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New York City Just Made a Dramatic Announcement Regarding Sex Workers’ Rights

On Wednesday, Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. announced that his office would no longer be prosecuting prostitution and unlicensed massage arrests, and that it would be dropping 914 cases dating all the way back to the 1970s. The office also moved to dismiss more than 5,000 loitering for the purpose of prostitution cases, which stem from the highly controversial “walking while trans” statute, which was repealed last February.

In a statement, Vance, who recently announced that he would not be running for reelection, said that his office had come to the decision not to prosecute prostitution cases as a result of discussions with sex worker rights’ advocacy groups. “Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” he said, adding that by dismissing cases and erasing past convictions, “we are completing a paradigm shift in our approach” to sex work.

In declining to prosecute prostitution cases, New York City has joined other cities like Baltimore, which have made similar announcements in the wake of ongoing discussions about sex work decriminalization and criminal justice reform. (Other boroughs, such as Queens, have also announced they will be moving to dismiss prostitution charges.) And many sex workers’ rights advocates applauded the shift. “I think it’s great! Stopping the arrests will have a huge and immediate impact on sex workers struggling to survive under criminalization,” says Kaytlin Bailey, a sex workers’ rights advocate and host of the Oldest Profession podcast. “Obviously it’s just a first step, but it’s a good one.”

Yet the statement fell short in one crucial regard: though it stated it would no longer be prosecuting those arrested on prostitution charges, the text of the bill specifies that it “does not preclude us from bringing other charges that may stem from a prostitution-related arrest,” and the New York Times notes the office “will continue to prosecute other crimes related to prostitution, including patronizing sex workers and sex trafficking.” In other words, those who buy sex, or are accused of facilitating sex trafficking, will not be exempt from this policy change, explains Maya Morena, a sex worker rights activist based in New York. “They will still be criminalizing our customers and third party, which often means anyone we pay, including our landlords, friends, drivers, and customers, are criminalized,” she says. (The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) 

While erasing prior prostitution convictions and declining to prosecute those arrested for selling sex shows progress, it simply does not go far enough, says Dr. Jill McCracken, co-director of SWOP Behind Bars, a sex worker advocacy group. Indeed, there is some data to suggest that in countries where selling sex has been decriminalized but buying sex has not — a template known as the “Nordic model” — the sex industry is driven underground and makes it difficult to for workers to vet clients who are afraid of arrest, which has the effect of putting marginalized people at increased risk. “If our goal is to make it safer for all people in general, victims of trafficking an adult consensual sex workers, then prosecuting people who are seeking sex workers still makes it less safe. It pushes sex work into the shadows, it discourages people from coming forward. It basically says this is an illegal act that should be criminalized and maintains all the stigma,” says McCracken.

On the whole, however, one of the largest cities in the world declining to prosecute prostitution cases has deep significance for the growing sex workers’ rights movement, which has been gaining steam in recent years. “It’s sending a message nationwide we’re no longer going to be try to arrest people for these crimes, and that we definitely need to go further and look at full decriminalization,” says McCracken.

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