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Sex workers, lobbying at the Capitol, seek more safety, less stigma

Karen DeWitt

More than 100 sex workers came to the Capitol on Tuesday to lobby for two bills that they say would help keep them safe and end some of the stigma associated with their jobs.  The workers, joined by lawmakers who back the bills, told stories of what led them to the work.

Jessica Raven, a mother and community organizer with the group DecrimNY, is a former sex worker. She said she needed to earn money to survive when she became homeless at age 15 after being sexually assaulted in the foster care system.

“I am a survivor of violence and a survivor of homelessness who traded sex to meet my needs,” Raven said.

She said national and local data show she is “not alone” and that as many as over a million teens in the United States are homeless.  

Kate Zen is with the group Red Canary Song, which advocates for the labor rights of immigrant massage parlor workers in Queens. Zen is a second-generation sex worker who worked to help pay her way through college at Columbia University.

She said when she “naively” agreed to cross state lines with a client she met through an online ad, she was attacked.

“I was beat up, had all my wages and personal property stolen by this person and was forced to do sex work without a condom,” Zen said.

She said when she went to the police, they told her she was not a sympathetic victim because she was engaging in illegal activity.  

The bills would help to partially end the stigma and legal peril associated with sex work by ending the crime of “loitering” for purposes of prostitution. The sex workers said it is misused by law enforcement as a device to profile or stereotype certain types of people, like young Asian women and transgender people, including what they call the crime of “walking while trans.”

Another bill would expunge the criminal records for victims of sex trafficking. 

Assembly sponsor and Health Committee chair Richard Gottfried said the measures are common-sense steps to improve safety for the workers. 

“You think we would have learned a lesson back with Prohibition,” Gottfried said. “But apparently this is a lesson we have to keep learning.”

Advocates said while they'd like to see the complete decriminalization of prostitution, the two measures are a good start. 

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou got emotional when she recounted stories she’d heard from women who are sex workers in her district on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She said the laws are “antiquated” and “criminalizing the wrong people.”

“We have to fight for the folks who are going through these things because of the circumstances that our laws put them in,” Niou said.  “We need to make it so that folks can walk down the street without being targeted.”

Niou said she still needs to convince some more Democrats in the Assembly to back the bill, and she said she hopes to bring it up in the private Democratic conference meetings in the next few weeks.

“Silence is more harmful than talking right now,” Niou said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, speaking one day before the lobby day, said he has not heard much discussion about the issue.

“It’s a conversation that needs a lot of thought,” Heastie said. “I personally haven’t thought too much about it. It hasn’t really come up in conference. So I’m not quite sure.” 

The measures also need more supporters in the Senate in order for them to come to the floor for a vote. The sponsors, Sens. Jessica Ramos and Brad Hoylman, said they are working on it.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.