Sex Work Prosecution Changes in New York Are a Welcome Step — but Not Enough

The idea of a clean divide between the innocent and exploited versus the guilty exploiters is fantastical cop ideology.

NEW YORK, QUEENS - NY SEPTEMBER 18:  Sex workers and supporters are are seen during a demonstration against discrimination against sex workers held on September 18, 2020 in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. Hundreds of people took part in a protest march to demand full decriminalization of sex work, the ability to unionize, better working conditions, and protection against violence experienced by sex workers. (Photo by Joana Toro /VIEWpress)

Sex workers and supporters take part in a demonstration calling for the decriminalization of sex work in Jackson Heights, N.Y., on Sept. 18, 2020.

Photo: Joana Toro/Corbis via Getty Images

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced on Wednesday that his office would no longer criminally prosecute prostitution or unlicensed massage, while moving to dismiss hundreds of cases related to the state’s infirm anti-sex worker laws. Following decades of police harassment, racist anti-trans profiling, and brutal incarceration with sometimes deadly consequences, every step toward the decriminalization of sex work is welcome.

The Manhattan decision follows similar moves in other New York City boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx — as well as Baltimore and Philadelphia, but it carries with it the weight of Vance’s powerful office.

“I cannot express enough how important this step is for NYC,” tweeted Cecilia Gentili, a prominent organizer for sex worker and trans rights. The policy shift would not have been possible without the tireless work of advocates like Gentili and other trans women of color who have long been on the front lines of the fight for decriminalization, a struggle against the oppression of some of the most marginalized communities in the country. Yet, as I’ve previously noted, it is no accident that these victories are consistently referred to as “steps” by those who have fought hardest for them.

Until sex work is wholly removed from the business of policing and the carceral system — that is, full decriminalization — every legislative or policy shift that limits the excesses of criminalization is but a step. And to be sure, Manhattan has not freed sex workers from the ruinous grip of law enforcement.

The policing of sex workers will continue. The district attorney’s office will still prosecute people patronizing sex workers, as well as those who allegedly promote sex work. Sex workers themselves will continue to face arrest, even if not prosecution. Historically, the criminalization of “promoting” sex work has left the loved ones and roommates of sex workers, as well as sex worker rights advocates, vulnerable to prosecution. For many immigrant workers, the risk of deportation will remain. The DA’s office said that it would continue to bring other charges that stem from prostitution-related arrests. “Trafficking” will no doubt be used to carry out raids and harass survival workers.

Vance has asked a judge to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases that stemmed from the now-defunct “walking while trans” ban — the significance of this cannot be dismissed. But the fact that laws relating to business licensing were being used to ensnare presumed sex workers at all is troubling. A number of the cases the DA moved to dismiss dated to the 1970s and 1980s — a dismissal now, however welcome, does not constitute justice after decades of persecution under anti-sex worker laws, which have always been steeped in anti-Blackness and transmisogyny.

When police interactions involve so much consistent violence, especially for trans women of color, the level of incomplete decriminalization on the table is insufficient. The New York Times, reporting on Vance’s announcement, said the DA will “continue to fight those who exploit or otherwise profit from prostitution without punishing the people who for decades have borne the brunt of law enforcement’s attention.” Such a conclusion betrays a profound ignorance of the ways so-called Nordic models — wherein only buyers of sex or third parties face criminalization — have continued to harm sex workers, forcing them into the shadows and entrapping their loved ones and associates in the system of carceral injustice.

Those interested in ending worker exploitation should consider fighting capitalism rather than workers.

Arresting sex worker patrons alone has already proved to be mired in the racism intractable from policing practices. A ProPublica investigation found that in the last four years, 89 percent of the 1,800 people charged with prostitution in New York City and 93 percent of the 3,000 people accused of trying to buy sex were nonwhite. “These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many ‘bodies’ as they can,” ProPublica reported. The idea that the Manhattan DA’s decision on prostitution will somehow draw a clean and valid divide between the innocent and exploited versus the guilty exploiters is itself fantastical cop ideology.

And it bears repeating: Those interested in ending worker exploitation should consider fighting capitalism rather than workers. Sex work may not always be good work or free of harm; it may be resorted to as a means of survival. But the same is true of many jobs in which workers are nonetheless deemed worthy of rights and legal protections, rather than policing. Two years ago, progressive lawmakers in New York introduced the sort of comprehensive decriminalization legislation that we need; the bills have languished in Albany and now face competition from newly proposed legislation that pushes instead for a flawed Nordic model, echoed in Vance’s new policy.

In ending prostitution prosecutions, the DA does, nonetheless, go some way in undoing historically harmful taxonomies of innocence and guilt when it comes to sex work. In February, when New York finally repealed the pernicious anti-loitering statute known as the “walking while trans” ban, Gov. Andrew Cuomo framed the repeal as a way to protect “innocent” women, while treating sex workers as legitimate targets. Vance’s latest move further blunts the distinction between “guilty” sex workers and “innocent” women — a delineation that is in need of total obliteration.

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