A pro-decriminization protest in San Francisco.

Over the past few months, several strong voices have emerged in favor of full decriminalization of the sex trade in New York State. This comes on the heels of similar movements in other jurisdictions, including Washington D.C. The average citizen likely has no idea what it means to decriminalize the entire sex trade. So, let us translate: it means allowing pimping, brothel-owning, and buying of sexual services to become big business in New York City, at the expense of some of the most marginalized members of our community.

As advocates for survivors of sexual violence and exploitation, we have watched with intense interest as cases of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, professional sports, popular music, and other industries have unfolded in daily headlines. And while those exploited through prostitution have been excluded from the #metoo movement, they now face legislation and politicians who could make things far worse.

Like women preyed upon in Hollywood and elsewhere, the vast majority of people in prostitution are in vulnerable positions and exploited by men with power: a homeless girl coerced into the sex trade for food or housing; a Transgender woman purchased repeatedly by violent men; or a woman under pimp control with quotas and beatings if she doesn’t reach them. These individuals all have one thing in common: vulnerability and lack of choices.

In both cases of prostitution and sexual harassment, power and control are exercised by those with choices over those without. A Hollywood executive who coerces a woman to have sex is no different than a privileged businessman buying sex.

Whether paid or not, sexual harassment and exploitation in the workplace or in a brothel cause the same damage. Whether it is Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulting actresses wanting Hollywood careers; R. Kelly raping teenage girls hoping for record deals; or Robert Kraft purchasing sex from trafficked women, acts of sexual exploitation dehumanize and objectify the victims.

Cringe-worthy media reports often speculate about the consent or complicity of survivors. If consent is coerced, it is never consent. When a power imbalance exists, the notion of choice becomes obtuse. Similarly, when the ubiquitous phrase “sex work” is used to describe a system of abuse, we must remember that money cannot buy consent.

Prostitution is referred to as “the oldest profession” and a “victimless crime.” It is neither. Prostitution is highly traumatizing and often life-threatening.

A staggering percentage of survivors grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and dissociation, having had to detach from their bodies just to stay alive like the teenager traumatized when her pimp burned a mouse alive as a warning if she tried to leave; or sex-trafficked women consenting to their exploitation out of fear for their lives; the undocumented immigrants working in massage parlors thrown out on the streets when they refuse buyers; and women who try to exit the sex trade fall victim to further exploitation because they have no marketable skills, education, or sense of self-worth.

Sex buyers don’t care whether the women or children they purchase are trafficked or abused or underage. They want sexual gratification and the power to exert control.

Fortunately, society is finally starting to turn against men who exploit their positions of power. Yet, inexplicably, some policy makers now want to legalize such a system of exploitation. Decriminalizing the sex industry would declare that women and girls, the LGBTQ community, people living in poverty, and people of color, are commodities to be bought and sold.

It’s beyond comprehension why anyone would want to decriminalize an industry of abuse and violence which profits from the commodification of human beings.

We need a legislative model shown to reduce the commercial sex market, increase safety, provide services for survivors, and hold men accountable for the crimes they commit. Such a legal framework, initiated by Sweden in 1999 is now in place in Iceland, Norway, Northern Ireland, Canada, France, and Israel. It solely decriminalizes individuals who are bought and sold, while targeting sex buyers. Survivors are provided with exit strategies and services, housing and medical treatment.

Let’s see prostitution for what it is—gender-based violence. It’s time to listen to survivors and demand an end to sexual violence.

The answer is not making it legal to pimp or buy sex. The answer is ensuring that we respect the full equality and dignity of every human.

Alexi Ashe Meyers and Rebecca Zipkin are Attorneys at Sanctuary for Families in New York City and former prosecutors in Brooklyn prosecuting cases of Sex Trafficking and Sex Crimes. Meyers co-chairs the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition.

24 thoughts on “Opinion: Legalizing Prostitution in NYS Would Ignore its True Costs

  1. Fantastic piece that needs to be read by every American. Legalizing prostitution and normalizing “sex work” in a time when sex trafficking is a problem not yet solved, is tone deaf at best. (especially in the #Me, too era that has exposed decades of abuse and entrenched/ enabled power inbalances resulting in so many marginalized victims) And worse, it empowers the wrong people. The women in this equation have neither agency, nor power. There just is no good argument for legalizing or legitimizing what essentially is “gender-based violence.”

