What Sex Workers Want

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S1: A few weeks back, I got this push alert on my phone, it said the district attorney in Manhattan, Cy Vance, had decided to stop prosecuting prostitution.

S2: I also got the alert. I knew it was coming.

S1: I called up Melissa Djura Grant because I wanted to know what that alert really meant. From what I could tell, the D.A. plan to continue bringing charges against people buying sex, just not those selling it. This is widely reported as a victory for sex workers, a change that would keep people safer. But Melissa, who’s covered sex work activism for more than 15 years, she saw this change a little differently.

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S2: What’s surprising, though, about this policy is that it’s coming out of the Manhattan DA’s office, which is historically that incredibly anti sex work. In a way, it’s not that much of a departure, but the fact that they wanted people to, like, celebrate him for it is is really worth drawing some attention to. You know, he wants credit for having done something good for sex workers.

S1: What Melissa is talking about here is a shifting power dynamic. It’s actually pretty subtle until, you know, the history in the past, doing something good for sex workers has been finding new ways to control their behavior. Like a few years back, Melissa was covering a diversion program some Brooklyn prosecutors had set up. It was a way for sex workers to avoid prison time, but they were still getting arrested, still going to court.

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S2: And so sitting on the bench outside the courtroom with a woman who is about to go in and have her case heard, and she was telling me about, you know, the arrest that she was there for. She had been arrested so many other times before that the officer who was arresting her in this case knew who she was, recognized her, followed her out of a bodega, according to her, and threw her against his car at 7:00 in the morning. Huh. And she said I was just getting, like, juice for my kids, you know, but like, the mindset is like, well, once arrested, always arrested. Right? Once a sex worker, always a sex worker. And so know she was pressed like telling me what happened to her. You know, it was clear that she felt violated and angry and and yet, you know, three minutes later when she had to go in in front of the judge, like her entire demeanor shifted. And the judge is asking her pretty offensive questions like, we hope that you’re going to choose a different path. And all I could think was like choose a path like this officer is the reason she’s here. Right. Is nothing to do with her and her decisions.

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S1: Well, this decision by Cy Vance, will it prevent incidents like that from happening?

S2: I don’t think so. Yeah, in a way, what they’re doing is just punting this and, you know, the reality is like the prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the power to tell the police to stop making these arrests

S1: today on the show. New York is not the only place rethinking sex work, but can the legal system deliver the security these workers need? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. If you want to appreciate just how far New York’s come with these new rules around sex work, it helps to go back a little bit in 2016. Melissa Jira Grant reported a story about a woman named Sarah Makhado. Sarah lived in Brooklyn. She’s a mother, also a sex worker. And like that woman, Melissa met and caught that one time Sarah kept getting arrested even when she wasn’t breaking the law. Most often she was being arrested under this one particular statute, a state law that criminalized loitering with the intent to commit prostitution. Basically, if police saw you standing around and thought you looked like a sex worker, they could arrest you.

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S2: Yeah, the most extraordinary arrests that Sarah told me about was one time when she was actually on a public city bus and the police essentially pulled the bus over to arrest her off the bus. And in the process, you know, physically grabbed her. And, you know, when she was arrested, you know, women officers, you know, looked in her bra and looked in her underwear and made her feel really humiliated. I mean, the entire process is kind of public humiliation. What was their

S1: reasoning?

S2: Right. Like, how are you committing loitering for prostitution on a moving bus? Like what? What is the rationale there? And like, the only thing that Sarah could come up with and I think this is accurate from all the other women I’ve talked to who’ve been in the same situation and there are hundreds of them, is that once police make an arrest and, you know, regard somebody as sometimes what they’ll even call a known prostitute, that person is, you know, and their eyes, that’s who they always are. And, you know, when police also have to make a certain number of arrests, they’re just going to go back for the people that they can most easily arrest. And in New York City, you know, that is women of color. That is women in low income communities. That is going to be trans women and immigrant women. And, you know, to be very, very clear, they’re not arresting all sex workers in New York all the time. They’re arresting those particular women who may not even be doing sex work, but may have at one point.

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S1: So they’re not going to like a fancy hotel?

S2: No, not typically. I mean, the majority of arrests that if you go sit in one of those courtrooms or, you know, if you did before covid, they’re going to be people who are arrested either on the street or in venues like massage parlors.

