Sex workers experience high levels of violence, often aren’t protected by rape shield laws, and law enforcement and judges are often biased against them.
Recognizing the turmoil and trauma they face, one elected official is hoping to pass historic legislation that will make those in the industry feel safer.
On Jan. 25, State Senator Liz Krueger, with the support of the coalition group New Yorkers for the Equality Model, introduced the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, which would decriminalize people in prostitution, while also vacating and expunging past convictions. If passed, it will also increase access to social services, hold sex buyers accountable through fines and be the first of its kind in the United States.
“It is unacceptable that we ignore the ongoing exploitation and trauma that attaches to the people participating in the sex trade and that we don’t hold those who are responsible for this bad behavior accountable,” Krueger said. “I believe with this bill we can start to make a significant impact into helping those who have become harmed and exploited.”
Krueger worked on the bill for a year and spoke with numerous survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution. She noted that many are often people of color, those from the LGBTQ community, homeless or undocumented.
The lawmaker said that often men and women get trapped in that lifestyle by physical and or mental abuse or it is their only way to survive.
Among the many survivors who support the bill are Melanie Thompson and Cristian Eduardo. Thompson commended Krueger for introducing legislation that could have such a drastic impact.
People in the sex work industry should not have to live fear of going to jail, she stressed.
“If we as New Yorkers don’t care about our neighbors, then the sex buyers and traffickers definitely won’t,” Thompson said. “This bill to me is one of the first steps in showing survivors we care.
Eduardo, who is not only a survivor, but HIV positive, was quite emotional when speaking about the proposed bill. He explained that people who purchase men or women for sex do not care about condoms, HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, rather just view the person as property and for pleasure.
For too long sex workers are looked down upon in society, he explained. But many were forced into the lifestyle or simply don’t know any better.
He hopes the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act is passed into law so people can get the services they need to turn their lives around.
“It’s not easy to be a survivor,” he stated. “I know this bill will make things better and safer for people like me. Introducing this bill is a historic moment, a true reform of the criminal justice system made possible by listening to and working with survivors.”
The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act addresses key concerns raised by people in prostitution, survivor leaders and policy experts. It would:
1. Decriminalize people in prostitution and many associated crimes (such as the “Walking While Trans Ban”), prevent the arrest of people for “unlicensed practice of a profession,” prevent people in prostitution from being charged with “promoting prostitution” for helping others also in prostitution without profiting, prohibits usage of condoms of evidence in criminal trials for prostitution,
2. Expand access to comprehensive social services, extend services for minors to young adults up to age 24, enable a broader pool of people to access services from organizations combating gender violence and create a diverse and inclusive state task force with representation from people in the sex trade and advocates to ensure access and administration of social services and
3. Strengthen laws against trafficking, while laws that hold accountable pimps, sex traffickers and other profiteers remain unchanged. Eliminate a loophole in NY state law preventing sex buyers from being charged with “promoting prostitution” when they traffic people to themselves, strengthens protections for children by eliminating an “ignorance defense” afforded to those who buy sex from children under age 11 or under 15 or in a school zone — different degrees of patronizing prostitution.
Further, to address the over-incarceration of people of color, the misdemeanor crime of buying sex will be penalized with a fine (rather than jail), using an income-based scale to incentivize law enforcement to target buyers with disposable income.