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New York Could Be the First State to Decriminalize Sex Work

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New York is aiming to become the first state in America to fully decriminalize sex work via a new bill introduced this morning by legislators and activists from Decrim NY, a coalition of various organizations advocating for the rights of sex workers.

The bill, called Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Actis sponsored by Democratic Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar as well as Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou. It is the first statewide bill of its kind in the history of the United States and purposefully cites no reference to a specific gender in its language.

Currently, New York State law has over two dozen antiprostitution penal codes. About half of them pertain only to sex work between consenting adults, while the other statutes focus on trafficking, exploitation of minors, and coercion in the sex trades.

This bill upholds the felony antitrafficking statutes designed to punish traffickers as well as to protect minors, but it would repeal important sections in the penal code that prohibit prostitution and the criminalization of consenting adults.

Specifically, the bill would ensure that adults who are 18 or older will not be criminalized for consensually selling or buying sex. However, it will still be a crime if a person is forced or intimidated into engaging in sex work.

Furthermore, friends and family who help to facilitate a consenting adult in the sex trade will no longer be committing a crime. (For example, if a friend drives someone to another location to sell sex, that friend will not be punished.) If passed, loitering will also be decriminalized, as well as the discriminatory police practices of arresting people based on their clothing, gender presentation, the neighborhood they’re in, and their use of the public space.

The bill also introduces several amendments, including an update to the definition of “advancing prostitution” so that young people between the ages of 17 and 21 are not criminalized for working together. This will particularly help LGBTQ youth in the state of New York, who are statistically more vulnerable to engaging in survival sex work.

According to data from the Urban Institute, queer youth in New York State partake in sex work at seven to eight times the rate of their straight peers. Despite the numbers, resources remain scarce, and many cities fail to combat the rising numbers. In fact, the National Coalition for the Homeless states that despite the nearly 500,000 youth experiencing homelessness, there are only 4,000 shelter beds designated for young people in the United States. Consequentially, many LGBTQ youth have no choice but to trade sex for basic needs like housing.

Furthermore, the bill will also add an option for sex workers to apply for criminal record relief for crimes they were previously convicted of that are no longer a crime under this legislation

“We want to bring sex workers out of the shadows,” Ramos said at a press conference. “When we decriminalize sex work, we will be taking a giant leap towards ending sex trafficking. We know that by giving sex workers agency, humanity, and acknowledging their existence, we’re empowering them to report violence against them. This is why we chose the decimrinaltzion model and not the models seen around the world. We want sex workers to support each other. … Every worker has an inherent right to a safe workplace, and we are here to affirm today that sex work is work.”

One study points to the disproportionate number of trans people (specifically trans women of color) who engage in the sex trade.

According to a study called Meaningful Work, cosponsored by the National Center for Transgender Equality, an overwhelming majority (69.3 percent) of sex workers reported experiencing an adverse job outcome in the traditional workforce, such as being denied a job or promotion or being fired because of their gender identity or expression (versus 44.7 percent of non-sex workers). Those who lost a job due to anti-transgender bias were almost three times as likely to engage in the sex trade (19.9 percent vs. 7.7 percent).

Additionally, unemployment rates were dramatically higher for those who reported involvement in the sex trade (25.1 percent) compared to those who did not (12.4 percent).

Transgender sex workers were more than twice as likely to live in extreme poverty (an income of under $10,000 per year) than those who hadn’t participated in the trade (30.8 percent versus 13.3 percent) and were less likely to be higher income earners. Only 22.1 percent reported household income over $50,000/year (compared to 43.4 percent of nonparticipants).

Sex workers living with HIV have the added weight of worrying about draconinan laws currently on the books in over 30 states that virtually equate HIV with a weapon, making it a felony for someone who's poz to engage in sexual acts without disclosing their status first. 

If passed, the bill will make an enormous impact on the safety of sex workers in the state of New York. It could also lead the way for other states and jurisdictions to also decriminalize sex work. 

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