ALBANY — Sex-trafficking survivor Melanie Thompson was filled with hope Monday as two Democratic lawmakers pushed a state effort Monday to decriminalize sex workers and people in prostitution in New York while holding people accountable for driving and profiting from the criminal trade.
State Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the lead sponsor of the Sex Trade Survivors Act, and Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, D-Syracuse, introduced a new bill in both legislative chambers to decriminalize sex workers and people in prostitution. Krueger and Hunter announced the legislation in a virtual press conference Monday morning.
If passed, the bill would expand the state’s definition of trafficking based on a legal framework known as the Equality Model to protect people bought or sold into exploitative sex trades from facing criminal charges.
“The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act recognizes that we must shrink the sex trade by targeting the demand for it, therefore minimizing the amount of people that are trafficked into prostitution to fulfill its supply,” Thompson said. “...the physical and psychological impact caused a trauma that cannot be regulated or deregulated.”
The new bill, which was developed in partnership with survivors of the sex trade and advocates, did not have a designated number in the Senate or Assembly as of press time Tuesday.
If passed, the act will strengthen trafficking laws, hold sex buyers accountable and ensure pimping of someone over age 18 remains criminalized, and clear survivors’ past criminal records committed while under the control of their exploiter, and expunge past prostitution charges and associated loitering crimes, according to a statement from New Yorkers for the Equality Model, a prostitution and sex-trafficking survivor-led alliance that partnered with Krueger and Hunter to host Monday’s panel.
“We have a sex exploitation problem,” Krueger said. Parts of the New York Thruway highway system — known as Interstate 87, extending from New York City to Pennsylvania through Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo — often serve as sex trafficking hubs, she said.
“Where the Thruway cuts through is a drop-off point and pick-up point for many exploitation issues,” she added. “This is important. This is a critical issue that surrounds our whole state.
“This bill is the first step to showing survivors that we care.”
The act would also expand social services and access for survivors and people in prostitution, including creating a diverse state task force with representation from people in the sex trade and advocates to ensure access and administration of social services, and enable more people to access organizations combating gender violence.
“It’s been too long, and we need to address this equity model right now,” Hunter said.
Advocate Cristian Eduardo recalled his past trauma as a survivor of prostitution, saying he had no choice but to try and survive.
“It is not easy to be a survivor,” Eduardo said, adding of exploiters, “They are not concerned about you ... they are not concerned if you are enjoying it, they are not concerned, even, if you die during the process. They are only concerned about their sexual pleasure.”
Youth in foster care, homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community have a higher risk of being victims of sex trafficking and prostitution, targeting Black, brown and low-income communities hardest.
“Prostitution and sex trafficking across the U.S. and in New York state are rooted in a history of colonization and slavery in this country,” Thompson said. “Black and Indigenous POC (people of color)... are overwhelmingly represented in the sex trade — many of whom are trans folks and LGBTQIA+ individuals. We are exploited and targeted because of our vulnerabilities, marginalization and lack of resources.”
If passed, the bill would be the first of its kind in the U.S.
“Through this model, we can make sure that those in prostitution are not being prosecuted or punished and that they have access to critical services including physical and mental health care, housing, education and economic empowerment solutions that will benefit both their safety and their health,” Eduardo said. “Introducing this bill is a historic moment — a true reform of the criminal justice system made possible by listening to and working with survivors.”
Progressive lawmakers introduced a bill in the Senate and Assembly during the 2019-20 legislative session to fully decriminalize sex work in the state including pimps, brothel owners, illicit massage parlor owners and other exploiters.
The act does not allow for the wholesale decriminalization of the sex trade.
“Pimps will not become the new class of legitimate entrepreneurs; men will not get the state’s blessing to order up sex acts for delivery,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the state’s chapter of the National Organization for Women.
The legislation would also make the state’s misdemeanor crime of buying sex penalized by fine using an income-based scale to incentivize law enforcement to target buyers with disposable income and address implicit biases and the over-incarceration of people of color.
Krueger and Hunter do not expect the measure to pass through the Senate or Assembly easily.
“I don’t think this will move that quickly,” Krueger said, adding she expects significant pushback from Senate colleagues. “Most legislators don’t want to push this at all. They don’t want to talk about this in our society and they won’t be rushing to sign on.
Hunter anticipates significant debate and discussion about the issue, she said.
“I look forward to talking with my colleagues,” Hunter said. “We have twice as many people, which means twice as many opinions. It starts with having an open, honest conversation that this is happening and what is transpiring right in front of our faces.
“We need to put pressure to make people accountable and to make sure we are paving a way for others to have assistance out of the situation,” she added.
“...It’s not going to be easy, but nothing worthwhile will be easy.”