People with megaphones and signs.
A rally for decriminalization of sex work in Flushing, Queens, May 2019, in response to a police crackdown on local massage parlors. In June 2019 a group of legislators introduced bills that would effectively decriminalize sex work in New York state. Amir Khafagy/CityLab

This week, New York legislators introduced bills to effectively decriminalize sex work. The topic has become a campaign issue in the 2020 presidential election.

This week, legislators introduced a bill to the New York legislature that if passed, would make New York the only state to effectively decriminalize sex work, and would be the culmination of years of work by activists in New York’s sex trade industry. A recent police crackdown on the massage parlors in Flushing, Queens, helped push this issue to the political fore in New York, and it may do the same on the national stage. While sex work isn’t a popular topic for a presidential campaign (as an issue, it’s not sexy, it’s messy) it’s shaping up to be one for 2020.

When Kamala Harris said she thought sex work shouldn’t be criminalized in an interview with the Root and then doubled down on CNN, it was probably the most public, high-profile discussion of the topic in U.S. politics. These recent events have shone a spotlight on an issue that many in the industry and their supporters have been pushing for years.

The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Acts, a package of bills introduced in the New York State Senate and in the state assembly, reflect a mainstreaming of an opinion held by many of the women who work at the massage parlors, and a growing number of activists and policymakers. They believe that the criminalization and stigma associated with sex work is counterproductive at best, and at worse blatantly harmful.   

Yang Song is someone who workers and activists say was harmed by the policing of sex work in New York. Her name was mentioned countless times to CityLab during the investigation of this story. In 2017, Yang, a massage worker, plummeted 30 feet to her death during a police raid in Queens. Perhaps because her grieving family was in Queens this year, having traveled from China to speak to her friends and look for answers, she was on everyone’s mind. In the back of a crowded Chinese bakery in February, Yang Song’s brother, Hai Song told CityLab he didn't believe his sister would just jump out of window, as the New York Police Department had said she did in its inquest. He had spoken to her just hours before she died and they made plans to see each other, Hai said as he sat with their elderly mother, Yumei Shi. “Every time we ask questions, we keep getting no answers,” said Hai Song. “The NYPD should protect people, not harm them.”  

Red Canary Song, a group devoted to helping organize Asian massage workers in Flushing believes policing is inherently violent to those it is supposed to be helping. While some advocate for the use of diversion programming that directs women arrested for prostitution toward support and even other paid work, Red Canary’s Julie Xu said, “Even with diversion programming, [arrest] is never a humane way to deliver social services.”

It had been relatively calm in Queens since 2016, when New York City police commissioner James O'Neill made a high-profile pledge that the NYPD would no longer target sex workers for arrest. At a press conference with Chirlane McCray, wife of the mayor, at his side, O’Neill announced that the department would focus its resources on targeting, “pimps, johns, and traffickers.” “Today we are saying loud and clear that in New York City we do not punish people who are being hurt," McCray added. "We do not call them criminals.”

But this year, in February, The New York Post launched a series of sensational articles about the prevalence of prostitution on 40th Street in Queens, and New York City councilman Peter Koo held a press conference in March calling for a crackdown. The NYPD obliged.

A closed massage parlor in Flushing, Queens. May 2019. (Amir Khafagy/CityLab)

During the first quarter of 2019, many of the massage parlors on 40th street closed. On a visit last month, the streets, which were once flooded with dozens of women soliciting potential clients, were quiet except for a few brave or desperate women, trying to remain unseen as they practiced their trade. At the end of the block an NYPD surveillance tower loomed overhead as a not-so-subtle reminder of the crackdown underway. And the workers were angry; at Koo, and at what some of them see as a patronizing and harmful restriction of their livelihood.

“Peter Koo is no good to us,” said Karin, a massage worker displaced because of the raids (her name has been changed to protect her work). “He makes it hard for us to make any money. Why is that? We are Chinese too. He doesn't truly care about the Chinese people.” Cathy, an Asian massage worker (who also asked to use an alias) said: “I feel like this term trafficking is so condescending. What does it mean? For me slavery of the black people was trafficking. I came here with my own passport and my own papers.”

John Chin, Director of the Urban Planning Program at Hunter College, has studied the Asian massage parlor industry in depth and has also found the sex trafficking narrative over-emphasized. “We interviewed 116 women working in massage parlors and 83 percent of them said they were not coerced into this work,” he said. “Most of the women we talked to said they were free agents and weren't trapped as most people imagined. If they had better options they wouldn't be in this business, but in terms of trafficking we aren't seeing that as much.”

However, the anti-trafficking narrative is concerning to some advocates. “It’s not that anti-trafficking language is bad in of itself, it's the fact that people who are pushing it want to see more criminalization,” said Nina Luo, a spokesperson for Decrim NY, a coalition that advocates for decriminalization. “We need to talk about trafficking in sex industry, like we need to talk about trafficking in any other industry.”

Groups like Red Canary Song and Decrim NY are going well beyond just calling for the end of the crackdowns and raids. They actively pushed the legislation that was introduced this week in the New York State Legislature. “I have seen a lot cases of women who are unable to come forward when they have been assaulted or raped or robbed because of them being sex workers,” said New York state assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. “Women have been literally told by the police that they won't be credible witnesses because they are sex workers.”

