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More than 100 sex workers and allies lobby to repeal New York’s ‘walking while trans’ ban

Sex workers are pushing to decriminalize sex work in New York.

Black woman in handcuffs (Photo by iStock)
Black woman in handcuffs (Photo by iStock)

More than 100 sex workers and allies went to the New York state capitol on Tuesday to push for legislation meant to curb bad policing practices and stop the justice system’s punishment of trafficking victims.

The rally and lobbying day in Albany, New York, was organized by the DecrimNY campaign, which pushes for the full decriminalization of sex work and the decarceration of people of arrested on sex-trade related offenses. DecrimNY also wants to vacate criminal records related to the sex trade and destigmatize the sex trade more broadly.

One of the bills, sponsored by state Sens. Julia Salazar (D) and Jessica Ramos (D), would vacate trespassing and larceny convictions for sex trafficking victims if they can convey that they were coerced by traffickers. Under this bill, which cleared the Senate Codes Committee on Monday, victims would no longer have to participate in what are called “rehabilitation programs” in order to clear their records.

Another bill sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D) and state Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D) would eliminate a statute that criminalizes loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Jessica Raven, a steering committee member of DecrimNY, calls the statute the “walking while trans” ban because police often target trans women, particularly trans women of color. Raven said this statute also affects anyone who police think happens to be dressed the way they assume sex workers would. This bill is waiting to be cleared by the codes committee, where it was referred in January.

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“The walking while trans ban allows police to harass and arrest women of color, especially those who are trans and profiled as sex workers, for occupying public spaces without any evidence that they’re engaging in a criminalized behavior,” Raven said. “Trans and cis women of color deserve to feel safe from police harassment and violence in public spaces, and so we’re working to repeal this law and feel encouraged by the support we’ve had thus far from legislators and the general public.”

CREDIT: Facebook/DecrimNY
CREDIT: Facebook/DecrimNY

Small teams of advocates for these bills took 50 closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Tuesday, according to the Gothamist. Raven’s lobbying team met with Democratic state Sen. Liz Krueger’s staff. Though the state senator is already co-sponsoring two of these bills, Raven wanted to discuss the full decriminalization of sex work. She mentioned similarities between marijuana policy and policy approaches to enhancing sex worker safety.

“Sen. Krueger is a leader in marijuana justice policy, and so we were able to talk about the parallels between marijuana justice and sex workers’ rights. Specifically, in both areas, people are most frequently incarcerated as third parties — those who are incarcerated on marijuana charges have mostly been charged for ‘brokering,’ or connecting someone to a drug seller,” Raven said. “Similarly in the sex industry, people are often charged for ‘promoting prostitution,’ which often just means that sex workers are engaging in peer safety strategies like a peer driving a sex worker to a date or sex workers sharing a home.” 

“We were able to talk about the parallels between marijuana justice and sex workers’ rights … “

Raven said Krueger’s staff had questions about how full decriminalization would affect trafficking survivors. 

“We were clear that trafficking survivors are most frequently people who are already trading sex and become exploited. It’s not likely that someone will be kidnapped and trafficked — though this happens in rare occurrences. The vast majority of people who are exploited in the sex trade are people who are already working in the sex trade, and the stigma of criminalization acts as a barrier for sex trafficking victims seeking to access support, resources, and justice when they experience violence and exploitation.”

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Raven said she has seen a lot of change in the past several years in advocacy for sex workers, from discussion of empowerment in sex work to conversations about how to help sex workers at the margins who engage in survival sex work and are particularly harmed by criminalization.

The passage of legislation in Congress last year that conflated sex work and sex trafficking brought the conversation about sex workers’ rights into the national spotlight. Under the new law, known as SESTA/FOSTA, online platforms can be held criminally and civilly liable for facilitating or supporting “sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.”

Advocates for sex workers said the bill wouldn’t help trafficking victims, but only make it harder for sex workers to protect themselves because online platforms help them find and screen clients to reduce the likelihood of violence. When sex workers and clients are more concerned about law enforcement activity, they are more likely to work in unsafe conditions. Despite sex workers and allies’ advocacy against the bill, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly for it.

But sex workers, former sex workers, and allies have continued to organize around decriminalization of sex work in the face of this greater danger. In June of last year, sex workers went to a federal lobby day in Washington, D.C., and held 40 meetings with members of Congress, according to Splinter. Sex workers and sex worker rights activists are also organizing marches and filing lawsuits against SESTA-FOSTA that argue it is a violation of the First and Fifth Amendments.