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Sex Workers, Lobbying In Albany, Seek More Safety, Less Stigma

David Klepper
New York State Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, speaks at a rally of current and former sex workers on Tuesday at the Capitol in Albany.

Over 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 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 Decrim New York, is a former sex worker. She says 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,” said Raven. She says national and local data shows she is “not alone” and that as many as over a million teens in the U.S. 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. But she says 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 say it is misused by law enforcement. they say it used 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 says the measures are common sense steps to improve safety for the workers.

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

Advocates say 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 says 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 says she still needs to convince some more Democrats in the Assembly to back the bill, and she says 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 sex worker lobby day, says he has not heard much discussion about the issue.

“It’s a conversation that needs a lot of thought,” said Heastie. “I personally have not 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, and the sponsors, Senators Jessica Ramos and Brad Hoylman, say they are working on it.  

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.