Jurisprudence

Sex Workers Want More Than Just the Right to Work

Cy Vance speaks at a branded lectern in front of a U.S. flag.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance speaks at a press conference in New York City Criminal Court on Feb. 24, 2020. Scott Heins/Getty Images

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A few weeks ago, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that his office had decided to stop prosecuting prostitution. This was widely reported as a victory for sex workers, and indeed it is a shift, considering how past initiatives that were “doing something good for sex workers” often just led to further crackdowns. But Melissa Gira Grant, a New Republic staff writer who has covered sex work activism for more than 15 years, saw the new rule a little differently. She says it won’t do anything to change aggressive police behavior toward sex workers and that the city’s continued prosecution of people who buy sex will only perpetuate harmful stereotypes. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Grant about the states rethinking their stances on sex work and whether the legal system can deliver the security these workers need. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: In 2016, you reported a story about a Brooklyn woman named Sarah, who’s a mother and a sex worker. Sarah kept getting arrested even when she wasn’t breaking the law, most often under a state law that criminalized “loitering with intent to commit prostitution” Basically, if police saw you standing around and thought you looked like a sex worker, they could arrest you.

Melissa Gira Grant: The most extraordinary arrest Sarah told me about was one time when she was on a public city bus and the police essentially pulled the bus over to arrest her. In the process, they physically grabbed her, and women officers looked in her underwear and made her feel really humiliated. I mean, the entire process is public humiliation.

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What was the reasoning?

The only thing Sarah could come up with—and I think this is accurate, from what I’ve gauged from hundreds of women I’ve talked to who’ve been in the same situation—is that once police make an arrest and regard somebody as what they’ll call a “known prostitute”—that’s who they always are to the department. When police have to make a certain number of arrests, they’re just going to go back for the people they can most easily arrest. In New York City, they’re not arresting all sex workers all the time, but they are also arresting women who are not currently doing sex work but may have done so at one point. A lot of the time, that is women of color, women in low income communities, trans women, and immigrant women.

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You make this interesting comparison in your reporting between arrests like Sarah’s and stop and frisk. A lot of times, women like Sarah were being arrested because of where they were and how they looked. Like, the reasoning behind arresting women was because they were wearing tight black leggings or tight jeans and a tight and a tank top showing their cleavage.

It is very clear to me, both from the time that I’ve spent reporting in courts and the time that I’ve spent talking to advocates, that 90-plus percent of the people arrested for loitering for prostitution in Brooklyn were Black. It is incredibly targeted in the way that stop and frisk was targeted—and it is targeting the same communities. We found that NYPD was making about 2,000–3,000 prostitution-related arrests a year, mostly concentrated in five communities that were largely low-income and largely Black and brown. So it’s not that they were making arrests in areas known for prostitution. It’s they were making arrests in the same communities where they were already making arrests. And then those communities become known for prostitution, because that’s where the arrests continue to happen.

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The sex workers rights’ movement has made some pretty significant strides. The loitering law was repealed in February of this year, and other cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia are starting to loosen prosecution of sex work as well.

Part of it is that the culture has shifted quite a bit—not necessarily the culture around sex work, but the culture around policing. I think you can draw a line in the sand in 2014 with the murder of Mike Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement, with the questioning of what it means to look to police for public safety, with more people questioning the role of police in our lives. When you come to sex work with that perspective, you’re asking not about the behavior of sex workers, but about the behavior of police. It’s a very different framework. When you look at what police do to sex workers, when you look at the harassment, if not violence, and the ways these arrests upend people’s lives and expose them to harm, I don’t think it can be justified. So now you have a much bigger constituency of people. It’s not just sex workers pushing for this—it’s going to be groups pushing for all different kinds of reforms to policing, including people who are pushing for abolition. And you have groups that may never have done anything around sex workers’ rights but are going to be part of this broader effort because they see the damage that policing does in their communities.

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And, as long as the NYPD is allowed to make arrests of people who buy sex, the impact of the DA’s new decision is not that great. If anything, the rhetoric of treating sex workers as victims who should not be arrested and treating their customers as, essentially, sex offenders whom we have to go after with the full force of the law—that itself is a very damaging message to send this message, that anybody involved in sex work by necessity is a victim we need to rescue by arresting their source of income without providing any kind of alternative. It keeps the same cycle continuing. Also, I think it creates this social perception that sex workers can’t organize, that sex workers don’t have community, that sex workers can’t influence public policy—all of which are things that actually are happening. So it’s incredibly dangerous, I think, to have those ideas spreading at the same time when sex workers are getting some support from legislators.

