New York could become the first state to decriminalize sex work after a group of progressive legislators introduced a sweeping bill Monday aimed at placing the state in the vanguard of a growing sex workers’ rights movement.
Despite significant democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature, the bill will likely face an uphill battle over the next year. But it will force public officials and advocates to grapple with an issue that impacts an untold number of women and men around the state.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for like 30 years,” Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker and member of an advocacy group that helped draft the bill, said at a press conference Monday. “I have been in Rikers Island, and it’s not an experience I would wish on an enemy, not even my worst enemy.”
The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act is a package of measures that would repeal penalties for selling and buying sex, as well as update other parts of the state law that address prostitution to align them with the repealed charges.
Under the proposed changes, most misdemeanor charges related to prostitution — including promotion charges, which opponents sometimes refer to as “pimping,” — would be repealed. Legislators told BuzzFeed News the decision to repeal the promotion charge is necessary to ensure that sex workers are not criminalized for supporting one another.
“Criminalization of sex work kills my community. Criminalization of sex work stains our records so that we cannot access employment otherwise,” Gentili said.
The bill would allow sex workers and others to apply for criminal record relief if they have previously been convicted on one of the charges being repealed. Additionally, the bill amends language throughout the penal code to make references to buyers and sellers gender neutral.
The bill does not propose any changes to the sections of the penal code that outlaw sex trafficking and offenses related to minors, both of which would remain illegal. One misdemeanor offense related to prostitution in a school zone would remain in effect.
“When we talk about decriminalization, we’re talking about consenting adults,” Julia Salazar, who is introducing the bill in the Senate, told BuzzFeed News. “Anything that involved children or coercion are things that we feel very strongly need to remain in the penal code.”
Salazar’s cosponsor in the Senate is Jessica Ramos, who represents portions of Queens where sex work is heavily policed.
“This entire conversation really happens under the banner of reducing violence,” Ramos told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t want sex workers to experience violence at the hands of customers, or the police, or anybody.”
In the Assembly, the legislation was introduced by Assembly members Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou. Niou, an immigrant from Taiwan, has been outspoken about the need for reform following the death of Chinese massage parlor worker Yang Song during an NYPD vice raid in 2017. Ron Kim, Dan Quart, and Catalina Cruz cosponsored the bill in the Assembly.
The legislation was drafted in collaboration with a group of advocacy and legal organizations known as Decrim NY. The coalition launched in February, and is also supporting two narrower bills that are making their way through the legislature.
One of those bills — a measure allowing trafficking survivors to vacate convictions for crimes committed while they were being trafficked — has passed through committee in both houses in the state legislature and is due to be scheduled for a full vote.
“We’re hopeful that the next week or two it’ll get a floor vote in both houses,” said Kayleigh Zaloga, a legislative aide in Gottfried’s office who helped draft the package bill.
The second bill, which would repeal an anti-prostitution loitering law, has been stalled, according to Mateo Tabares, an organizer with nonprofit Make the Road NY. That measure is also included in SVSTA package bill.
The loitering law has been widely criticized by advocates who say it unfairly allows police to target trans people and women of color based on appearance alone. The Legal Aid Society sued the NYPD in 2016 over the constitutionality of its enforcement of the law. As part of the settlement of the suit, the NYPD recently updated its patrol guide to make arrest guidelines stricter.
The NYPD also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Andrew Cuomo told the BuzzFeed News the governor’s office would review SVSTA legislation.
The SVSTA bill joins a similar bill the Washington, DC that was reintroduced by Councilmember David Grosso last week. The specific statutes covering sex work vary by city and state, but the DC law also broadly aims to fully decriminalize the sex trade for consenting adults, according to Jessica Raven who is a member of the Decrim NY steering committee and a founding member of Decrim Now DC. That bill would also establish a task force to study the impact of the changes.
Although recent polling from Decrim NY suggests that decriminalization has support among Democrats, with 56% saying they were in favor, the issue has proved difficult for the left to rally around. Only three of the 23 major democratic candidates for president told BuzzFeed News they would support decriminalization, and in some cases it’s not clear that that support extends beyond removing penalties for sellers.
The push to decriminalize sex work has been met by strident opposition. Religious organizations, anti-trafficking advocates, and some feminists, including perhaps most notably Gloria Steinem, have argued against decriminalization.
“I don’t believe that it’s inevitable, and if we want to be advocating for a more just world, I don’t believe we should be advocating for that industry,” said Ane Mathieson, who works with trafficking survivors at the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families.
Although Sanctuary for Families has opposed the broad decriminalization effort, it is backing both Ramos’s bill to vacate trafficking-related convictions and the individual measure to repeal the loitering law.
Despite concerns from anti-trafficking advocates like Mathieson, sex workers have been vocal in their support of decriminalization. More than 100 sex workers traveled from New York City to Albany last month with Decrim NY to lobby legislators on the issue.
“Most people think that when you say ‘decriminalize sex work,’ prostitution will be legal and human trafficking will be free,” Silvia Escobar, a sex worker in Ramos’s district, told BuzzFeed News. “But decriminalization would benefit us trans women who do sex work.”
To promote the bill, Decrim NY is planning a slate of public education initiatives around the issue, canvassing in areas where it has faced opposition.
“The coalition has built a lot of power in the less than 6 months we’ve been public,” Audacia Ray, who cochairs Decrim NY’s policy work group, told BuzzFeed News.
But Ray acknowledged that the effort would take time, saying, “We’re buckling up for a longer conversation.”