Opinion: Legalizing Prostitution in NYS Would Ignore its True Costs



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.

23 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.

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