Opinion | This Is What Will Make Sex Work in New York Safer

When I took my first client as a sex worker in the 1980s, I had no other choice. It was right after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina. As a young trans woman, I found that sex work was the only way for me to survive, but I faced constant harassment and violence, especially from la policía. So, I left my home to come to the United States, thinking things would be different.

But when I got here, I had no more luck. On top of being trans, now I also struggled with being undocumented and learning English. Once again, I turned to sex work to stay afloat. Within two weeks I was arrested walking down Washington Avenue in Miami Beach; the police laughed at me, misgendered me and left me in a prison cell full of men.

I have spent the last decade of my life fighting for the decriminalization of sex work for adults, to heal all of those times I have been harassed, beaten and raped — not by clients, but by law enforcement officials.

Right now there are two bills purporting to decriminalize sex work in the New York State Legislature, one of which may soon be presented to Gov. Kathy Hochul. But while both attempt to address the very valid concerns about sex trafficking, only one meets the needs of sex workers.

The first, the Stop the Violence in the Sex Trades bill, is sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar. This bill aims to decriminalize the industry — including sex workers, clients and managers — though carefully continuing to protect minors and trafficked people. The origin of this bill dates back three years, to ideas promoted by a group I helped found, Decrim NY. Our lobbying led to the overturning of a criminal statute against loitering that law enforcement had long used as a pretext to harass trans women regardless of their involvement in the sex trade.

We knew that the best way to help sex workers was not to decriminalize only their action, but also those of their clients. The legal pressure that clients face is absorbed by sex workers: A smaller client base means lower wages and poorer working conditions, with clients who are more likely to act in ways that make sex workers’ lives more difficult.

We believe criminalization of either side of the sex trade does not help protect sex workers, but rather merely perpetuates the social stigma that treats sex work as an inherently harmful activity, a stigma that I have long worked to eradicate.

Sex work is a service industry. We often help people with social anxiety, disabilities, those who are figuring out their sexualities or gender identities. Clients and co-workers (who are often prosecuted as traffickers) very often provide care to sex workers as well. It was a sex worker who helped me escape from a trafficking situation, not the police! It was a client who encouraged and helped me get into a drug treatment program, and it was a client who gave me my first immigration legal advice and helped me open my first bank account.

I have of course had my share of bad clients. But, even when I didn’t enjoy doing it and felt like I had no other options, sex work kept me alive.

This brings us to the rival bill to Senator Salazar’s. This bill, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, has been pushed forward by State Senator Liz Krueger. Known as the Survivors bill, it is threatening to derail the Salazar bill for total decriminalization. This bill would only decriminalize sex workers, but not their clients, nor their managers. While the Stop the Violence bill wants to keep in place current sex trafficking legislations, the Survivors bill’s stated purpose is to strengthen those laws.

But for sex workers who aren’t being trafficked, partial decriminalization doesn’t work, and we have evidence. The approach to sex work being proposed by Senator Krueger first appeared in Sweden in 1999 — it’s often called the “Nordic model.” Research has shown that in countries where the Nordic model has been instituted, workers are worse off, compared to the New Zealand model. Their bargaining power is lower, and they live with higher levels of anxiety and discrimination.

By contrast, New Zealand, which fully decriminalized sex work for all adults who are not on a temporary work visa and established a few regulations in 2003 with the Prostitution Reform Act, has seen a substantial improvement in the lives of people in the sex trade. A 2007 independent survey, funded by the government, found that nearly 65 percent of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients and 57 percent said police attitudes toward sex workers had improved.

It saddens me that Senator Krueger and her supporters are framing their bill as the feminist choice while they work against the interests and wishes of so many women in the sex trade. New York has the opportunity to take the lead in acknowledging the rights and dignity of sex workers in the United States, a country in which sex work is criminalized in all but a few counties. We should not have to accept a half-measure that denies us agency and subjects us to overpolicing under the guise of saving us.

Cecilia Gentili is the founder of Transgender Equity Consulting, the director of gender inclusion at CAI Global and on the board of the Stonewall Community Foundation.

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