As a teenager in the foster care system, Jessica Raven experienced sexual abuse several times. Each time, she found no recourse. At age 15, she ran away. That was when she began trading sex.
“I decided that I was better off on my own, on the streets, deciding who had access to my body,” Raven, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, told Rewire.News on Monday. The one time that she tried to enter a shelter, she was returned to the same abusive foster home that she had fled.
Raven was among the roughly 150 advocates who gathered in Manhattan, New York, on Monday to announce the launch of Decrim NY, a sex-worker-led coalition of LGBTQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction, and criminal justice groups. Coalition supporters also gathered to express their support of state bills to decriminalize sex work throughout New York state.
“We know that trans folks, particularly trans folks of color, experience high rates of employment discrimination and turn to sex work [to] survive. The same thing is true for many youth experiencing homelessness, especially queer and trans youth who trade sex at five to seven times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts,” Raven said.
“The solution to that problem is making sure that people have access to the resources they need to survive, not criminalization. We shouldn’t be pouring money into policing and the criminal legal system,” she continued.
One bill, S 2253, would repeal the penal statute relating to “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” which police have used to profile, harass, and criminalize women of color, particularly trans women of color.
New York Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried (D-New York City), who also spoke at the rally, is the sponsor of A 982, which would allow judges to vacate trafficking survivors’ past convictions from prostitution or other acts related to their trafficking status. The bill is currently in the Assembly’s code committee.
At the rally, New York state Sens. Jessica Ramos (D-New York City) and Julia Salazar (D-New York City) announced they were planning to introduce a bill to rewrite the state’s penal code to decriminalize sex work altogether.
“Trying to stop sex work should not be the business of the criminal justice system,” Gottfried told Rewire.News. “It only makes the situation worse—driving it underground only increases exploitation and abuse and only makes it harder to stop human trafficking and abuse of minors. This is essentially harm reduction—and it’s long overdue.”
When asked how this would work in practice, Gottfried countered, “How often do you get arrested for asking people questions at press conferences?”
“Never, because it’s not against the law,” he continued. “If it’s not against the law, then police officers won’t arrest people.”
Although statewide data is not readily available, the number of arrests for prostitution in New York City have decreased 65 percent from 2012 to 2018: from 4,000 arrests to 1,500. But that doesn’t mean police are leaving sex workers—or the people they perceive to be engaged in sex work—alone. In the first ten months of both 2017 and 2018, the city’s number of arrests for loitering for the purposes of prostitution surged. According to a 2016 lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society, many of those targeted are trans women and women of color. Between 2012 and 2015, 85 percent of those arrested for loitering for the purposes of prostitution were Black or Latina.
For Jennifer Orellana, a community leader at Make the Road New York, decriminalization would be a relief from the constant police harassment and threat of arrest. Orellana originally studied to be a nurse in Puerto Rico, but upon graduation, she found pervasive job discrimination because of her trans identity. Even after she found a job, she still faced stigma and discrimination. After a colleague verbally assaulted her in front of her co-workers and patients, Orellana had enough and moved to New York City. There, she turned to sex work, which provided her with the economic stability that nursing had not.
“It gave me the freedom to be my own boss,” she told the crowd during Monday’s launch. “I have the right to make decisions about my body and that is why I am here today.”
But the most difficult part of the profession, she said, “is the constant police harassment and fear of arrest.” Her last arrest was in 2018, when an undercover police officer set her up for a sting; eight police officers knocked down the door of her apartment and arrested her for sex work. “It was much more forceful than what I witnessed on television,” she recalled.
Jared Trujillo is a public defender at the Legal Aid Society as well as a former sex worker. Many of his clients have been arrested for sex work. “In New York City, trans and queer kids, particularly trans and queer kids of color, engage in sex work at seven times the rate of their cisgender and heterosexual peers,” he reminded the crowd. “They might do that for survival. They might do that for equity over their bodies. But whatever the reason, over-policing them is not the solution. It creates stigma. It discourages them from getting the health care that they need. Prosecuting them will only give them records that will follow them for their entire lives. It could complicate their immigration status, to find housing, to find work.”
