Sex work: Is it up next for the state agenda?

More of a state issue, but candidates for city council offer their two cents


When people talk sex work, many immediately think of the world’s oldest profession. Yet prostitution is just one part of a much larger industry that includes exotic dancers and adult film actors. 

Among the many differences between the two sides, the biggest is probably the most important: Prostitution remains illegal. It’s seemingly the final frontier in society’s full acceptance of sex work. 

And because no laws appear capable of making this at times dangerous profession go away, some advocates believe it’s time to decriminalize or even legalize prostitution once and for all.

But even among those seeking to change how laws approach prostitution, the divide between legalization and decriminalization remains deep. 

There’s a clear difference between the two, says Jared Trujillo. He’s an attorney with the Legal Aid Society who works with DecrimNY, a coalition of advocacy groups fighting the stigmatization of those in the sex trade while working to not only decriminalize the industry, but to reduce — if not outright eliminate — the number of people in jail because of it. 

Decriminalization is just the removal of criminal penalties for prostitution, Trujillo said, while legalization would make the practice legal, but potentially regulated.


First steps already taken

In some parts of New York City, prostitution already seems to be functionally decriminalized. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, for example, no longer prosecutes prostitution, according to published reports. The office already dismissed more than 1,000 warrants and vacated some 25,000 convicted prostitution offenses, essentially wiping them from criminal records.

And in Albany, some lawmakers have offered legislation that could decriminalize the practice statewide. The Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act wants to protect current and former sex workers while holding others accountable for their exploitation. Also introduced is the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, a package of bills aimed to amend state penal codes so that those involved in sex work won’t be treated as criminals. 

More locally, however, the issue still remains complicated and controversial. And it’s one that can’t be avoided by those seeking to replace Andrew Cohen on the city council.

Dan Padernacht stands out the most among his fellow candidates on this issue. The Kingsbridge Heights real estate attorney is the only candidate in the March 23 special election who not only supports fully legalizing sex work, but putting government in charge of regulating it.

Padernacht says legalization and regulation have a few advantages. Namely, it would provide sex workers access to employer-based health care — including regular testing for sexually transmitted infections — which would conceivably make the practice safer for all parties involved. 

In addition, Padernacht thinks legalizing prostitution could protect sex workers against violence while cutting down on human trafficking.

“When you look at it from a macro view, there would be no reason for anyone to engage in a black market for sex work if they can do so in a safe and protective environment,” Padernacht said. 

To Mino Lora, however, decriminalizing sex work and protecting sex workers against sex trafficking and other exploitative practices are separate issues. While she supports decriminalization and expanding social programs for sex workers, she thinks lumping sex work and sex trafficking together can be problematic.

“One is a human rights violation, another one is a personal choice out of our lack as a government and as a system (of) creating opportunities for success and well-being,” Lora said.

Jessica Haller also thinks sex workers need not to be criminalized and should receive expanded social services.

“What you want to do is give people services where they are and not criminalize people,” the Fieldston environmental entrepreneur said. “But also not assume that people are in a place where they aren’t, so not just assume that everybody working in the sex trade is actually being trafficked.”


Does change start with policing?

The issues of abuse and trafficking can be addressed at the city level in a number of ways, she said. This includes funding sex worker service centers, addressing domestic violence, and reforming the New York Police Department vice squad — the unit responsible for combatting prostitution and human trafficking.

Trujillo belives that vice squad needs more than reforming — it should be defunded. A December report from ProPublica claimed vice squad officers used entrapment tactics and made false arrests, focused mostly on people of color.

“It’s recognizing that the way that we police sex workers doesn’t make sex workers safer,” Trujillo said. “The interactions with the vice squad leads to exploitation. And there are other instances of vice cops that are running prostitution rings.”

A former NYPD detective pleaded guilty to running such an operation in 2019.

Vice squad funding should be moved to the LGBT Unity project, Trujillo said, which provides services for homeless and runaway queer and transgender youth.

Carlton Berkley is himself a former NYPD detective, and is against full legalization. When it comes to decriminalization, however, he remains uncertain. 

When Berkley was a police officer, he said he arrested many sex workers addicted to drugs or caught up in sex trafficking rings. Both are reason enough on why he feels the practice should remain illegal.

The position of former schoolteacher Eric Dinowitz is a little softer as he doesn’t necessarily think prostitution should be illegal, still, he has reservations toward decriminalization. 

The current bills in Albany, he says, don’t address any of the underlying issues facing sex workers. However, the Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act calls for expanding social programs for current and former sex workers while also expanding anti-trafficking laws.

Regardless, Dinowitz believes certain programs and opportunities should be available to all — sex workers included.

“In the city, our role has to be that we ensure access to health care and social services for people involved in the sex trade, but also for the right health care and the right social services for everyone,” Dinowitz said. 

“We have an immense job to do in the city to make sure those services get to the people who need them.”


Making it a priority

While the city can’t decriminalize or legalize prostitution before the state can, city council members have an opportunity so signal support for bills in front of the legislature, including one or both of the decriminalization bills currently on the docket.

Still, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, some might argue the state has bigger fish than sex work issues to fry. But for Lora, addressing one issue might help create a domino effect in addressing countless others the city faces.

“People who engage in sex work aren’t just sex workers,” she said. “They are tenants. They (have) families. They are spouses. They are partners. They are mothers. All of these things are interconnected. By looking at that factor, we are also looking at all of the issues and injustices that will prevent us from getting out of this economic crisis — and this public health crisis — that we’re currently in.”

Jared Trujillo, Legal Aid Society, DecrimNY, Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act, Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, Andrew Cohen, Dan Padernacht, Mino Lora, Jessica Haller, New York Police Department, ProPublica, LGBT Unity Project, Carlton Berkley, Eric Dinowitz, Rose Brennan, Ethan Stark-Miller