In 2019, the nation’s most diverse county narrowly missed a major opportunity to embrace sex work decriminalization. A little less than a year later, the implications of the loss are being revealed.
In the 2019 Democratic primary for district attorney in New York City’s Queens County, Tiffany Cabán, a high-profile former defense attorney who ran an AOC-style progressive campaign, championed a policy of declining to “prosecute sex workers, customers” as well as “under the promoting prostitution charges,” as she told BuzzFeed News. In contrast, her opponent Melinda Katz favored the Nordic Model—where workers are decriminalized but clients and others involved are still fair game—and diversion programs.
On July 29, 2019 Katz was declared the winner over Cabán by just 60 votes. In November, she won the general election, giving Queens a Nordic Model DA.
On May 18, DA Katz announced the creation of a Human Trafficking Bureau tasked with prosecuting alleged traffickers and buyers of sex. “This new and dedicated Bureau within my Office, will combat those who would victimize others with aggressive investigations to end this industry,” she said in a press release.
In reality, her new Bureau will likely sweep up people purchasing the consensual services of a sex worker. It will “in part, be dedicated to prosecuting misdemeanor prostitution-related offenses (“buyers of sex,” aka, solicitation),” journalist Melissa Gira Grant, who frequently covers issues related to sex work, explained in a tweet.
DA Katz also claims that the Bureau will “help the victims find a path to freedom with services and programs that will give them positive change in their lives and a future without fear.”
But advocates for sex work decriminalization consider that her Nordic Model endangers people involved in the sex trade. “It guarantees continued police raids at sex workers’ places of business, like the raid that killed Yang Song, a Chinese migrant woman who worked at a massage parlor in Flushing,” said Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a state assembly candidate for a Queens district, in a May 19 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,” said Leila Raven, former executive director of the Audre Lorde Project and a steering committee member of the decriminalization coalition, Decrim NY. “Oftentime peers in the sex trade help each other find clients and then get charged with trafficking.”
In light of the potential harms caused by vice policing, Mamdani is calling on DA Katz to “listen to the people who are directly impacted by the policies she’s promoting in their name, and end all prosecutions” for sex work on both sides of consensual transactions.
Photograph of Melinda Katz in 2014 by Patrick Cashin /Metropolitan Transit Authority via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons