The Fight for Decriminalizing Sex Work Is About Justice

Many people, particularly from a younger generation, are coming to this issue from a different perspective than earlier generations. It’s no longer a moral judgment about sex work; it’s a justice issue based on intersectional identities.

[Photo: A crowd of sexworker rights advocates gather holding signs that read '#decrimNY.'}
“The reasons that Decrim NY has been having the impact it’s had so far is in part because it is a multi-racial, multi-gender movement, and we are really framing this … about economic justice and housing justice," said one activist. Erik McGregor / Flickr

New York lawmakers recently put forth a bill that would make the state the first to decriminalize sex work. The Washington, D.C., council is looking at doing the same. Even Democratic presidential candidates are talking about the issue.

It may seem like there has been a sudden and unexplained groundswell of support for sex workers’ rights. But organizing among sex workers isn’t new. “We’ve been organizing for over a decade, a lot of relationships on the ground come from over a decade,” explained Kate Zen, co-founder of New York-based sex workers’ rights group Red Canary.

And yet something has changed in the past few years. Sex workers have partnered with organizations focused on an array of social justice issues. In major cities, these coalitions have pushed groundbreaking legislation. And activists have prodded prominent Democrats to start talking about sex workers’ rights.

Ultimately the goal is “shifting the narrative” around sex work and sex workers themselves, said Tamika Spellman, policy and advocacy associate at HIPS, which works in D.C. with sex workers and people who use drugs. “Humanizing us, making us look like ordinary people,” she said. “I’m a parent, I have kids, I have a family. People always are thinking that people that do sex work are such nefarious people. We’re no different than anyone else.”

A Movement Emerges From a Crisis

Much of the current energized activism emerged after the passage of two bills in Congress, “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” or FOSTA, and “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” or SESTA, in early 2018. The bills expanded criminal responsibility for sex trafficking and prostitution to websites and social media platforms that hosted sex workers’ content, including ads and trainings. Shortly after the legislation passed, Craigslist shut down its personals section, Reddit removed several threads about sex work, and at least 16 other platforms shut down, closed sections, or changed their policies.

“A lot of websites were shut down for people that were doing sex work, and they were put on the streets,” said Nina Luo, an organizer with VOCAL-NY and a steering committee member of Decrim NY, a coalition pushing for the decriminalization of sex work in the state. Those sites had allowed many people to safely trade sex; now they were abruptly gone. “Just imagine one day showing up at work and you’re just fired and your workplace is also gone, and everyone you know the same thing happened to them,” she said. Sex workers who were newly pushed out onto the streets went missing; some even died. “It was really a crisis.”

It also brought people together who hadn’t necessarily connected before. “It struck a chord with a lot of sex workers who not been really criminalized before,” Zen said. Many sex workers, especially those with more privilege and with citizenship status, had moved off of the streets and were instead using online venues to advertise their services, which meant fewer encounters with the police. But by decimating those online spaces, SESTA/FOSTA “brought a lot of people out of the woodwork,” Zen said.

“It created a moment where a lot more people were galvanized by it, lost their incomes because they were not able to advertise, were unsure should they work on the streets [or] how they were going to work now.”

The moment even sparked a wave of organizing among those who had “moved out of the [sex work organizing] movement for a while because they burnt out,” Luo said. Those activists “came back because of SESTA/FOSTA.”

Sex workers held the first-ever sex worker lobbying day in Washington, D.C., later that year.

Then some New York organizers started to talk about creating a coalition. They met every month, officially launching in February of this year. Decrim NY now consists of more than 30 organizations, including LGBTQ rights, harm reduction, immigrant rights, and racial justice organizations. The steering committee is led by people who either currently or have in the past done sex work.

SESTA/FOSTA “definitely created an organizing moment in New York City where we were able to take that energy and bring people to Decrim NY who previously hadn’t been involved in sex worker rights organizing,” Zen said.

In November of last year, Red Canary formed in the wake of the death of Yang Song, a massage worker in Queens who fell to her death during a police raid at the end of 2017. The group organized in the aftermath of that tragedy, supporting Song’s family but also calling for an investigation into the NYPD’s vice unit and joining Decrim NY to advocate for legislation “that will make life a little less violent and easier for Asian sex traders,” Zen said. They got further momentum from the attention to the case of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was charged with soliciting sex at a spa in Florida. “A lot of national events and attention around massage parlors also created specifically this moment for us in Flushing [Queens] to get the support of elected officials,” she said.