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S1: You make this interesting comparison in your reporting to arrests like what happened to Sarah and Stop and Frisk. And you made that comparison because a lot of times women like Sarah were being arrested because of where they were, which is areas of high prostitution, I guess, and because of how they looked. And you have you have these examples from police reports that you read them and you just can’t help but think like, how did we get here? Like the reasoning behind arresting women was because they were wearing type black leggings or they were wearing tight jeans and a tank top showing their cleavage, which, you know, you could be anywhere in New York wearing those kinds of clothes.

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S2: Right. You could be at a bachelorette party. You’re probably not getting arrested. My favorite of all of the the garments that were called out on those affidavits signed by officers with a pea coat and jeans, which sounds

S1: like you’re going to college.

S2: Yeah, like, I’m pretty sure that arrest did not happen or near NYU. But it is 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. I think at the time I was doing that story, something like 90 plus percent of the people arrested for loitering for prostitution in Brooklyn were black. So it is it is incredibly targeted in the way that stop and frisk was targeted. And it is also targeting the same communities. So we did some data reporting for that piece as well. And one of the things that we found is that there are really concentrated arrests that the NYPD were making at the time, and they are still making arrests in these communities. But they’ve gone down, I think, over public pressure. But at the time, they were making about two to three thousand prostitution related arrests a year, mostly concentrated in five, five communities that were largely low income and largely black and brown communities. 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’re making arrests. And then those communities and their eyes become known for prostitution because that’s where they continue to make the arrests.

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S1: Sounds like a chicken and egg problem.

S2: Exactly. And then they continue to arrest the same people and, you know, on and on. So it’s it’s the self-fulfilling standard for the NYPD.

S1: Since Melissa and Sara first met in 2016, the sex workers rights movement in New York has made some pretty significant strides. That loitering law was repealed in February of. This year and other cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, they’ve started to loosen the rules around sex work, too. Melissa says this is all the result of decades of activism boosted by a society wide rethink of the role of police.

S2: I think part of it is, you know, the culture has shifted quite a bit, not necessarily the culture around sex work, but the culture around policing. You know, I think you can really draw a line in the sand in 2014 with the murder of Mike Brown and with the Black Lives Matter movement, with all of the sort of like re questioning of what it means to to look to police for public safety and more and more people questioning the role of police in our lives. And I think. When you come to sex, work with that perspective, right, when you’re asking not about the behavior of sex workers, but you’re asking about the behavior of police, it’s a very different framework. You know, you’re now you don’t necessarily have to, you know, come to any sort of personal conclusions about how you feel about the existence of sex work. Now, the people whose behavior being asked to consider is the police. And like when you look at what police do to sex workers, when you look at the harassment, if not the violence and the ways that these arrests disorder people’s lives and expose them to harm, I don’t think it can be justified. And so now you have even a much bigger constituency of people. It’s not just sex workers pushing for this, right. It’s going to be groups who are pushing for all different kinds of reforms to policing, including people who are pushing for the the abolition of policing. And you have groups who, you know, typically may have never done anything around sex workers rights, but are going to be part of this broader effort because they see the the the damage the policing does in their communities

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S1: to the sex workers had allies in a way that they maybe didn’t before.

S2: Yeah. And allies who at the time, I think were also able to be pretty successful in sort of moving the conversation around policing so that, you know, now we have after last summer, like pretty mainstream conversations about defunding the police. And so then in decorum, New York is also out at the same time, actually a little bit before that, when one of their primary demands is to defund the vice unit of the NYPD. And so you’re seeing this alignment, I think, between the sex worker rights movement and this broader movement against policing.

S1: The thing about this most recent decision by New York District Attorney Cy Vance to stop prosecuting sex work, is it Melissa doesn’t think it’s going to change anything about police behavior. Not right away. And she worries that continuing to prosecute people who buy sex is going to double down on harmful stereotypes

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S2: as long as the NYPD are allowed to make prostitution arrests. The impact on people’s day to day lives is not that great. And if anything, the rhetoric of, you know, treating sex workers as victims who should not be arrested and treating their customers as, you know, essentially sex offenders who we have to go after with the full force of the law, which is the rhetoric behind this and rhetoric, that silence is also shared. It that itself is also very damaging to send this message that anybody involved in sex work by necessity is a victim that we need to rescue in the way that we’re going to rescue them is by arresting their source of income without providing them any kind of alternative, which is a dead end street. It just keeps the same cycle continuing. But also, I think it creates this social perception that sex workers are victims. Right, that sex workers can’t organize, that sex workers don’t have community, that sex workers can’t influence public policy like all of the things that actually are happening. And so it’s incredibly dangerous, I think, to have those ideas spreading when you’re at the same time as a sex workers are really, you know, getting the support of of legislators in their communities at large.

