Two prostitution-related bills introduced in the New York assembly and senate illustrate the division of New York Democrats over women’s rights. One bill aims to decriminalize the entire sex trade. The other follows the Equality Model, a legal model that regards prostitution as exploitation. It aims to reduce and ideally eliminate the sex trade by decriminalizing victims of prostitution while treating their exploiters as criminals, including sex buyers, brothel owners, pimps, and other profiteers. My experience lobbying in Albany on these bills demonstrated an increasingly growing divide within the Democratic party on this issue.
Full Decriminalization vs Equality Model Bills in NY State
The first bill, titled the “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act,” would effectively legalize prostitution. Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried introduced the bill in collaboration with DecrimNY, a coalition of organizations “Working to Decriminalize, Decarcerate, and Destigmatize the Sex Trades in New York City and State,” as stated on their website. Sen. Salazar also introduced a bill designed to allow men to self-ID into women’s prisons.
The “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act” not only decriminalizes the act of selling sex, it also decriminalizes men who buy sex; decriminalizes pimping of anyone over eighteen; allows brothels and other commercial sex establishments to operate as normal businesses; clears criminal convictions of men convicted of sex buying; clears criminal convictions of people convicted of pimping; and makes it harder to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking.
“This bill has the potential to turn New York City into a global hub for sex tourism and human trafficking.”
By effectively legalizing the entire sex trade, this bill has the potential to turn New York City into a global hub for sex tourism and human trafficking since studies have shown that legalized prostitution leads to increased human trafficking, including increased numbers of children entering the sex trade. The global average age of entry into the sex trade is between the ages of 12 and 14, with children typically staying in the trade through adulthood. In the Netherlands, where it is legal for a man to purchase a woman for sex, there was a 300% increase in the number of children in the sex trade between 1996 – 2001.
Contending with the full decriminalization bill is “The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act,” introduced by Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter. This Equality Model-based legislation is also known as a partial decriminalization bill, since it ends the arrest and incarceration for survivors of prostitution only—not their exploiters. Unlike the “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act,” this bill maintains laws against buying sex, pimping, sex tourism, and brothel owning. Additionally, the bill is designed to facilitate exit from the sex trade by establishing trauma-informed services and exit strategies for those in prostitution.
It also strengthens human trafficking laws by eliminating a loophole in New York State law that prevents sex buyers, like Jeffrey Epstein, from being charged with promotion of prostitution and eliminates ignorance defenses afforded to those who buy sex from children under 11 (1st degree), 15 (2nd degree), or in a school zone.
Equality Model laws have already been implemented in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, and Israel. Evidence suggests that the Equality Model lowers demand for prostitution. After establishing the Equality Model, Sweden saw a 50% decrease in street prostitution and a significant decline in the number of men purchasing sex within two years after the law was implemented. In Norway, street prostitution declined between 30-60%, and indoor prostitution declined between 10-20% five years after implementing the Equality Model.
“Sweden saw a 50% decrease in street prostitution.”
Lobbying in support of the Equality Model bill is a coalition of largely progressive aligned nonprofits called New Yorkers for the Equality Model (NYFEM). Notable members, among others, include celebrity lawyer Alexi Meyers, Sanctuary for Families, World Without Exploitation, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Covenant House, Equality Now, and the National Organization of Women.
As stated on its website, the coalition aims to “Prevent regressive legislation that will deregulate and expand one of the most violent, racist, sexist, and exploitative industries in our State” and to “Advocate for additional supportive housing and holistic, survivor-informed services and exit strategies for people in the sex trade.”
In addition to direct lobbying, NYFEM has also produced reports on prostitution, including a rebuttal of an ACLU research brief. The NYFEM report “Is Decriminalizing the Sex Trade the Answer? Debunking the ACLU’s Report” describes the ACLU’s brief as “based on faulty research as well as misleading and manipulated data.” They note that “the ACLU fails to cite any firsthand account from adult survivors of prostitution” or “child victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” At the same time, the ACLU report claims that “decriminalization of the sex trade, including sex buyers, brothel owners and other third-party profiteers, will eliminate the violence, degradation, stigma and exploitation inherent to the system of prostitution.”
Pro-Equality Progressives Face Primary Challenges Funded by Decriminalization Lobby
As a member of NYFEM, I participated in direct lobbying efforts on May 10th in Albany. This involved a series of meetings with politicians or their staff. Most of these thirty-minute meetings were scheduled in advance, but not always. When we sighted assemblymember Karines Reyes in the hall, a member of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women who knew Reyes urged several of us to follow her into her office where we held an impromptu lobbying session. Other times we walked into boardrooms expecting to find a politician, only to discuss our bill with his/her legislative staff.
