On March 11, anti-sex work organizations rallied in New York City against the decriminalization of sex work—a movement that has recently picked up speed in the state. Unsurprisingly to decrim advocates, the event was dotted with transphobia and contempt for people who do sex work.
Constituents from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and local NYC groups gathered in front of City Hall in Manhattan, just two weeks after the launch of DecrimNY.
DecrimNY, a far-reaching coalition aimed at full decriminalization, destigmatization and decarceration of people engaged in sex work kicked off own its coalition in a nearby square with the expressed purpose of distancing itself from police and security to make sure people who do sex work did not feel uncomfortable.
The groups behind the March 11 “pimp-free New York” rally are in favor of the Nordic Model—an approach that targets people associated with sex workers, like clients, landlords, drivers or other sex workers who offer peer care and support. Even though the bullseye is not placed directly on the person doing sex work, it still “is criminalization, and it puts people who trade sex at increased risk of violence, economic instability, and labor exploitation,” writes DecrimNY member Nina Luo in a press release about the rally.
In addition to opposing sex work, some participants—particularly those affiliated with Object, a self-described “feminist campaigning group”—touted a banner disparaging transgender people. Object holds that both trans identity and sex work oppress (cis) women.
Object ideologically opposes “transgenderism”—but, as trans advocate and DecrimNY Steering Committee member Mateo Guerrero-Tabares notes in the coalition’s press release, “I’m not surprised the trans community was targeted here.”
Trans women, especially those of color, are frequently assumed by police—and the general public—to do sex work. For myriad reasons, they also participate in sex work at much higher rates than their cis counterparts, with 42 percent of Black trans women reportedly having done sex work at some point in their lives. Both the stereotypes and material realities of trans women doing sex work have led to the two being nearly conflated.
NOW did not eject the participants holding the transphobic banner, though they have since stated they “apologize for not recognizing their presence and shutting them down” and that they “strongly support transgender rights.”
Participants in the “pimp-free New York” rally allegedly harassed two sex workers, as well. A counter-protester unaffiliated with Decrim NY was “mobbed and shoved” by “End Demand” rally members, according to the coalition’s press release.
“I saw one of the End Demand people touch the sex worker under her breast, and I said ‘don’t touch her, we need to respect boundaries and people’s right to speak freely,'” said Saye Joseph, a Decrim NY coalition member. “Rather than saying that she may have mistakenly touched [the counter-protester], she instead said ‘I thought you liked to be touched.'”
Joseph claims that “This cavalier attitude toward sexual harassment shows how much End Demand groups actually care about sexual violence—they don’t.”
Additionally, The Appeal reporter Melissa Gira Grant said on Twitter that an NYPD detective harassed another unaffiliated counter-protester, eventually taking away her sex workers’ rights sign on the grounds that it was “disruptive.”
“He put both of his hands on me and forcibly moved me and took my sign away,” said the counter-protester, Viv, in DecrimNY’s press release. “As a black woman, it is no surprise to me that I experienced violent policing at an End Demand rally that promotes policing.”
Photograph: Melissa Gira Grant