For many sex workers—particularly youth, as Jessica Raven learned—finding resources such as housing, health care, and employment mean going through a system that threatens to send them back to the abusive and violent places they initially fled.
If sex work were decriminalized, this would mean that Trujillo’s clients, many of whom are trans, could get access to those resources more easily. They could walk down the street and not be policed for being themselves. He recounts a recent client who was arrested for wearing hot pants. “It would mean people are not harassed by vice [police]. It would mean that people would have access to services without having to go through human trafficking intervention courts,” which are set up to process—and at times prosecute—people arrested for sex work. “It would mean that their actual dignity is respected and that policing isn’t the solution to ‘helping people.’”
Cecilia Gentili, who came to the United States from Argentina in the early 2000s, is adamant that sex work saved her life. When she first arrived, as an undocumented trans woman, she met a man who persuaded her into engaging in street-based sex work. But soon the persuasion became coercion. Sex work also got her away from that man—and the situation. Gentili began advertising online, which meant she could screen her clients beforehand and manage the situation. It also meant she didn’t have to rely on someone else to ensure her safety.
“I know how much sex work helped me get through and get me to where I am today,” said Gentili, who until recently was the managing policy director of the GMHC and is now a member of Decrim NY. She understands the importance of enabling sex workers to take ownership of their bodies and their actions—and the importance of decriminalization. “As a transgender woman, as a person who was undocumented, I found myself in Rikers Island for doing sex work. And right after Rikers, I was sent to immigrant [detention] with ICE.” Noting the anti-trans sentiment that remains prevalent throughout Argentina, she said, “This criminalization of sex work could have sent me to a country where I would have been killed right away. Do we care for people or do we care for another arrest?”
Criminalization has affected other immigrant communities as well. According to the Urban Justice Center, New York City arrests of Asian-identified people charged with prostitution have increased 2,700 percent from 12 in 2012 to 336 in 2016. At times, police raids have led to not only arrest, immigrant detention, and threats of deportation, but also to tragically preventable deaths, such as the 2017 death of Yang Song, a massage parlor worker who fell to her death while trying to escape a police raid in Queens.
Julie Xu is an organizer with Red Canary Song, a coalition of immigrants and sex workers, including migrant massage workers, formed in the wake of Song’s death. Holding a sign in Chinese that read, “Working to live, nothing to be ashamed of,” Xu said at the rally that there have been more police raids as well as more community stigma around massage parlor work, which is a common form of work among Asian migrant women.
“There is a difference between human labor trafficking and migrant parlor work,” she reminded the crowd. While she acknowledges that there are instances of exploitation and coercive labor in massage parlors, she argued that “the vast majority of massage parlor workers are working by choice and necessity. Being a migrant makes it more necessary to work for an agency rather than being self-employed due to language difficulties and immigration status. By no means are all migrant workers being trafficked.” Increased policing of massage parlors has led to more violence, robbery, and exploitation—but fear of arrest prevents workers from reporting these instances to the police.
But if sex work were decriminalized, as the proposed bills intend, sex workers need not fear reporting abuse, robbery, and other forms of violence to the police. Conversely, they would no longer be targets for those who know that criminal statutes make them vulnerable to police violence, including police themselves.
As Ramos and Salazar stated in their Daily News op-ed, “We aim to repeal statutes that criminalize consensual sexual exchange between adults and create a system that erases prostitution records for sex workers and sex trafficking survivors so they can move on with their lives.”
That’s what the advocates forming Decrim NY are hoping for as well. “Whether we are trading sex by choice, by circumstance, by coercion, we all need the same things: We need safety from violence, freedom from criminalization, and access to basic needs like housing and health care,” Raven said. “We can all be safe.”