The topic of sex work decriminalization resurfaced in the mayoral race on May 12 when Ray McGuire responded to Andrew Yang’s comments about the issue by slamming him for supporting full decriminalization — even though it is not clear that Yang actually supports comprehensive decriminalization.
As the dramatic scene unfolded on May 12, the Yang campaign then fired back, accusing McGuire of wanting to put sex workers behind bars.
During Freedom Agenda’s forum on closing Rikers Island, Yang expressed his commitment “to decriminalizing sex crimes,” though he subsequently clarified in a tweet that, as mayor, he would “decriminalize sex work” — despite the fact that the state, not the mayor, controls sex work decriminalization laws.
In response to Yang’s comments, McGuire slammed his rival for making “a misguided attempt to be the loudest voice in the room” and accused Yang of supporting “decriminalizing all facets of sex work, including the recruitment and potential trafficking of sex workers.”
McGuire further ripped Yang, saying the former presidential candidate “is profoundly out of step with our city.”
“I agree that we need a different approach to helping sex workers, who themselves are very often victims of trafficking and other crimes… But I certainly do not believe we should give a free pass to those who exploit or profit from the sex trade industry, especially when trafficking women is so prevalent in our city. Yang thinks that brothels are New York’s road to recovery,” McGuire said.
Yang, however, has not exactly maintained a stable position on sex work decriminalization. In a tweet posted in December of 2019 — during his campaign for president — Yang came out in favor of partial decriminalization, saying he believes “we should consider decriminalizing sex work on the part of the seller.” In the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club’s questionnaire for the mayoral race, Yang had a very different position.
“Yes, I support decriminalizing sex work,” Yang wrote. “I pledge to oppose the Nordic model.” The Nordic Model calls for the elimination of penalties for sex workers only, meaning that his response in that questionnaire showed his explicit support for full decriminalization.
Still, during public mayoral campaign speeches, Yang has often expressed general support for decriminalizing sex work without clarifying his specific stance, raising questions about whether he is in favor of full decriminalization. The Yang campaign did not directly respond to a question from Gay City News asking whether Yang supports full sex work decriminalization, but Jake Sporn, Yang’s press secretary, hit back at McGuire.
“Ray spent his career on Wall Street representing billionaires like the Koch brothers who have blocked gun control laws for decades,” Sporn said in a statement to Gay City News on May 12. “If he actually cared about reducing crime, Ray would be focused on issues like curbing gun violence, not putting sex workers in jail.”
While McGuire accused Yang of being “out of step,” McGuire’s comments were clearly out of step with the movement to decriminalize sex work. Sex work decriminalization is a major queer issue in New York, where LGBTQ activists have spearheaded the push to comprehensively remove criminal penalties for those involved in the consensual sex trade.
Contrary to McGuire’s points, advocates have long stressed that full decriminalization is the best way to address trafficking and would reduce sex workers’ interactions with the criminal justice system. Sex workers have told stories about peers or roommates being charged as third parties or traffickers simply because they assisted sex workers in various ways. Many sex workers who are undocumented immigrants have also voiced fears that criminalizing any side of the sex trade can run the risk of unwanted attention from law enforcement.
The community landed a key victory earlier this year when advocates successfully pushed state lawmakers to repeal a discriminatory loitering law known as a ban on “Walking While Trans,” but folks are still pushing for elected officials in the state to pass a full decriminalization bill called the “Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act,” which was first proposed in 2019.
TS Candii, who led the movement to repeal the “Walking While Trans” ban and has been a leading activist in the effort to decriminalize sex work, slammed McGuire and Yang in response to their back-and-forth over sex work. She believes they have not done their part to stand in support of sex workers — and she was especially frustrated with McGuire’s comments about trafficking.
“Individuals like Yang and McGuire don’t know anything about sex work,” she said in a phone interview with Gay City News. “These particular individuals do not have experience in the community.”
While the state will determine the fate of decriminalization, the city is not entirely powerless. The mayor has control over the NYPD’s approach to sex work and Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said he would direct cops to avoid going after sex workers — though he has faced criticism for failing to gut the NYPD’s vice squad, which has been shrouded in corruption and has a reputation for harassing sex workers and entrapping gay men in adult establishments. Advocates have pushed for years to hold the Vice Squad accountable and eliminate it.
Yang said in the Jim Owles questionnaire that he does indeed support the squad’s elimination. In that same questionnaire, McGuire did not give a direct answer to that question but said “vice has shown to be in need of such a review.” McGuire also did not directly respond to the question from Jim Owles about his position on the decriminalization of sex work.
Yang and McGuire have not landed any endorsements from LGBTQ political clubs in the city, though Yang drew criticism from the LGBTQ community last month when he made awkward comments during the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City’s mayoral forum. Yang name-dropped his out gay campaign manager, Chris Coffey, along with Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, before saying the queer community is “so human and so beautiful.”
He further stated that the LGBTQ community has a “secret weapon” within the Democratic Party and wondered aloud why Democrats ever lose elections “given that you all are frankly in leadership roles all over the Democratic party.”
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