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There are a few different ways governments have decided to treat sex work around the world. The first, full criminalization, is what we have in the U.S. for the most part. Then there’s partial criminalization, where sex work itself isn’t illegal but everything around it—being a customer or providing a location for or transport to sex work—is still illegal. It’s essentially what New York has just put into place.

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Decriminalization, which we see in New Zealand and a few states in Australia, does essentially get criminal laws out of sex workers’ work lives when it comes to their work. Sex workers still can and do bring cases around sexual harassment, sexual violence, wage theft. Not being regarded as criminals themselves mean that they can actually use the law to protect themselves in the ways they need to. Arresting them or their customers as a “protection” measure just exposes people to violence.

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Decriminalization is largely preferred by sex workers because, if you look at places that have put in place “partial criminalization,” you can see problems right away—epecially when it comes to policing.

Norway has this partial criminalization model. Amnesty International did research in four different countries looking at their prostitution laws, and it found some of the most stunning human rights abuses that I have heard around sex work. Police there created something called “Operation Homeless,” where they were surveilling and documenting sex workers and where they worked and then harassing their landlords, saying, “If you don’t evict this person, we’re going to come after you.”

When this was exposed, how did the police respond? Was there some kind of turnabout?

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Theoretically, Operation Homeless doesn’t exist anymore, but the reality is they’ve just pivoted. The kinds of anti-prostitution policing we’ve seen after the apparent end of Operation Homeless was largely targeting African immigrant women. Cops would stop people on the street and harass them to get them to turn over their papers. If they weren’t documented, they would be threatened with deportation. They are still penalized. They are still regarded as people who have to be corrected or excluded. There’s no way to have police in sex workers’ lives and not send that message that “sex workers are a problem and police are the solution to the proble.”

There’s also a way that any migrant sex worker is regarded as being “trafficked” because of myths and assumptions within the racialized way people talk about sex trafficking and sex work. In the U.S., the reality is that Asian migrant sex workers are some of the most vulnerable and targeted sex workers in the community. They’re also organizing in their own rights groups, like Red Canary Song, which started in New York after an Asian migrant sex worker named Yang Song was killed in an NYPD raid. Their analysis of this—and I think it’s really important to share and credit this to them—is that they are the ones who are best positioned to intervene when people are being exploited and are vulnerable. They are the ones who could help sex workers who are trafficked, or having their wages stolen or passports confiscated, or being treated in all of these other abusive ways. They have that trust right there in the community.

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In reality, the idea of people being trafficked is used as justification to continue to send police in. It’s claimed that sex work legalization will lead to increases in human trafficking, which I don’t think there’s any way of knowing, because there are very few studies that actually sort of provide a baseline as an alternative. I can say from the United States, where prostitution is fully criminalized, human trafficking actually still exists. Sex trafficking exists. And you know, the reason sex trafficking is even regarded as something different from human and labor trafficking is because sex work isn’t considered work. So under our laws, it’s created as a separate category and is treated very differently by police

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In other industries where we see trafficking—agricultural work or domestic work—what we don’t do is send police into homes on the Upper West Side to ensure the domestic workers aren’t being trafficked. But we are sending police into immigrant communities and massage businesses. They’re not going to other kinds of informal labor where people are vulnerable to trafficking because they don’t have access to labor rights. That’s what it comes down to when you when you have a group of workers who are undocumented, whose industry isn’t protected under labor law—that creates an environment that’s ripe for abuse. I don’t think there’s any situation in which police can correct that. For the past 20 years, we’ve been throwing police at the issue of human trafficking in the United States, and there’s no evidence that it’s actually reduced anything.

What would be the answer? Should we give people a voice in their workplaces take labor abuse complaints seriously? Should we give workers some kind of amnesty so that even if they’re undocumented and they report abuses in their workplace, they’re not going to get deported? There are lots of different solutions that have nothing to do with looking to the police, which, particularly in immigrant communities, can be a source of violence.

I wonder if you see the Manhattan district attorney’s new ruling as a first step, and if so, in the right or wrong direction.

My initial response to it—and I still am very much in this place—is yes, do that and stop the arrests, and it’s only a step backward if it stops here, if it’s only a fig leaf for this prosecutor’s office. I don’t think anybody who’s involved in campaigns for decriminalization and for ending the police harassment and abuse of sex workers will look at this and say, “Well, that’s it, we won that one.” Their target isn’t necessarily the prosecutor’s office. Their target is the police, and they’re focused on that. Sure, the prosecutor does have a lot of power, but the reality is the NYPD right now has more power over sex workers’ lives. So if you want to stop sex workers from being criminalized, you have to look at the police.

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