Sex workers in very different environments with very different contexts can still be united around decriminalization. “It’s criminalization that really groups everyone together: street workers and massage workers and indoor escorts,” Zen noted.

And while sex workers’ rights activists often get pitted against anti-trafficking activists who see all sex work as exploitative, that’s not always the case. Womankind, an anti-trafficking and anti-violence organization serving Asian women in New York City, is part of Decrim NY. “Decriminalizing the sex trades is a crucial step in really taking serious what anti-trafficking work looks like,” said Aya Tasaki, manager for policy and advocacy at Womankind. “Imagine if this individual can at least be safe when they are trading sex … that would limit another area that would make them even more vulnerable to potentially being trafficked or exploited further.” And, she added, “decriminalization would definitely help those folks to actually come forward if they are being exploited [and] if they are being trafficked.” Otherwise, they face potential penalties for speaking up. Decriminalization also leaves in place other laws that crack down on trafficking, she pointed out. Those can still be enforced without criminalizing sex work.

“The mood has changed because people are starting to see that this is a nonsensical law, it doesn’t do any good for anyone,” Spellman said of the law criminalizing prostitution in her city. “It doesn’t stop sex work and it is not helping when it comes to those [who] are even being trafficked.”

Sex Workers Storm the Halls of Power

Much of the recent sex worker organizing has focused on a legislative agenda. “This year was a very coordinated and structured agenda to pass three bills” in the New York legislature, Zen said. One bill would repeal a law enacted in 1976 that criminalizes “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” allowing police to arrest people for things as small as repeatedly waving to someone in a car or wearing a miniskirt. Another would allow victims of sex trafficking to clear a number of offenses related to their trafficking from their records. Then in June the Decrim NY coalition achieved something unexpected: A bill was introduced in the state legislature that would make New York the first in the country to fully decriminalize sex work.

It helped that Democrats finally wrested control of the legislature last year from Republicans, who had long held power alongside a group of independents who caucused with them. “It’s now or never,” Zen said. “We’ve decided to really concert all of our power together and put in a much stronger push now than before.” But it was also thanks to “the grassroots momentum” behind these issues, Luo said. Decrim NY had around 250 meetings with legislators on these bills; in previous years no one was in Albany lobbying for them. While their bills didn’t pass this session, they plan to push for passage when lawmakers come back.

Advocates in other places have also pursued a legislative agenda. In D.C., a bill to decriminalize the buying and selling of sex was introduced in 2017, but it didn’t advance. “We regrouped. Polished it up a little bit. And we went harder,” Spellman said. She and other activists had conversations with lawmakers as well as members of their districts, canvassing door-to-door to talk to their neighbors and gather signatures. The original bill had two council members as sponsors; now it has four.

“We’ve been doing everything possible to shift the narrative [to the fact that] the cycle of arrest is not helping,” Spellman said. “It does nothing for creating a safer community. It does nothing to help the sex worker. It does nothing but cause them grief and keeps them often in poverty.” All it does, she pointed out, is clog the courts and drain resources that many D.C. residents would rather see go toward services instead.

Some acts of activism in D.C. have been small, such as talking to sex workers about making sure there are no condoms littering the streets or keeping nighttime noise down. “This is a very progressive city,” Spellman pointed out. “It’s been a monumental shift and people are a lot more forgiving.”

But she noted that even though council members have committed to bringing the bill up for a vote in August, “nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the government.” So sex work activists are increasing their canvassing and branching out into new neighborhoods that don’t tend to have as much sex work. “We’re doubling down our efforts,” she said.

Activists have also pushed lawmakers to embrace or even champion their cause. Some congressional candidates, including Suraj Patel and now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), came out in favor of repealing SESTA and FOSTA during their campaigns. State Sen. Julia Salazar ran on a platform that included decriminalizing sex work, including backing the repeal of New York’s “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” law. “Other people have expressed support, but she actually ran on it,” Luo noted. “We didn’t have to convince her, she was already there.”

