New York Could Be the First State to Fully Decriminalize Sex Work

Photo: David Klepper/AP

Today, a historic bill will be introduced to the New York state legislature that would fully decriminalize sex work, according to The New Republic, which would make it the first state in the nation to do so.

The bill, which the organization DecrimNY helped draft, would end the criminalization of buying and selling sex and repeal laws against places where sex workers work and “loitering for prostitution.” It would also end prohibitions on “promoting” prostitution which currently make it difficult for sex workers to help each other screen clients or otherwise work together without breaking the law—particularly under SESTA-FOSTA.

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The organizers behind the bill have big goals.

“This is not just about decriminalizing workers or the absence of criminal codes. It’s about making sure people who work in the sex trades have access to making a living in the sex industry in a way that is not a crime,” Audacia Ray, a member of the DecrimNY steering committee, told The New Republic.

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Of course, under the bill, compelling prostitution and promoting prostitution that involves minors or force would remain crimes.

“The things that actually protect people—it keeps those on the books,” Jared Trujillo, another member of DecrimNY’s steering committee, told the site. “As far as trafficking, you still can’t traffic people. As far as being able to purchase sex from someone who’s underage? All those protections [for minors] are still on the books.”

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Crucially, the bill would also vacate prior convictions for offenses that would no longer be considered criminal offenses.

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One of the bill’s sponsors is New York state Sen. Julia Salazar, a member of Democratic Socialists of America. (Disclosure: I am also a member of a DSA branch). She says the bill has to cover a lot of ground to make sure decriminalization is fully accomplished.

“This actually speaks to exactly how pervasive the criminalization of the sex industry is, that it touches so many parts of the law the average person doesn’t think about when they think about prostitution being illegal,” Salazar told The New Republic.

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The fight for sex workers’ rights is already getting some attention in Albany. Another state bill in the Assembly would get rid of the loitering law, which disproportionately affects our most vulnerable populations.

Politicians in other states have also showed interest in decriminalization in recent months. Decriminalization bills have been introduced in Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, though some of these bills adhere to the so-called “Nordic model,” which criminalizes the buying of sex and effectively forces workers further underground.

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Amazingly, some of the 2020 Democrats running for president have also weighed in on the issue. Sen. Kamala Harris expressed some willingness to entertain the idea of decriminalization.

“When you’re talking about consenting adults, I think that yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long no one is being harmed,” Harris told The Root.

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But not everyone is on board with the bill. Old school feminist groups like the National Organization for Women still oppose sex work decriminalization.

“These organizations that do have incredible amounts of money, incredible amounts of power and lobbying leverage that we don’t have, that are terribly opposed to people like me being able to make their living out of sex work,” Cecilia Gentili, a DecrimNY steering committee member and former sex worker, told The New Republic.

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“These people advocate for more police power—they want them to have absolute power over people’s bodies,” Gentili added. “I can’t understand how it is feminists who are advocating for policing.”

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