Across the street from the headquarters of the New York Police Department, dozens of organizers, joined by politicians and supporters, rallied to kick off a new and potentially game-changing coalition. It is dedicated to winning the decriminalization of sex work in New York state.
Launched on February 25, Decrim NY aims to “improve the lives of people who perform sexual labor by choice, circumstance, or coercion, people profiled as such, and communities impacted by the criminalization of sex work and sexual exchange.”
To deliver on this ambitious mission, the coalition unites community centers, legal organizations, grassroots political organizations, and personal stakeholders. It sets out three key goals: to decriminalize, decarcerate and destigmatize people who do sex work.
For the coalition, decriminalization should include both people practicing sex work and those purchasing it—the latter of whom have been excluded from decriminalization efforts in the past.
“Full decriminalization best protects the rights and safety of people who trade sex,” said Jessica Raven, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project and a member of the Decrim NY Steering Committee, in a press release. “Some argue for the Nordic model, where only buyers and third parties face criminalization. In reality, these laws target loved ones, family, landlords, drivers and other people providing care and services to sex workers, which isolates and stigmatizes people who trade sex. Oftentime[s] peers in the sex trade help each other find clients and then get charged with trafficking.”
The proposed decarceration would include vacating criminal records associated with sex work-related convictions, which would in turn allow people to “end their ongoing entanglement with the criminal legal system and move on with their lives,” said Aya Tasaki, of Womankind, in the Decrim NY press release.
In order for criminalized and incarcerated sex workers to exercise freedom and agency in their lives, they require the destigmatization of sex work in order to access “housing, education, employment, health care, and other basic needs without restriction,” according to the Decrim NY platform.
In collaboration with New York State Assemblyman and Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, State Senator and Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos, and State Senate and Women’s Health Committee Chair Julia Salazar, the coalition intends to introduce what coalition member Nina Luo describes as “the most comprehensive state-level sex work decriminalization bill in the country.”
Alongside this forthcoming legislation, other New York bills that have been introduced would permit “survivors of trafficking” to vacate offenses related to “trafficking” and strike down statutes prohibiting “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” that end up targeting women of color, and particularly those of trans experience.
For journalist Emma Whitford, the political endorsement of these organizing efforts by state congress members is a “sig[nificant] marker of a mainstream shift.” The popularization of this issue follows the 2018 passage of the federal SESTA/FOSTA legislation and the resistance it ignited, which “moved [the issue of sex work] into the mainstream,” according to an Appeal article about Decrim NY by Melissa Gira Grant.
“It’s going to take all of us, advocating and fighting to build a better world,” said Red, an organizer with Support Ho(s)e Collective. “[A world] that recognizes our value, humanity, bodily autonomy and agency as sex working or trading people. A world that protects our trans and GNC [Gender Non-Conforming] family. A world that is free from white supremacy and bigotry. A world without police, without prisons, and without the criminalization of survival. A world that fully acknowledges sex work as work.”
Photograph: Emma Whitford