Sex workers didn’t just support her; they went out and canvassed for her and held parties for her. And she won.

Then sex workers jumped into the race for district attorney in Queens, backing and canvassing for Tiffany Cabán, a queer Latina public defender who has said she’ll send a memo on “day one” to all district attorneys in her office not to prosecute sex workers or their customers. While votes in the primary race are still being counted, her victory could be monumental. “I cannot overstate how big this is,” Luo said.

Advocates will eventually decriminalize sex work throughout the state, Luo argued, but she acknowledged that it could take a couple of years or even a decade. “But single handedly Tiffany Cabán will essentially be able to decriminalize sex work in Queens,” Luo said. Given that the borough’s population is nearly 2.3 million people, which would make it the fourth largest city in the country if it were its own municipality, the reach of Cabán’s policy change could be enormous.

Luo thinks it won’t just stop there, however. “I fully expect many DA candidates in the next cycles to talk about decriminalizing sex work,” she said. If Cabán takes office and her reform is seen as a success, “we will see decriminalization roll out county by county in the U.S. hopefully.”

Cabán’s campaign has trickled up to the national level in other ways. After Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed her, reporters asked them specifically about decriminalizing sex work. Both have said they would be open to it. Advocates are now sending research to both candidates’ staff and having conversations with them to push them to fully embrace the decriminalization of sex work. (Presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also has said she thinks sex work should be decriminalized, although advocates point out she has a spotty track record on the issue that includes helping to craft SESTA/FOSTA.)

The Road Ahead

The advocates Rewire.News spoke to were clear that they are pushing for decriminalization—not legalization. They’re not interested in an official system that would create licensing, regulation, or other barriers that they argue would still criminalize or keep out more marginalized people, such as immigrants without documentation or with poor language skills, transgender people, or those who are street-based. “With legalization those people would just be criminalized in a different way,” Zen explained. “What has been so good for sex work for the survival of people has been the informality of it. We want to preserve that while also combatting the violence people experience in it.”

“There’s no victim in sex work; what becomes victimizing in sex work is that people take advantage of them,” Spellman said. “If the laws were not in place to criminalize sex work in and of itself, then there would be no victimization.” She likened it to alcohol or marijuana prohibition, which created a criminal black market for either good. “You’re punishing a behavior,” she said. “The same can be said for sex work.”

As they work toward that goal, one of their biggest tasks is changing the conversation around sex work. Some of that change is already taking place. “I think we’re … moving to an understanding of sex work that isn’t identity-based but labor-based and also criminal-justice based,” Luo said. Zen agreed. “We are moving more people in the middle,” she said. “It’s changing the conversation in different spaces and different movements.”

“I believe the work that has been done here to increase the knowledge around who sex workers are and what we have had to live through—it’s a compelling argument,” Spellman said. “Why are we allowing … city residents, long-term residents to suffer at the hands of government? At the hands of police?”

Many people, particularly from a younger generation, are coming to the issue from a different perspective than earlier generations. It’s no longer a moral judgment about sex; it’s a justice issue based on intersectional identities. Those who now support it “inherently understand that the decrim conversation is about economic justice, it is about racial justice, it is about gender justice, it is about trans justice,” Tasaki said. “The reasons that Decrim NY has been having the impact it’s had so far is in part because it is a multi-racial, multi-gender movement, and we are really framing this … about economic justice and housing justice.”

“They understand this as not some siloed issue for some obscure community,” Tasaki added. “They understand that this is something that connects to all of the things that they’re invested in already.”

Sex workers are far from done. In New York, Decrim NY plans to keep pushing for the three bills in the next session and will also continue to support candidates who back decriminalizing sex work. Red Canary’s ultimate goal is to create a sex workers’ bill of rights similar to the state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which lays out a number of rights for nannies and housekeepers, such as rest breaks and written contracts. “Basic protections around wage exploitation, hours, vacation time, making sure people can set personal boundaries around personal space and work: Those are things that we want to explore for people who work specifically in the massage or spa context,” Zen said.

And momentum is building in other places, including California, Oregon, and New Hampshire, according to advocates. The successes in New York and D.C. could spur more elsewhere. “People have had enough,” Spellman said. “If D.C. is the catalyst for that change, then so be it. Free them.”