On Wednesday, in what advocates are saying is a significant step in the ongoing attempt to decriminalise sex work nationwide, the Manhattan district attorney's office announced that it would no longer prosecute prostitution or unlicensed massage. Cyrus R. Vance. Jr., the district attorney, asked a judge to dismiss 914 open cases, as well as 5,080 cases charging people with loitering for the purpose of prostitution — many dating back to the 1970s and '80s when "New York waged a war against prostitution in an effort to clean up its image as a center of iniquity and vice," as reported by The New York Times.
The request highlights a significant shift in how New York City law enforcement is approaching sex work. Last month, Chirlane McCray and her husband, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanded the end of state penalties for sex work "The communities hit hardest by the continued criminalisation of sex work and human trafficking are overwhelmingly LGBTQ, they are people of color, and they are undocumented immigrants," McCray said. "Sex work is a means of survival for many in these marginalised groups."
But other advocates say that the request is lip service and that more must be done to fully decriminalise sex work and make sex and body work safer. While the district attorney will no longer prosecute prostitution cases, law enforcement can and will still "prosecute other crimes related to prostitution, including patronising sex workers, promoting prostitution and sex trafficking, and said that its policy would not stop it from bringing other charges that stem from prostitution-related arrests," as reported by The Times.
"This is a good first step as DA Vance is looking to dismiss 5,944 cases involving sex work," Udi Ofer, the Deputy National Political Director of the ACLU and Director of the ACLU's Justice Division, tweeted. "Now on to full decriminalisation. The police should not be arresting people in the first place. Sex work is work and must be decriminalised."
Currently, prostitution is illegal in all 50 states, except 10 counties in Nevada. Nine states have harsher penalties for those seeking sex work services, while two — Delaware and Minnesota — actually have harsher penalties for those who offer sex work. Until all states follow suit, and more is done in even the most progressive cities to decriminalise sex work, those who engage in consensual body work still face high rates of police abuse, harassment, and unsafe work conditions.
By continuing to prosecute those who patronise sex workers, as well as those who promote sex work, those in positions of power lift up and perpetuate the narrative that those engaged in sex work do not choose it but are rather coerced or trafficked. That is hardly the case. A look into often regurgitated child sex trafficking statistics shows the numbers and information to be incredibly skewed or entirely false. It's often reported that there are 100,000 to 300,000 children "locked in sex slavery in the US." But in truth, that number comes from a 2001 study which actually refers to youths up to age 21 at risk of sexual exploitation — not trafficking. While trafficking is considered in that figure, it's the least prevalent form of exploitation, according to The Washington Post. The person who conducted the study also said in 2011 that the number of minors trafficked was closer to "a few hundred."
Also, the majority of sex workers do not have pimps, nor do they "work the streets" as is often depicted in media. And if a sex worker does work with a pimp, that pimp often works as the sex worker's employee — not the other way around.
To truly make it safer for body workers to engage in consensual sex and massage work, advocates say complete decriminalisation is the only true path forward. Not only would decriminalising sex work make it that much harder for people to engage in sex trafficking — one 2008 study found that after New Zealand legalised sex work in 2003, there were "no incidents of trafficking" — it also protects sex workers from police officer harassment and abuse. A reported 30% of sex workers say they have been violently threatened by police officers, according to a report from the Sex Workers Project. A reported 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of law enforcement.
"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," Jill McCracken, co-direct of SWOP Behind Bars, told Rolling Stone. "It pushes sex work into the shadows, it discourages people from coming forward. It basically says this is an illegal act that should be criminalised and maintains all the stigma."