  2. What is the basis for the statement “Sex buyers don’t care whether the women or children they purchase are trafficked or abused or underage.”

    I submit it is wrong. *Some* sex buyers don’t care, for sure. Maybe even most. But many sex buyers do care!

    And not all sex workers are trafficked, abused, or underage.

    I don’t support decriminalizing the entire trade, but absolute statements like this that are clearly wrong, make the case against a little less compelling.

    • They aren’t persecuting serial killers, rapists, or abusers. They don’t care about our consent at all. They also don’t point out that prostitution stings carried out by cops often involve them having sex with the sex workers before handcuffing them, fineing them, stealing their money, and jailing them. This is going to led to more people behind bars just like the war on drugs

  3. “we must remember that money cannot buy consent.”

    Nurses do not consent to wipe people’s rear ends for nothing. Are we not buying their consent?

  4. This is a totally baffling opinion. Prostitution is like drug abuse. It’s bad, but there’s nothing the government has ever been able to do that can come close to stopping it. It’s been around forever, and always will be around. If you legalize it, however, you change it from being in the black market realm to being regulated by the government, leading to a safer situation for everyone involved.

    Prohibition doesn’t work! It never has and never will. The only way you can ensure a better outcome for people is to make it legal and regulated.

  5. Wow, this is one of the worst articles I’ve read in a long time, both in terms of factual information, inflammatory language and basic morality/sense of justice.

    ” So, let us translate: it means allowing pimping, brothel-owning, and buying of sexual services to become big business in New York City, at the expense of some of the most marginalized members of our community.”

    Um…no? That’s literally not what decrim means, so the fact that you chose to open up your “article” with this statement already invalidates everything else since you actually have no understanding of the decrim movement.

    “Similarly, when the ubiquitous phrase “sex work” is used to describe a system of abuse, we must remember that money cannot buy consent.”
    This statement is just…wow. I am a sex worker, meaning I CONSENT to the acts that my clients and I perform together. I enthusiastically consent, I love my job and so so so so many sex workers will say the same. The parts I don’t love about my job? Being afraid of being targeted by the state, the fact that awful clients are able to abuse/exploit me since I can’t go to law enforcement for help, the fact that payment platforms (like PayPal) are able to literally steal money I earned out of my account bc they don’t consider sex work real work. These are the things that make my life (and the lives of countless sex workers) difficult, dangerous, precarious and often deadly.

  6. Whenever you read an article about sex work, ask yourself these questions – was it written by a sex worker? did it interview current sex workers? are sex worker lead organizations quoted?

    This article is written by two attorneys opposing sex worker organization endorsed legislation. The attorneys previously worked as prosecutors. Are we seriously going to listen to cops on a justice reform issue?

    • I just want to make it clear that this was an opinion piece, as is clearly indicated in the headline and within the body of the text. That’s not to say I agree or disagree with any of the criticisms of the authors or the case they made — I just want it to be clear we did not publish it as a news article.

  7. It’s incredibly disappointing that former attorneys are lying about laws. Under decrim, pimping and trafficking are still crimes.

    It’s also disappointing to see how they frame the Swedish model as helpful to sex workers. In every country it’s been implemented in, sex workers have reported feeling more unsafe, increased rates of violence from police and cops and increased social stigma. Under the Nordic model sex workers are still penalized by police and community. They are often evicted because police threaten to charge their landlords as pimps. Migrant workers are deported. Anyone assumed to be a sex worker is at risk of being harassed by police.

    But perhaps the most regrettable thing about this article is trying to tie victims of Weinstein to homeless sex workers. I don’t think Ashely Judd and Angelina Jolie have the same level of vulnerability as a trans sex worker. Jolie and Judd could come forward and gain sympathy. Under our current criminalization model and under the Nordic model, any sex worker who comes forward can face anything from arrest to constant police harassment to forced homeless and inability to legally rent.

    It’s unfortunate the authors of this piece are more focused on ending demand instead of being concerned about keeping women safe.

