New York may become first US state to largely decriminalize sex work

Victoria Bekiempis in New York
Photograph: John Locher/AP

New York could become the first US state to largely decriminalize sex work, if legislation proposed by several lawmakers this week is passed.

The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, introduced on Monday, would be “the first statewide bill of its kind in the nation’s history”, backers said.

The bill would change present law governing prostitution, “so that consenting adults who trade sex, collaborate with or support sex working peers, or patronize adult sex workers will not be criminalized”, according to a press release issued by supporters.

The 13-page bill – which was drafted with Decrim NY, a sex workers advocacy organization – would maintain current laws on rape, human trafficking, assault, sexual harassment and battery.

While sex work is prohibited almost everywhere in the United States, the move for decriminalization in New York comes as the issue has attracted more attention nationwide.

The California senator and Democratic primary contender Kamala Harris, who was once that state’s attorney general, voiced support for decriminalization in an interview with the Root. (Harris has faced criticism for her support of the Online Sex Trafficking Act, Fosta and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, Sesta; the crackdown on online ads that ensued from these acts spurred fear among sex workers.)

Decrim NY also claimed that progressives across the US support decriminalization efforts. According to a recent nationwide survey conducted by Data for Progress, along with Decrim NY, a majority of Democratic voters favored decriminalization. Fifty-six percent supported decriminalization and 17% stood in opposition, while 27% of respondents described themselves as “neutral or don’t know”.

“The bill upholds all of the anti-trafficking statutes that are designed to hold accountable traffickers and people who seek to buy sex from minors or otherwise sexually exploit minors,” organizers said of the proposed legislation.

The bill also proposes that those previously convicted for sex work – including trafficking survivors – can seek to clear their criminal records of offenses that would not be prohibited under the legislation.

The push for decriminalizing sex work in New York gained extensive momentum in February. Decrim NY was launched, and lawmakers demanded decriminalization legislation. Supporters of decriminalization maintain that keeping sex work illegal perpetuates violence and trafficking.

“This effort has been decades in the making,” said Audacia Ray, director of community organizing with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Decrim NY steering committee member and ex-sex worker. “We cannot emphasize enough for how long the LGBTQ community and people trading sex, especially trans women of color, have struggled to end violence against our communities.”

Opponents of decriminalization generally insist that the nature of sex work victimizes participants, claiming it will exacerbate exploitation.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, an advocacy organization that helps sexually exploited women, previously told NPR: “The commercial sex industry is inherently [exploitative] … The folks who end up in the commercial sex industry are the folks who are the most vulnerable and the most desperate.”

Llyod could not immediately be reached by the Guardian for comment on the just introduced bill.

In a radio interview Tuesday, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo demurred when asked about the bill.

“They put forth a bill, I think, yesterday. There’s only like six days left in the legislative session, and this is going to be a controversial issue,” Cuomo said.

Pressed by WAMC’s Alan Chartock on whether he thought decriminalization was a good idea, Cuomo answered: “I haven’t read the bill and I haven’t studied the bill, and I don’t know, in six days, that it’s going to get the deliberation that it actually requires for any legislator to actually take a vote.”

An individual involved in drafting the bill told the Guardian that supporters do not expect it to pass this session, as it is controversial and the legislative session ends next week.

They recognized that passing this legislation would probably entail an uphill battle. “We know it’s a long fight ahead,” they said, explaining that supporters nonetheless hoped to start a conversation on the issue by introducing the bill.

In order to become law, the bill would have to be approved by whichever state assembly and senate committees handle sex work-related issues. Next, the bill would then have to survive floor votes in the state assembly and senate, by getting a majority of legislators’ votes, and ultimately, it must not be vetoed by Cuomo.