The Feminist Divide Over Decriminalizing Sex Work

Two weeks after a rally announcing Decrim NY, a new coalition to decriminalize sex work in New York, another took place opposing it. Monday’s rally occurred at City Hall—just a five-minute walk from its pro-decriminalization counterpart, which had taken place on February 25 in a nearby square, away from police officers and security who could’ve made the sex workers who’d attended it feel unsafe.

The group that gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday morning calls itself The New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution and is led by local organizations like Sanctuary for Families, The New York City Faith-Based Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence, and the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. Speakers’ prevailing message was that the legislation Democratic state Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos planned to introduce decriminalizing sex work would instead encourage sex trafficking and legitimize “pimps and johns” as they exploit women to turn a profit: Multiple speakers referred to the bill as the “Pimp Protection Act.

For the attendees of Monday’s rally, the prospect of decriminalizing sex work contributed to a sinister vision of the future, where the trade of sex encroaches on all parts of New York life and threatens to return the city to a dark and seedy past.

“Yes, you’ve heard it right,” Sonia Ossorio, the president of NOW’s New York City chapter, told the crowd. “The sex trade could be coming to a neighborhood near you.

“If the wholesale legalization of the sex trade comes to New York, what would that look like?” she continued. “Will we have prostitution zones? Will we have an upscale one in the new Hudson Yards, or in the tried-and-tested Times Square, like when pimps hustled for customers and shot around the city looking for the next down-on-her-luck woman to lure into prostitution?”

New York could become the “Las Vegas of the Northeast,” Ossorio warned.

Like Ossorio, many of the most vocal opponents to the movement for decriminalizing sex work are self-professed feminists or leaders of prominent women’s organizations who often promote the Nordic model, an approach to policing sex work that seeks to criminalize the people who purchase sex, rather than the workers who provide it. Though sex workers have long said this model makes their work more dangerous by making it difficult to screen clients and inviting a larger police presence into their communities, some women’s rights advocates contend it’s the only viable path to mitigating abuse and exploitation within the sex trade, creating a deep divide within the feminist movement.

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, known for her leadership in pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment, said on Monday of decriminalization: “This idea does not help or lift up or empower or protect women in any way, shape, or form. I support efforts to decriminalize prostitution, but I do not support any idea, bill, or proposal that would let pimps, johns, and the exploiters off the hook.”

Later, a speaker read a statement on behalf of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who echoed Maloney’s stance on sex work. “It is crucial to decriminalize prostituted women, men, and children,” the speaker read from Steinem’s statement. “And it is equally crucial not to decriminalize the pimps and traffickers who exploit them […] I thank Congresswoman Maloney for supporting the Nordic law in this country, and helping to counter the vast sums of money spent by global sex traffickers trying to distort and discredit it.”

“I don’t see a divide. We agree on the biggest part—we don’t want to arrest sex workers.”

The mainstream feminist movement has been roiled by conflicting opinions surrounding sex work for decades, exposing dramatically different attitudes about sex, consent, and women’s agency within its ranks. In a 2013 piece for Reason, Melissa Gira Grant, an author and senior staff reporter at The Appeal, cited Melissa Farley, a longtime anti-sex work advocate and researcher who has summed up her camp’s position by calling sex work “paid rape.”

Farley, Grant suggested, is just one agent in a “war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. The war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.”

None went as far as characterizing sex work as “paid rape” at Monday’s rally, but some suggested that payment for sex was a form of coercion and called for the decriminalization legislation to be considered within the context of the #MeToo movement, a cultural reckoning with sexual abuse. A group of women at the rally had also displayed an anti-trans banner, which read “no more sex trade surrogacy and transgenderism” even as, Grant pointed out in a tweet, Ossorio argued that police should stop arresting LGBTQ people and women who participate in sex work. (NOW-NYCSanctuary for Families, and Maloney have condemned the sign.)

“I don’t see a divide,” Ossorio told Broadly when asked about the apparent fractures within the feminist movement on the issue of sex work. “We agree on the biggest part—we don’t want to arrest sex workers.”

The distance between these two camps in New York—The New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution and Decrim NY—and the points of view they represent became stark when two sex workers interrupted Monday’s rally in protest.

One woman, who asked only to be identified as Adrian, held a sign reading “Listen to Sex Workers,” and another woman, who goes by SX, brought one that said “Consensual Sex Workers Against Sex Trafficking.” They shouted a common mantra for sex workers: “Nothing about us without us.” Anti-decriminalization activists attempted to step in front of them and cover their signs, and SX told Broadly hers was later confiscated by an NYPD detective.

As the rally continued, some speakers made rhetorical gestures to Adrian and SX, calling them “ignorant” of their own oppression.

“Guess what? We’re in support of those women as well,” Reverend Raymond Blanchette, a New York-based activist and pastoral psychologist, said to the crowd. “Those who believe that sex trafficking is a good thing and it allows them to express who they are. We need to let them know […] in spite of their ignorance, we’re here to support them. We love them.”

Adrian told Broadly it’s “frustrating” to be spoken about as though she doesn’t know what’s best for herself. “There are so many different experiences within the sex trade,” she said. “Some experiences are horrible and exploitative. Other people have empowering experiences. Mostly, it’s just a job—it can be very mundane. Sometimes you hate it, some days you like it. It’s really frustrating having people paint us all as victims.”

“They don’t understand the basic concept that you have ownership over your body and you have your own choice,” SX added. “That basic idea isn’t there for them. As much as they’re listening to survivors and trafficked people they’re not listening to consensual sex workers as well.”

SX and Adrian both said the conflation of sex trafficking and sex work is one of the biggest problems for moving the decriminalization movement forward. They said the misunderstanding between the two is what produced the federal anti-trafficking legislation FOSTA/SESTA, which sex workers said immediately put them at greater risk for harm on the job.

“For me, coming here today is simply to say, ‘I hear you, I see you, but this is another perspective that should be listened to and respected,'” SX reflected, saying that she also stands in support with victims of sex trafficking. “I’m not here to tell them their reality isn’t true—I’m just here to ask them to say my reality is true. Our reality is true.”

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