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  11. How can you be Pro-Choice but against a woman’s right to do this? Are you against their rights to give a massage? Is that exploitation? To dance? Is that exploitation? Why are you drawing the line for them? If this is going to go on anyway isn’t it safer to have regulation and STD testing? At the end of the day if you’re Pro-Choice and anti-prostitution you’re nothing but a hypocrite because you are deciding for others what they can and can’t do with their bod based on your experiences and values.

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  13. What a poorly constructed argument. Funny how sex workers in Nevada do not consider sex work “gender-based” violence. The writers constantly conflate prostitution (consent) and trafficking (non-consent). Basically, the authors are ideologues.

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    • As the word “opinion” that features so prominently in the headline ought to convey, and the disclaimer “CityViews are readers’ opinions, not those of City Limits” might be seen to reinforce, this is not a news article. It is an op-ed.

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  17. About time! This move will decrease sexual crimes period. This will also balance the marketplace between men and women. Some men are sitting in sexless marriages because the woman they chose to marry is withholding sex from them.

  18. This is quite unfortunate. Not just the fact that this piece brought the seriousness of the what women do but the fact that the writer of this piece has conveniently judged those whom she claims to help. I’ve read this comment top to bottom multiple times and I see the same techniques every politician would say. However, before I continue I want want something to be clear. I just have my own point of view on this subject. Nothing more.

    Now, is what happened to these poor women a tragedy? Yes
    Should these women be protected? Yes
    Should the ones who abused their power be held responsible for their actions? Yes
    Is there a need for more organizations to assist these women in recovering? Yes
    Should we focus on giving these victims the help they deserve? Yes
    Does this justify the writer in everything they wrote? No

    Now don’t get me wrong. I will never downplay or deny the fact that there are terrible people out there and that there is a danger to this. There have been many times where I was harassed or almost coerced into sex by scum that cared more about getting off then about me as a person. I’ve seen the worst and I was fortunate to not have gone through the worst thanks to some great people that stood by me. However, these people weren’t just my parents and friends but also my employers. I have worked in the porn industry since I was 22 years old (I’m 31) and, as unbelievable as it sounds, I was fortunate to have a decent enough experience.

    Now true, I was asked to sleep with men, women, people who were transgender, or a combination of the three for my shoots but never once did the directer (a woman by the way) treat me any less then a person and the people I had sex with were all professionals who had always done what they could to make things comfortable for me when I was starting out. I remember for once scene we had to perform where my “boyfriend” would try to talk me into having sex with him after prom night and I would give in to his charms and screw him. Naturally it was all fake and the man himself was a complete gentleman. We talked before hand about the expectations of the scene, went over our lines, and discussed what positions would be used. It felt more like rehearsal for a play then anything and the scene went smoothly. The fact is that while there are many people in the sex industry that are terrible they do no represent all the people in industry. In fact, the nicest people I’ve met are ones I met while on set for a shoot.

    Now were things always perfect? No.
    Was I frustrated at times? Yes
    Were there times I wanted to do one act but had to do another? Yes
    Did I have awkward moments during scenes and embarrass myself on camera? Yes

    But overall it was a decent experience that I wouldn’t change for the world. Hell I was treated better there then when I was working as a waitress at Applebees or a sales rep at Walmart. Though I will admit that out of all the other jobs I had, the time I worked part-time as a bank teller at Navy Federal was great though it was mostly boring. Still it was a shock with what I had to put up with back then as compared to what I do now.

    With that being said, I AM NOT CONDONING THE ACTIONS OF THESE SICK BASTARDS. I will not sit there a play off that what goes on to those unfortunate souls (women AND MEN,) like it’s a “victim less crime.” I will gladly help any person who has gone through that trauma and make sure that they can be helped most of all so that they can have a better life. I will do everything in my power to make sure justice is served.

    However I will not pretend that there is nothing but evil in the world nor will I pretend that there aren’t some men that have to go through the same thing as women do. There is need for change but cherry picking the worst of life and try to say that it is the same everywhere helps no one. Decriminalizing prostitution does not make prostitution legal nor does it deny women from reaching out and asking for help. If anything it helps people like me and my friends feel more accepted in society. If it is decriminalized then it will have to be regulated by the government, more jobs will be open, and everyone might actually feel safer doing it. Really, so long as people like me, my friends, and others get a better life out of this then I will support it.

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