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Lawmakers and advocates debate legalizing sex work in New York

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

Last month, New York Governor Kathy Hochul said she is looking into a proposal to legalize sex work in the state. The move has long been pushed by advocates who say it would empower sex workers and give them added protections.

Early in her term, the Democrat told reporters she is speaking with advocates and is open to addressing the issue the legislative session that starts in January.

“It is absolutely something I have thought about and am considering and discussing with many advocates and people who have very strong opinions in it," Hochul said in September.

There are two competing bills in the legislature. One would completely decriminalize sex work. The other bar police from charging sex workers, but still allow them to charge clients.

Health Committee Chair Dick Gottfried sponsors the decriminalization bill in the Assembly. The Democrat from the 75th district concedes the measure doesn’t have enough support to pass yet:

“I've seen people's mind change on a lot of very difficult issues where you might not have expected it. And sometimes the change comes a lot more quickly than anybody would have thought. You know, recently we saw that with same-sex marriage. So, I think having the governor raising the topic and weighing in on it is enormously important," Gottfried said.

Gottfried and state Senator Jessica Ramos’ New York Anti-Trafficking Network bill would only apply to sex workers who are consenting adults.

The Assembly version of the bill passed in June 2020, but never made it to floor of the state Senate.

Gottfried says his bill, rather than the version backed by Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter and state Senator Liz Krueger, also Democrats, would be better for sex workers since it separates the sex work trade and criminal justice. Krueger and Hunter did not respond to requests for comment.

The Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project Andy Bowen agrees, saying there is no replacement for full decriminalization.

“People can make a living. At Sex Workers Project we aim and we do make sure that we support sex workers regardless of whether they're on the trade by choice, circumstance or coercion. There are people who do sex work because it is fulfilling, freeing activity that brings them joy. There are, you know, people who do sex work because it is a survival activity," Bowen said. "That is also valid every bit as much as somebody who may work, you know, any particular job because it is a job. So, outside of the interaction with the police decriminalization is important to improving the lives of Sex workers because it just allows them to do the economic activity that they need to.”

Critics argue full decriminalization of sex work would make workers more vulnerable to harm. Others oppose it on a moral level. Gottfried says New York’s approach to the question hasn’t been working so far.

“The current system has had a couple of thousand years to try to get it right. It's failed, and it's time to recognize that. You know, sex work is about the only example I can think of where an activity that on its own is legal is made illegal if you charge for it, and I don't think that makes good sense," he said.

Ceyenne Doroshow is founder and executive director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society Inc., based in Queens. She is also a former sex worker. Doroshow says there are pros and cons to decriminalization.

“Well, when I was a sex worker it was survival. At the same time, I was working for nonprofits that did not pay Black trans women enough to survive," Doroshow said, "So, what was I supposed to do? Do the work of saving lives and be homeless, or do sex work and save lives so I can have a roof over my head.”

Doroshow also claims lawmakers haven’t engaged the Black community for input on the bill. It was only earlier this year New York State passed a ban on a law commonly known as, “walking while trans,” which critics say has been used by police to harass and arrest law-abiding trans people.

“When you think of these bills and laws that have been passed, how do these bills and laws help a Black trans woman that still can't walk. While she's a Black trans woman that needs housing and because she's had a history of sex work, that record can defer a landlord from taking them," she said. "So, there are pros and cons that people are not talking about or thought about - and they have they been very quiet around the organizing around Black lives."