HOST INTRO: The laws of prostitution and sex workers’ rights have long been debated in the state of New York. Now state legislation is about to be proposed that could change the legal landscape of sex work…and the lives of sex workers. State Senators are working to draft the legislation alongside a coalition of over 20 organizations, including current and former sex-workers. Sophia Ahmadi reports.
AHMADI 1: Bianey Garcia is a transgender woman and community organizer in Jackson Heights. But when she first transitioned at 18, she faced discrimination, no one would hire her. And she was desperate.
GARCIA 1: It’s just like I worked to survive. When you are trans and you can’t find a job, it’s difficult and that pushes you to do sex work.
AHMADI 2: Cecilia Gentili is another former sex worker.
GENTILI 1: You know, sex workers are your family members, are your friends or your neighbors, you know, we go to the same doctor that you go, you know, we are here and we have rights and you know, we deserve to have a voice and to decide what’s better for us.
AHMADI 3: Today Garcia and Gentili are members of a coalition working with state senators to introduce new legislation.
One of the bills, introduced in January, would eliminate the criminal statute relating to loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Another bill now being drafted would go even further. Senators Ramos and Salazar are putting together the legislation that would decriminalize the sex trade entirely.
Jared Trujillo is a public defender at the Legal Aid Society and is also part of the effort. He says that, if passed, these bills would completely change how the legal system addresses prostitution, by creating a kind of sex workers bill of rights.
TRUJILLO 1: So, you’re not just decriminalizing sex work, but you’re also giving these people recourse if they are abused, if they are physically abused, if they are sexually abused. It’s just to get humans dignity that they should have gotten a long time ago that they don’t currently have because there’s this idea that sex work is not work.
AHMADI 4: Trujillo says there’s also another reason to change the existing laws–they are often used to target and discriminate against other communities besides sex workers. Garcia says she has experienced this first hand.
GARCIA 2: Here in Jackson Heights, the police profile you as a sex worker, even if you are doing it or not, just for the simple reason of being trans or, you know, dressing sexy the police assume that you’re doing sex work.
AHMADI 5: But the proposed legislation has not been embraced by all. Taina Bien-Aimé is the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women based in New York City.
BIEN-AIME 1: If this law would pass, overnight, New York would have a brothel on every street corner. It would basically be a green light for pimps and traffickers to say ‘business is open, women are for sale, and come on down.’
AHMADI 6: Instead her organization supports a different legal model that was first adopted in Sweden in the late 90s, which criminalizes the clients but not the sex workers themselves.
But Trujillo says that only by decriminalizing sex work altogether can you address the inherent stigma and discrimination faced by sex workers.
TRUJILLO 2: If it is still illegal for someone to purchase sex, sex workers are not empowered. Sex workers are not going to go to police officers. if they’re ever abused, you’re still pushing the trade underground.
AHMADI 7: The proposal to eliminate loitering for the purpose of prostitution is currently in the Assembly Codes’ Committee alongside another bill that would remove trafficking survivor’s past convictions of prostitution from the record. The more comprehensive bill on decriminalizing sex work altogether is still being written. And legislators say they hope to finish drafting the bill this Spring.
Sophia Ahmadi, Columbia Radio News.