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Bills to Decriminalize Prostitution Are Introduced. Is New York Ready?

The New York Times logo The New York Times 6 days ago Jesse McKinley
a person standing in a room: Decrim NY, a coalition behind decriminalizing prostitution in New York, has worked for months to persuade lawmakers to support their efforts. © Shannon Straney for The New York Times Decrim NY, a coalition behind decriminalizing prostitution in New York, has worked for months to persuade lawmakers to support their efforts.

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New York took a significant step toward expanding the national conversation about sex and crime when a collection of lawmakers on Monday introduced bills to decriminalize prostitution.

Described as the first decriminalization bills ever in the state, and the most comprehensive decriminalization effort ever initiated in the United States, the bills expand upon recent attempts in several other states and the District of Columbia.

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If passed, the bills would allow paid sex between consenting adults — decriminalizing both the buying and the selling of sex, as well as promotion of prostitution — while maintaining prohibitions on trafficking, coercion and sexual abuse of minors.

There is no assurance that the measures will pass anytime soon; the legislative session is scheduled to end next Wednesday, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not endorsed the effort.

The legislation introduced in Albany makes clear that the sponsors view centuries of criminalizing prostitution as failed public policy that has done far more harm than good, driving it “into the shadows in an underground illegal environment where sex workers face increased violence, abuse and exploitation, and are more vulnerable to trafficking.” The bills would also allow for those convicted of prostitution-related offenses to potentially vacate such convictions.

Such arguments echo those made by some of those who have worked in the sex trade, several of whom expressed satisfaction that their concerns were finally being heard by state politicians.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for 30 years,” said Cecilia Gentili, a transgender woman who did sex work and is now a member of Decrim NY, the coalition behind the decriminalization push in New York.

“We are trying to change the lives of many New Yorkers who have historically been criminalized for using their bodies to survive. And it’s time we change that.”

In some ways, the push to decriminalize came about as a result of last fall’s Democratic wins in the State Legislature. The bill’s two sponsors in the State Senate were both newly elected in November: Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens, and Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat, whose campaign for office last year included an endorsement of decriminalization.

Ms. Salazar said she had been impressed by how rapidly decriminalization has become more mainstream to discuss, both nationally and in New York, where Democrats unseated eight Republican incumbents in the Senate in November.

“It’s only been in the last several months that this issue got more attention and has gained more popular support,” Ms. Salazar said, adding, however, that “it took years of sex workers fighting, having to face stigma, discrimination and abuse in trying to advocate for their rights.”

The idea has long had a prominent supporter in the Assembly in Albany, where the health committee chairman, Richard N. Gottfried, argued that “trying to stop sex work between consenting adults should not be the business of the criminal justice system.”

“It has not worked in a couple of thousand years,” he said. “And requiring sex workers to work in an underground, illegal environment, promotes abuse and exploitation.”

Prostitution is legal only in a few counties in Nevada, and few supporters believe any state will soon fully decriminalize prostitution.

Opponents of the decriminalization movement say that efforts such as the one being undertaken in New York are misguided, arguing that full decriminalization will create a demand that encourages underground sex trafficking.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the decriminalization effort, if successful, would effectively set up a new industry and give legitimacy to existing brothels and pimps.

“Pimps would now just be promoters,” she said, adding “you can’t protect the exploited by protecting the exploiters.” Like some other opponents of full legalization, Ms. Ossorio said she supports a form of partial decriminalization known as the “Nordic model,” which emphasizes the prosecution of people who buy sex, but not the prostitutes themselves.

“It is the wise policy solution,” said Dorchen A. Leidholdt, the director of Sanctuary for Families legal center and a chairwoman of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, saying such modified plan would “shrink demand, shrink the market and shrink the industry.”

Full decriminalization, however, would be a “public-policy disaster for New York” that would “increase the size of this predatory industry,” Ms. Leidholdt said.

“And prostitution is always predatory,” she added.

Mr. Cuomo’s record on liberalizing once-forbidden activities is somewhat uneven: He has recently backed legalizing marijuana, for example, not long after calling it a “gateway drug.” He expanded gambling in the state, but has balked at backing mobile sports betting.

And on Tuesday, he said he had not read the decriminalization bill and had no opinion on it yet. “This is going to be a controversial issue,” said Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat.

But for activists like Ms. Gentili, after years of waiting to have their issue taken seriously, now is the time to demand action from their lawmakers.

“Are we really progressive or are we not?” asked Ms. Gentili. “I guess we are about to find out.”

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