THEIFE FOR women selling sex in Manhattan can be a little easier these days. In April, the district attorney’s office said it would stop prosecuting those who offered or agreed to engage in sex for pay. Sex buyers, however, can still be accused of “dating a third-degree prostitute.”
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The language sounds archaic because the law is. While many wealthy countries have decriminalized buying or selling sex (or both), prostitution remains illegal across America, with the exception of a few counties in Nevada. But the change in Manhattan – and similar moves in other boroughs in New York City and Baltimore – is part of a growing movement to reform how the criminal justice system handles these transactions. A handful of states have introduced bills that would partially or fully legalize them.
This reflects a growing belief that prosecuting prostitutes is cruel and counterproductive. Criminal records can make it difficult to find housing and other employment. Their simple threat can prevent some from seeking health care.
What is the best way to reform? There are two main approaches: allowing the sale of sex but maintaining penalties for buying it, in the hope that this will reduce demand (this is called the Nordic model, after a law passed in Sweden in 1999 ); and decriminalize both sides of the deal, in the hope that it translates into better working conditions.
In America, where the polarization on many social issues is increasing, the divisions between the supporters of these different approaches can be glaring. This is particularly evident in New York City, where two bills have been introduced to the state legislature. In September, Kathy Hochul, the governor, said she was considering decriminalization. She did not say whether she supported the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, a comprehensive decriminalization bill, or the Sex Work Survivors’ Justice and Equality Act, which would not sanction. as buyers.
Supporters of full decriminalization argue that the exposure of sex work makes it easier for prostitutes to access health services and report violence to the police. They often cite the example of New Zealand, which fully decriminalized in 2003. Four years later, a study found that most prostitutes still did not report violence, but a majority said the attitude of the police towards them had improved. Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, explains that although tightly regulated brothels in the state take a big chunk of sex workers’ earnings, some women choose to work there because they feel more secure. safe. (Even so, most Nevada prostitutes work outside of legal brothels.)
Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker and trans woman who helped found Decrim new York, who helped craft the Stop Violence bill, says she never considered telling the police when she was forced to sell sex for fear of being arrested. Sex work, she believes, should be treated like any other job. Laws aimed at reducing demand are “condescending,” she said, promoting the idea that “women are not able to make decisions.”
It is impossible to know if such activists speak for most sex workers, as there have been no large-scale surveys of sex workers in America. Yet strong anecdotal evidence suggests that selling sexual services is different from other forms of manual labor in important ways. Drug addiction and homelessness often lead people into prostitution and keep them there. Many prostitutes have been selling sex since they were minors; other forms of employment are not linked to abuse in this way.
They are also not generally related to trafficking. Some people in organizations that work with prostitutes say that the specter of sex trafficking – defined by the federal government as a commercial sex act “induced by force, fraud or coercion” or in which the seller is under the age of 18 – is a distraction from other problems. It is difficult to get reliable data, so no one really knows how widespread the traffic is. But he’s almost certainly underrated.
Supporters of total decriminalization say it would make it easier to prosecute traffickers. But champions of the Nordic model say breaking the law has a chilling effect on some potential buyers, so full decriminalization spurs demand, creating opportunities for exploitation on the supply side. Since most women with alternatives choose not to sell sex, the less fortunate fill the void. Some will be victims of trafficking.
The New Zealand study found that the number of female sex workers did not increase after decriminalization. But an analysis of data from 150 countries in 2013 found that the legalization of prostitution led to its expansion and increased trafficking. Alexi Meyers, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, says prosecution of sex work “promoters” can lead to prosecution of traffickers; full decriminalization could prevent that from happening.
Nordic or nothing?
In states considering decriminalization, decisions are likely to depend on practical factors such as this. Another consideration is how changes in a state will play out in a country where sex work remains mostly illegal (and in conservative states, any reform is a distant prospect). If New York were to become the first to fully decriminalize, it may well attract sex tourists in large numbers.
In June, when the governor of Maine vetoed a bill decriminalizing sex work, she expressed concerns about becoming the first state to do so (she was also concerned, she said. said, that this would increase demand). While the rejected legislation was for the Nordic style approach, it may come across as the most acceptable and practical way for America to begin reforming its sex work laws. â
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Bringing Sex Work Out of the Shadows”