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S1: When we come back, we’ll talk about the policies that many sex workers actually want. Melissa says there are a few different ways governments have decided to treat sex work around the world, the first full criminalization is basically what we’ve got here in the U.S. for the most part. Then there’s partial criminalization where sex work itself is not illegal. But everything around it, being a customer or providing a location for sex work that is illegal is essentially what New York has just put into place.

S2: And the third sort of policy framework would be decriminalization, which we see in New Zealand and as few states in Australia and with decriminalization does essentially get, you know, criminal laws out of sex workers lives when it comes to their work. Sex workers still can and do bring cases, you know, around sexual harassment, sexual violence, wage theft. Not being regarded as criminals themselves mean they can actually use the law to protect themselves in the ways they need to protect themselves. Rather than saying, you know, by arresting you or arresting your customers, we’re providing you with protection, which actually does. And it just exposes people to violence.

S1: Decriminalisation, Melissa says, is largely preferred by sex workers. That’s because if you look at places that have put in place that partial criminalization framework, you can see problems right away, especially when it comes to policing.

S2: So in one of the countries where they do have this this partial criminalization model where theoretically sex workers are not criminalised but still are in many ways is Norway. And Amnesty International did research in four different countries looking at their their prostitution laws in Norway. They found, I think, some of the most stunning human rights abuses that, you know, I have heard around sex work in the 15, 20 years that I’ve been looking at this. So police there, you know, in this model where supposedly they weren’t criminalizing the workers, they created something called Operation Homeless, where what they were doing was documenting where they believe sex workers were doing work based on surveillance, including online surveillance, and then harassing their landlords and saying, if you don’t evict this person, we’re going to come after you.

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S1: Who does that benefit?

S2: I mean, who is a benefit? Nobody, right. I mean, it it benefits sort of this cultural ideal that, like, sex work is dirty and we should exclude sex workers. You know, we should exclude sex work from even happening. Like, I’m sure that the the public policy experts in Sweden, who are Norway, rather, who were pushing this, were doing it with rhetoric that was all about protecting women and respecting women and giving women alternatives. But the reality is to make somebody homeless is to actually make them more at risk. It’s to make them more economically vulnerable. It’s it’s it’s absolutely crucial.

S1: When this was exposed, how did the police respond? Was there some kind of turnabout?

S2: So theoretically, Operation Homeless doesn’t exist anymore, but the reality is they’ve just pivoted. And the kinds of anti prostitution policing the amnesty saw after the apparent end of Operation Homeless was largely targeting migrant women. And in Norway, that was largely African immigrant women. So they would, you know, stop people on the street, harassed them to get them to turn over their papers. If they weren’t documented, they would threaten them with deportation. They were still penalized. They were still regarded as people who had to be corrected or excluded or deported. Even so, there’s no way to sort of like have police and sex workers lives and not send that message not just to sex workers, but to the community at large. Like these people are a problem and we are the solution to the problem.

S1: The fact that those officers were harassing migrant women, it makes clear to me that I think there’s this issue when we talk about sex work, which is it often gets conflated with sex trafficking. And I wonder if you think it’s worth us just taking a moment to tease those two ideas apart, like what the difference is and why we tend to see them as the same thing when they’re not necessarily.

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S2: Yeah, I think, you know, there’s a way that any migrant sex worker is regarded this as trafficked because of these kinds of myths and assumptions and because of the racialized way that we talk about sex trafficking and sex work. Like I’m thinking about Atlanta just a month ago and the ways that the women who worked in the massage businesses in Atlanta that were were targeted by a mass shooter, the people had all kinds of assumptions of who they were and why they were there and the conditions under which they were doing their work. And and the reality is that Asian migrant sex workers are some of the most vulnerable in targeted sex workers in the community. They’re also organizing for their own rights groups like, you know, Red Canary Song, who started in New York after Asian. Grand sex worker naming song was killed in an NYPD raid. You know, their analysis of this and I think it’s really important to share and also to 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 that sex workers who are trafficked or are having their wages stolen or having their passports confiscated or treated in all of these other abusive ways. They have that trust right there already in the community. They’re already working with them. They’re already seeing what’s going on. And the reality is the idea of people being trafficked is being used as justification to continue to send police in.

