Top Tags

The Economist: The push to decriminalise sex work in New York

June 19, 2019

YANG SONG, a prostitute, worked in a massage parlour in Queens, New York. A Chinese immigrant, she was worried that her record of multiple arrests would block her path to citizenship and was reportedly saving up to get out of the business. One evening in late 2017, during a police raid from which she was apparently trying to escape, Ms Song fell four storeys from a balcony. She died the next morning. The Queens district attorney found no evidence of wrongdoing by the police.

In New York, as in most of America, selling sex is illegal and stories abound of the costs of criminalisation. Sex workers circle in and out of the criminal justice system for years. Their criminal records often prevent them from accessing housing and other kinds of work. Paying bail bonds puts many already impoverished sex workers into debt.

On June 10th, New York introduced the first state-wide package of bills to decriminalise sex work. It would remove criminal penalties related to the buying and selling of sex and regulate workers’ place of business to make them safer. It would also allow sex workers to apply for criminal records connected to sex work to be expunged.

The bill is unlikely to pass any time soon. It has many opponents, among them Gloria Steinem and the Catholic church. Critics worry that decriminalisation will encourage trafficking and offences against minors, though laws against those offences would remain untouched. But Richard Gottfried, chair of New York state assembly’s health committee says its introduction is nonetheless a historic step and reflects a growing movement for decriminalisation. “Trying to stop sex work between consenting adults should not be the business of the criminal justice system”, he says.

One of the biggest benefits of illegalisation is that it allows sex workers to more easily report crimes of which they are the victims. Activists in New York say that prostitutes tend to be hesitant about telling the police if they are attacked or raped for fear they themselves will be arrested. Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says New York’s bill “gives them a voice. They can speak out”.

The push to decriminalise sex work, which is backed by a growing number of politicians stems from a recognition that sex workers are often especially vulnerable. According to one study of New York workers, around 40% reported being homeless or living in a temporary accommodation. Jessica Raven, a former sex worker who is now campaigning for decriminalisation, says sex work saved her from extreme poverty when, as a teen, she ran away from a foster home. “I didn’t see sex as the problem; I saw the lack of safe housing as the problem”, she says.

Previous attempts to reform the way sex workers are prosecuted in New York have largely failed. In 2013 the state’s chief judge established a number of “diversion courts” to help sex workers avoid jail. The courts referred sex workers to mental health services and offered help with housing. But a study by academics at Yale suggests they have failed. The courts, it said, embedded “social services within a coercive penal context that frames defendants as ‘victims’ but treats them like ‘criminals’”. Police efforts to focus on customers, meanwhile, have often resulted in sex workers being arrested too.

New York’s move toward decriminalisation is part of a wider examination of prostitution statutes in America. Many laws have been on the books since the 19th century, as the use of such terms as “lewd persons” suggests. Earlier this month the city council in Washington, DC introduced a bill that would decriminalise sex work. Lawmakers in Maine and Massachusetts are considering decriminalisation bills. Rhode Island held hearings in April on the subject. The state has some history here. In 1980 when the state legislature amended its prostitution laws it inadvertently got rid of the law outlawing indoor prostitution. In 2003 a judge interpreted this to mean that indoor sex work was legal. It took until 2009 for lawmakers to close this accidental loophole. A study later found that although the sex business increased during those years, rapes and sexually transmitted diseases declined.

Other evidence of the benefits of decriminalisation comes from Nevada, the only state in which prostitution is legal, in some counties. In her book, “An Economist Walks into a Brothel”, Allison Schrager (who has written for The Economist) found that many of the workers she interviewed preferred working in legal brothels. This was despite the fact that the costs of working in regulated establishments, with guards and panic buttons and the requirement that workers pay taxes, meant their take-home pay was much reduced.