Niou is one of a number of lawmakers in the state who are supporting the decriminalization movement. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried joined her in sponsoring legislation for the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Acts in the New York state assembly, along with other assembly members Dan Quart, Ron Kim, and Catalina Cruz. State senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar co-sponsored the legislation in the senate to rewrite the state’s penal code to decriminalize sex work.

In May 2019, a protester at a rally against the police crackdown on massage parlors holds a sign referencing Yang Song, the massage worker who fell to her death from a window during a 2017 raid in Flushing, Queens. (Amir Khafagy/CityLab)

As the first statewide bill of its kind in the nation’s history, the bill would repeal the criminalization of sexual monetary exchange between consenting adults while upholding laws concerning human trafficking. “Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults in New York will protect many of my neighbors—people who have found themselves in situations because of employment and housing discrimination,” said Ramos. “We will finally make strides against trafficking by empowering sex workers to report violence against them. Sex work is work and everyone has an inherent right to a safe workplace.”

If New York does decriminalize prostitution, it wouldn't be the first state to do so. For a brief moment Rhode Island was at the forefront of the decriminalization movement. Because of a loophole written in the states penal code regarding prostitution in 1980, Rhode Island inadvertently decriminalized indoor prostitution. The loophole went unnoticed until 2003 when a Rhode Island District Court judge overruled the conviction of sex workers resulting in de facto decriminalization that lasted until 2009.  

“I felt free for the first time in my life,” said Bella Robinson, a sex worker and Executive Director of COYOTE, RI, one of the state’s leading sex worker advocacy organizations. “For the first time, sex workers were able to call the police if they were in trouble. We couldn't get evicted from our apartments. All the spas paid taxes and the women were safe from violence.” One study found a 40 percent decrease in female gonorrhea incidence and a 30 percent decrease in reported rape offenses.

“Police arrests of sex workers fell after the decision, not surprisingly, but what surprised us and everyone else was what didn’t happen,” reads an opinion piece by Scott Cunningham, a professor of economics at Baylor University whose research focuses on the economics of crime and sex work. “Harm against women did not rise. Sexually transmitted infections did not rise. In fact, they fell. We found that relative to states on a similar trajectory, Rhode Island rapes and sexually transmitted infections both substantially declined. At least in Rhode Island, decriminalization had made women safer.”

The movement to decriminalize sex work has entered the national consciousness. A recent poll conducted by the think tank Data for Progress found that Democratic voters supported decriminalization by a 3-to-1 margin (56 percent support, 17 percent oppose, and the remaining 27 percent are neutral or don’t know). In March, when asked if he supported decriminalization, Bernie Sanders said, “That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for that,” yet one activist told The Intercept that his reply was disingenuous because “people who trade sex have been trying to meet with him for years.” It’s increasingly likely that such an answer won’t be sufficient this campaign season.  

And despite Kamala Harris’s current positive stance on decriminalization, her track record of supporting the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) as California Attorney General means that many sex worker and their advocates are skeptical of her sincerity. The bill held website publishers responsible for third parties that posted ads for prostitution, effectively shutting down sites like Backpage and preventing consensual sex workers from advertising online. Critics of the bill claim that laws such as FOSTA increase the risk for violence and exploitation because it further marginalized their profession.

In New York, activists hope the legislation will mean the end to criminalizing any aspect of sex work. Yet some see danger in legislation that they feel goes too far. Not all politicians, including ones that are considered to have progressive policies generally, are on board. New York City mayor and 2020 presidential candidate, Bill de Blasio, said in April that he isn’t “comfortable”with legalizing sex work. And Corey Johnson, the New York City Council speaker, recently stated that he did not support Decrim NY’s full decriminalization proposal and instead expressed support for the Nordic Model which aims to end the sex industry by criminalizing clients and anyone who supports the industry such as drivers and landlords.

Amy Hsieh, an attorney representing sex workers for Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit dedicated to assisting survivors of sex trafficking supports the Nordic Model too. “We agree that arrests are traumatic for sex workers, so we do advocate for woman in the sex trade not to be criminalized,” she said. “But that being said, a lot of our clients don’t want the buyers to be decriminalized because so many of our clients experience violence from the buyers. They feel that the control factor is still there.”

But some see racism in the pursuit of prostitution convictions: “Peter Koo's call for more raids of the massage parlors is just playing on the xenophobic, anti-immigrant fears,” said Decrim, NY’s Luo. And according to data obtained from New York’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, 73 percent of the 1,085 patronizing prostitution arrests in 2018 were majority Black or Latino men. Activists believe that criminalizing both sex workers and their clients will undoubtedly affect the most at risk people who are disproportionately vulnerable to the criminal justice system such as migrant workers. Decrim NY and other activist groups believe at the heart of the fight, decriminalizing sex work is a fight for racial and economic justice.  

“More crackdowns is creating an atmosphere that further disrupts an intricate economic  system that folks have created and are also trying to better,” said Aya Tasaki, manager of policy and advocacy at WomanKind. “With the exception of a few bad apples, immigrant communities want to build an economic system that will work for them and help them thrive in an otherwise exploitative system.”

“The women we are working with want support and want resources,” said Julie Xu of Red Canary. “Policing and arrest is not the way to distribute those resources.”

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