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Culture - Activism | May 13, 2021, 3:43 CDT

Sex Workers Explain Why NYC's New Prostitution Laws Aren’t Enough

Many say the announcement is a step in the right direction but no silver bullet.
Callie Zucker

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Callie Zucker
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On April 21, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that his office will decline to prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage. This is a landmark decision, but some sex workers are skeptical that it will significantly improve their lives.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Decrim NY, a local coalition of sex workers and their supporters, said in a statement, “but no policy from individual prosecutors can obviate the state’s need to decriminalize sex work.”

Because Vance clarified that this policy “does not preclude us from bringing other charges that may stem from a prostitution-related arrest,” sex workers and their advocates are wary of the changes resembling the Nordic model—the legislative framework in Sweden, Norway and Iceland that focuses on the arrest and prosecution of clients instead of sex workers.

The Nordic model has been criticized by sex worker advocacy groups, including the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Sex Workers Outreach Project and Decrim NY for failing to protect sex workers or decrease the surveillance and harassment of them.

“In Nordic countries, decreases in worker arrests usually meant increases in client arrests,” said Jared Trujillo, a former sex worker who provides legal counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “[This] pushes the trade further into the shadows and makes it harder to negotiate safety [and] condom use.” He added that the district attorney’s office “has reneged on past promises not to prosecute.”

The Nordic model has been criticized by sex worker advocacy groups for failing to protect sex workers or decrease the surveillance and harassment of them.

Some sex workers are concerned that even if prosecution stops, the policy change won’t stop police from harassing them. “I’m not impressed that they’re not prosecuting if they’re still surveilling and arresting,” said Ellie*, a New York-based writer who does full-service sex work. “Police harassment of sex workers is unlikely to stop when the NYPD vice squad still exists,” agreed Anna*, a sex worker and sociologist based in the city.

“There aren’t a ton of arrests of street workers in Manhattan right now,  [but] there are a lot of massage parlor raids,” said Trujillo. “If they do stop arresting [workers] for unlicensed massage, then that would be a marked improvement, but officers...still have probable cause to go after workers, so they can if they choose.”

Anna sees potential upsides to the new policy. It might ameliorate “some of the harmful consequences of previous reforms to prostitution policy in New York City, [including] the increased surveillance and control of sex workers that occurs under the Human Trafficking Intervention Court program,” she said. “Making social services and opportunities freely available to sex workers on a voluntary basis could potentially reduce policing in sex worker communities.” 

Still, Decrim NY argued that more far-reaching legal reform is required, urging New York State to pass the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act. “Declining to prosecute some cases does not mean decriminalization,” the organization concluded. “This policy shift is not a silver bullet or even the gold standard.”

Callie Zucker

Written by

Callie Zucker