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Lawmakers and advocates debate how to legalize sex work in New York

Liara Roux
Bad Ngo
Liara Roux

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, but there are different views on how to make the change.

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

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

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

The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act is sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter of Syracuse, both Democrats.

Krueger, of the 28th district, says she worries full decriminalization could lead to New York City becoming a center of human trafficking and legal brothels, and lead to a spike in the exploitation of young people.

“The difference between our bills is that while we would both end the criminal penalties for people caught up in sex work, in my bill, we will continue to have penalties for human traffickers, pimps and also johns, because of our belief that this is fundamentally exploitive of people in the sex trade," Krueger said. "That enormous harm, physical and psychological, is being done to these women and men. That we want to end the most extreme exploitation, which I would argue, is the human trafficking and pimping against their will of women and men.”

WAMC spoke to both former and current sex workers who disagree with that appraoch. Liara Roux is a sex worker in New York City. She just published a memoir, “The Whore of New York.”

“There's this image a lot of people have in their mind about sex work that's really scary and horrifying and I wanted to do my part to explain why people end up in the industry and help let people understand a little bit about our world, Roux told WAMC.

Assemblywoman Hunter of the 128th District says there needs to be a constructive conversation on the subject. She worries the debate could be sidetracked by social media slogans like “Defund the police” and “Sex work is work.”

Like Krueger, Hunter is concerned full decriminalization would lead to further exploitation of men and women.

“We can't in one chance, say, you know, it's my body, my choice and then say, but it's OK for exploiters to continue doing what they're doing that we just open up this wide market and then say it's the, you know, it's a free for all," Hunter said. "It cannot be like that, because there are hundreds of thousands of young people being exploited and trafficked every single day.”

Both Democrats also say they are concerned about the mental health aspects of the job for sex workers. They say often people get involved in sex work due to mental health issues.

Roux was working in the tech industry when health problems and working conditions led her to quit. It was then she found sex work, which found to be a positive experience.

“And to me, it seemed like a good way to make a fair amount of money without having to put in long hours, which, at the time, because of my disabilities, I wasn't able to do. I'm also queer and so it felt challenging for me to ask for help from my family and I think a lot of people who are drawn to sex work are drawn to it for similar reasons," she said. "Often sex workers have health issues,or they're getting out of an abusive situation and sex work is a really easy, low-barrier way to make a fair amount of money and be able to get back on your feet and support yourself relatively quickly.”

As she writes, Roux was in an abusive relationship during her time in sex work and was married to a woman who ultimately took most of her money. Still, she says she supports full decriminalization, though understands the concern from leaders like Krueger and Hunter.

While she ultimately ended up enjoying sex work, she knows people leaving abusive relationships and teenage runaways turn to sex work because it’s the only option they have. She says it’s vital to provide better services, like housing and food, for those on the margins.

“There's so much shame and stigma associated with being a sex worker. I know that for me personally, it took years before I was comfortable telling anyone what my job was and that can be a lot to carry emotionally," she said. "I have a lot of friends who've tried to seek help over the years, but feel like they need to hide things from their service workers like their sex work history, because they're worried that it will be used to deny them access. I think sex worker rights are sort of in a similar place to gay rights, maybe 20 or 30 (years ago), where people were really just starting to realize just how important it was to really support people instead of being so discriminatory.”

For more on the debate over legalizing sex work, including an approach favored by Assembly dean Richard Gottfried, visit wamc.org.