of color and trans sex workers, who are often the most policed and least protected in the underground industry.

On Monday (June 10), lawmakers introduced the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act. It was drafted with Decrim NY, a sex workers advocacy organization. Reports The New York Times, “the bills would allow paid sex between consenting adults—decriminalizing both the buying and the selling of sex, as well as promotion of prostitution—while maintaining prohibitions on trafficking, coercion and sexual abuse of minors.”

Supporters of the bill and other decriminalization efforts say that keeping sex work illegal exacerbates violence and trafficking. “This effort has been decades in the making,” Audacia Ray, a former sex worker who is a steering committee member for Decrim NY, said in an emailed statement. “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.”


rntOther supporters stress that decriminalization is necessary not only to curb violence but to support economic survival for sex workers. Said Decrim steering committee member Bianey Garcia in a statement: “As a formerly undocumented trans woman of color, I know what I need to be safe from violence and exploitation. 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.”

Criminalized sex work also targets certain communities, maintain supporters of the bill. New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, co-chair of the Asian Pacific American Task Force, said in an emailed statement: “For too long, the criminalization of sex work has negatively terrorized a community of disproportionately minority, female, LGBTQIA+ and/or undocumented individuals.”


rntSome opponents to the bill include feminist activists who believe decriminalization will not effectively protect sex workers. Reports The Times:


Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the decriminalization effort, if successful, would effectively set up a new industry and give legitimacy to existing brothels and pimps.


“Pimps would now just be promoters,” she said, adding “you can’t protect the exploited by protecting the exploiters.” Like some other opponents of full legalization, Ms. Ossorio said she supports a form of partial decriminalization known as the “Nordic model,” which emphasizes the prosecution of people who buy sex, but not the prostitutes themselves.

The bill now faces a Senate vote, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has not stated if he will sign it into law. On a radio interview Tuesday (June 11), he said that it is “a controversial issue.”

It may be controversial, but decriminalizing sex work is also an issue that is gaining support nationwide. The Guardian reports that Democratic primary contender Kamala Harris supports decriminalization. A recent nationwide survey conducted by Data for Progress showed that 56 percent of Democratic voters also favor it. Said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, in an emailed statement, “Public opinion is fully supportive of decriminalization, the question is when politicians will respond.”