S1: It is there is this tension, though, right? Because sex trafficking is real. I read that when sex work is legalized, there can be an increase in sex trafficking as people rush in to kind of fill the demand that exists when there’s a legalized prostitution situation. So I wonder if for you it raises any questions of what the right approach is and whether sex workers themselves have an answer to that.

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S2: I mean, whether or not that that’s true, that legalization leads to any sort of increase in human trafficking, which I don’t think there’s any way of knowing, because there’s very few studies that actually sort of provide a baseline as an alternative. Right. Well, when things were criminal, they were this way and they were legal this way. But I can say from the United States, where prostitution is fully criminalized, human trafficking actually still exists. Sex trafficking exists. You know, the reason that sex trafficking is even regarded as is something different from from human trafficking, from labor trafficking is because sex work isn’t considered work. And so under our laws, it’s created as a sort of separate category and it’s treated very differently by police. So you just to give you an example, like of other industries where we see trafficking, you know, whether that’s an agricultural work or domestic workers, you know, what we don’t do is send police into homes on the Upper West Side to ensure that the domestic workers aren’t being trafficked. But we are absolutely sending police into immigrant communities and flushing to into massage businesses. You know, they’re not going to nail salons. They’re not going to hair salons. They’re not going to other kinds of informal labor where people are incredibly vulnerable to trafficking because they don’t have access to labor rights. I mean, that’s what it comes down to when you when you have a group of workers who are undocumented who otherwise, you know, don’t have the capacity to organize for themselves because their industry isn’t protected under labor law or even if they are, you know, don’t necessarily have the resources to challenge their employers, that creates an environment that’s ripe for abuse. And I don’t think there’s any situation in which police can correct that. It’s a much deeper problem, but it’s really easy to throw police at the problem and act as if it’s been solved. But, you know, for the last 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.

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S1: Yeah, it’s just one of these complicated things, though, where I don’t think anyone would say that the way women are treated at nail salons where they’re trafficked for that kind of work is good. You know, it’s not like no, that’s an ideal good.

S2: It’s not good. But, you know, we’re saying, OK, well, what would be the answer? There is police. The answer or is giving people a voice in their workplaces is listening and taking labor labor abuse complaints seriously? You know, is it giving people some kind of amnesty? So even if they’re undocumented and they report abuses in their workplace, that they’re not going to get deported over it? Right. There’s 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.

S1: So I’ve seen. The sex worker activist community responding online to this latest decision by the district attorney in Manhattan, and it’s been interesting because there’s been some acknowledgement that, OK, this is a first step towards a better situation for sex workers. But I wonder if you see it that way, if this is a first step or if it’s a first step in the right or wrong direction. And I’m not sure.

S2: I my initial response to it, and I still am very much in this place, which is like yes and yes, do that and stop the arrests, it’s only a step backwards if it stops here, right. It’s only if it’s if it’s like a fig leaf for for this prosecutor’s office and others who may follow in their footsteps to seek sex workers. We listened to you. We’re not going to prosecute you anymore. In a way, I think it could almost be meant to sort of like slow down people’s critiques and slow down their momentum and slow down their demands. I don’t see any evidence that that’s what’s happening in New York. I don’t think anybody who’s involved in these campaigns for decriminalization and end of police harassment and abuse of sex workers, look at this and say, well, that’s it. You know, we won that one. Their target isn’t necessarily the prosecutor’s office. Their target is the police. And they’re continuing to be focused on that. So if anything, it’s an opportunity, I think, to talk about like how this actually works in real life and to say, like, well, sure, the prosecutor does have a lot of power. But the reality is the NYPD right now have more power over sex workers lives. And so if you want to stop them from being criminalized, you have to look at the police.

S1: Melissa, you’re a grant. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you, Melissa. Your grant is a staff writer at The New Republic. She’s also the author of Playing the Whore The Work of Sex Work. And that is our show, What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett and Davis Land were led by Allison Bennett and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.