Some meetings were held in boardrooms and were quite cordial. Others were not. On one occasion, we entered a cramped space with four desks for staff and nowhere for us to sit. One staff member loudly played a video on YouTube while we huddled around the desk of another staffer, hurriedly trying to explain our bill to her over the background noise. Very often we were asked to differentiate our Equality Model bill from the full decriminalization bill.
At 1:30 pm we gathered for a press release video during which Senator Krueger and Assemblymember Hunter spoke in favor of “The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act,” followed by statements from members of NYFEM.
“#MeToo has left these vulnerable New Yorkers behind.”
Jayne Bigelsen, Vice President of Advocacy at Covenant House, an agency that provides shelter, food, immediate crisis care, and other services to homeless and runaway youth, shared that “a couple years ago the pimps were so brazen they actually put an ad in Craig’s List saying ‘hey you live at the Cov? We can help you make more money.’” When the agency staff reported the ad to the anti-trafficking unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, an investigation discovered a human trafficking ring. She noted that “Under full decriminalization of prostitution no one would have investigated that ad because it would be completely legal to recruit any of our young people over the age of eighteen. It would be completely legal for them to set up a recruitment center across the street from our homeless shelter.”
Sonia Ossorio, President of National Organization of Women-NYC, denounced prostitution as a “flesh trade” which causes “psychological, physical, spiritual damage…so that men can continue to have access to sex whenever they want, with whomever they want, however they feel like it, on demand–as long as they’ve got the cash.” She added, “#MeToo has left these vulnerable New Yorkers behind…we’ve held men accountable for sexual misconduct. And we have to continue that.” The “sex trade is violent. It’s racist. It's misogynistic.”
Towards the end of the day, our professional lobbyist informed us that several Democratic politicians stated that they preferred the Equality Model Bill over the full decriminalization bill, but that the full decriminalization lobby threatened to "primary" them if they did not sponsor “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act.” Primarying is when an incumbent is challenged by a candidate of the same party in the next primary, usually to compel the incumbent to change her/his platform or risk being ousted by a rival of the same party.
The largely “progressive” NYFEM alliance serves as a reminder that opposition to prostitution is not limited to conservatives or radical feminists, even if mainstream human rights organizations such as the ACLU and Amnesty have been captured by “sex work” ideology.
Nonetheless, decriminalization of prostitution has a powerful lobby behind it. By funding expensive lobbying efforts and threatening to primary non-compliant politicians, advocates of the sex trade have edged towards success across the United States.
Prostitution has also been promoted extensively in media, notably on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In an episode on “sex work” Oliver advocated for the legalization of prostitution and compared selling one’s body to making sandwiches at Subway. World Without Exploitation, one of the non-profits in the NYFEM coalition, castigated Oliver in a response video made by survivors of the sex trade.
“Decriminalization of prostitution has a powerful lobby behind it.”
Other attempts to decriminalize the sex trade elsewhere in the U.S. have been struck down thanks to the efforts of coalitions like NYFEM. Recently in Oregon, a campaign to create a ballot initiative which would allow Oregonians to vote on whether to decriminalize the sex trade was dropped due, in part, to the fact that advocates for survivors of human trafficking sued over the language that would have appeared on ballots. This jeopardized the ability of petitioners to gather more than 112,000 signatures from Oregon voters by the July 8 deadline. Petition efforts were postponed until after a court resolution. In Washington D.C. efforts to decriminalize prostitution failed after a fourteen hour hearing filled with advocate testimonies such as that of Yasmin Vafa, executive director of the D.C. based nonprofit Rights4Girls.
While “progressive” Democrats are largely behind the push to decriminalize prostitution, New York’s two bills and my experience lobbying reveal that support for decriminalizing the sex trade is far from unanimous amongst even “progressive”-identified Democrats. It’s uncertain when politicians will vote on the two bills. To be sure, these two powerful Democratic lobbying groups will not cease advocating for their causes, even if that means waiting out several more sessions of the state legislature until New York makes a final decision on what prostitution means for women’s rights. Will New York treat the sale of women and girls for sex as a business like any other or will it declare prostitution a form of exploitation and male entitlement from which women and girls need to be protected?
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