Activists, lawmakers mount fresh push to decriminalize sex work in New York

Advocates at a 2020 rally to decriminalize sex work in New York.
Advocates at a 2020 rally to decriminalize sex work in New York.
Donna Aceto

Activists and state lawmakers traveled to Albany on May 15 to inject new momentum into a legislative campaign to comprehensively decriminalize sex work in New York State.

DecrimNY, which launched in 2019 to decriminalize, decarcerate and destigmatize sex work in New York, joined elected officials and other organizations — including Make the Road New York and the Caribbean Equality Project — at a well-attended rally at the New York State Capitol building. The advocates called on the state to pass the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would remove criminal penalties for sex workers, consumers, and those who provide the space for sex work. 

Next month will mark five years since the bill was first announced in a New York State Assembly hearing room in Lower Manhattan. Advocacy around the broader issue of sex work decriminalization brought attention to the cause and helped pave the way for other gains, such as the passage in 2021 of a bill that repealed a decades-old loitering law that was known as a ban on “walking while trans” due to the way in which law enforcement disproportionately targeted transgender individuals simply for walking down the street. That same year, the state passed a bill known as the START Act, which allowed for convictions to be vacated if they were tied to crimes committed as a result of sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and other forms of trafficking.

Advocates for sex work decriminalization gathered in June of 2019 in a State Assembly hearing room downtown to present a comprehensive legislative proposal.
Advocates for sex work decriminalization gathered in June of 2019 in a State Assembly hearing room downtown to present a comprehensive legislative proposal.Matt Tracy

Decriminalization activism also prompted local district attorneys to reconsider their approach to prosecuting sex work. Gay City News broke the news in April of 2019 that Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez endorsed the decriminalization of sex work, and in 2021 he dismissed hundreds of sex-work related warrants. That same year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced it vacated and dismissed nearly 1,000 cases dating back to the 1970s and vowed to move away from prosecuting sex workers.

Some people who believe in a more limited approach have sought to advance an alternative bill in the state modeled on the so-called Nordic Model, or Equality Model, which calls for the removal of penalties against sex workers, but not buyers or others involved. For several years, State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan has proposed a bill based on that approach called the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act.

Many sex work decriminalization advocates, however, emphasize the importance of full decriminalization — including for buyers and others who are involved in the sex trade — because if one party is targeted, it can still endanger sex workers as well as trafficking victims who may feel more reluctant to speak out when law enforcement gets involved.

In recent years, activism around sex work decriminalization and other issues waned as the COVID pandemic disrupted daily life and urgent threats to transgender rights across the nation forced advocates to juggle multiple crises at once in the midst of a conservative backlash.

However, as community members gathered at Judson Memorial Church in February to mourn the sudden death of trans activist Cecilia Gentili, many of her friends and loved ones delivered impassioned remarks about her legacy as a strong supporter of sex workers and the decriminalization movement. Advocates at that memorial broke out in chants about sex work decriminalization — a sign that the issue was re-emerging in the community.

Attorney Jared Trujillo, a former sex worker who is a member of DecrimNY, said in an interview with Gay City News that the May 15 rally in Albany was inspired in part by Gentili’s passing, which he said motivated many people to get re-engaged in the decriminalization movement. 

Photographs and candles pay tribute to the late Cecilia Gentili during a memorial service at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on Feb. 7.
Photographs and candles pay tribute to the late Cecilia Gentili during a memorial service at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on Feb. 7.Donna Aceto

A key difference between the activism of 2019 — when the decriminalization bill was first introduced — and now is that arrests for sex workers are down significantly, Trujillo said. But that could change anytime.

“This bill is necessary to make sure that the fewer arrests that we are seeing are permanent,” Trujillo said. “Right now, any DA could change their mind,” he said, and revert back to a more punitive approach.

Another critical piece of the legislation is the expungement of records, which would give people a fresh start without having to deal with the baggage of their convictions. 

“Because sex work is a crime of moral purposes, it’s a scarlet letter that hurts your ability to get a job, to get housing, to get childcare, to be a parent — to do so many things,” Trujillo said.

Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest of Brooklyn, who is the lead sponsor of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act in the lower house, wrote in a post on X that lawmakers should “get it done for Cecilia.”

“It’s time to have a real conversation about how the criminalization of sex work perpetuates stigma, discrimination, and violence against those engaged in it,” Forrest wrote.

State Senator Julia Salazar is the lead sponsor of the legislation in the upper house.

Jared Trujillo stressed the importance of passing a full decriminalization bill in the State Legislature.Donna Aceto

Out Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens, a co-sponsor of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, also called on her colleagues to pass the bill, saying the criminalization of sex work has harmed many of her constituents in Queens and generated dangerous conditions for consenting sex workers and their clients.

“If we want to promote public safety, we must protect the people that willfully participate in the sex work industry while simultaneously addressing human trafficking,” González-Rojas said. “The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act is a part of that work and is supported by various civil rights, LGBTQ, and criminal justice groups. Currently, sex workers, who are often marginalized people, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, are at greater risk of experiencing violence because they are highly criminalized and are forced to work in the shadows. Sex work is work. Because our laws do not protect consenting sex workers, victims of human trafficking are more difficult to identify and protect. We must protect people’s bodily autonomy and stop policing consenting sex between adults.”

Members of Make the Road New York, a progressive and immigrant-led organization, were front and center at the rally in Albany as they encouraged state lawmakers to pass the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act.

“The passage of the Stop Violence in the Sex Trade Act is crucial to help us take the necessary steps to further promote health and safety of our community members while at the same time help decrease trafficking,” Bianey Garcia, Trans Immigrant Project organizer at Make the Road New York, told Gay City News. “It will also help clear sex work convictions for people who have been criminalized. Having record relief removes barriers faced by community members when they try to access housing, employment, healthcare, and much more.”

Advancing the bill requires one-on-one conversations with lawmakers and constituents who may have had preconceived notions about sex workers, but who could be swayed by a humanizing approach that shows sex workers “are just humans trying to pay rent and support our families,” Trujillo said.

“When they see us across the table from them, it really does so much to soften even the hardest hearts,” Trujillo said. “But it’s a challenge.”

It is not clear when the bill could have a realistic chance of moving forward in either chamber, but advocates are aware that it could take some time.

“I think 2025 or 2027 is what I’m hoping for, but to get any controversial piece of legislation passed, it’s a multi-year effort,” Trujillo said.

In the meantime, though, some elected officials are trying to make a difference at the city level. A City Council bill introduced last year would create a program to award grants to community groups working with sex workers, establish a board to support sex workers and inform them of their rights in the workplace, ban housing discrimination based on whether a prospective tenant has engaged in sex work, and more.