The Fight to Decriminalize Sex Work Exposes Old Feminist Divides


This is an unprecedented political moment for the rights of sex workers, due in large part to the sustained organizing of sex workers themselves. Signs of this are everywhere—last month, Kamala Harris spoke approvingly of decriminalizing the sale of sex between “consenting adults,” a move that Melissa Gira Grant, a longtime journalist covering the industry, wrote “represents a major win for sex workers,” Harris’s past work as a prosecutor notwithstanding. Weeks earlier, Decrim NY, a new coalition pushing for the full decriminalization of the sex trade in New York was launched, led primarily by sex workers, anti-violence activists, and LGBTQ service providers. As part of that effort, newly elected New York state senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar announced they plan on introducing legislation to decriminalize the sex trade later this spring. All of this in the span of months.

As Molly Crabapple noted recently in the New York Review of Books, sex workers began organizing around full decriminalization in earnest in 2018:

That April, the US Congress passed FOSTA/SESTA, twin bills that stripped sex workers of the ability to advertise or seek support online by making websites criminally liable for their postings. This impoverished the community, forcing some workers back to pimps or onto streets, where they faced arrest or assault.”
In response, sex workers—both young women and longtime activists—got together and mobilized to fight for full decriminalization of their work.

The complete decriminalization of the sex trade is an approach that has gained traction in recent years, with even groups such as Amnesty International calling for “the decriminalization of all aspects of adult consensual sex work due to the foreseeable barriers that criminalization creates to the realization of the human rights of sex workers.” But as with every successful movement, there has been a backlash, led by longstanding feminist organizations that continue to assert that sex work is, to use the words of Gloria Steinem, a form of “body invasion.” Full decriminalization, no matter the studies that have been conducted, the first-hand experiences of many sex workers or people otherwise targeted with anti-prostitution laws, and the endorsements from human rights organizations, is still seen as a radical idea, and more to the point, one that some feminists believe is antithetical to the needs of women.

On Monday, some of those divisions were on display in New York City, when a coalition of organizations pulled together by the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women held a press conference and rally to push back against the planned legislation in New York (several speakers, tellingly, called it the “Pimp Protection Act”) and to call instead for what is commonly described as the Nordic, or End Demand, model—the decriminalization of sex workers, while continuing to keep the purchase of sex a crime.

“The sex trade could be coming to a neighborhood near you,” NOW-NY president Sonia Ossorio warned, as reported by Broadly. “If the wholesale legalization of the sex trade comes to New York, what would that look like? 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 Representative Carolyn Maloney echoed Ossorio: “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.”

Yet many sex workers and advocates argue that the Nordic model makes their work more dangerous by pushing them further underground, and that criminalizing the purchase of sex has ripple effects that make their work more ripe for violence and exploitation. As Decrim NY wrote in a statement after Monday’s rally: “The Nordic Model is criminalization, and it puts people who trade sex at increased risk of violence, economic instability, and labor exploitation.” The coalition also noted that Ramos’s and Salazar’s planned legislation would “explicitly build in protections for people trading sex, especially trafficking survivors, so they have recourse against violence and exploitation.”

Two sex workers who interrupted Monday’s press conference—with one shouting, “Listen to sex workers. Nothing about us without us”—told the Daily Beast they were there to protest the idea that sex work can never be consensual as well as the idea that all sex workers are victims.

As one of them, who uses the name SXNoir, told the Daily Beast, “It’s important for us to be here because we are consensual sex workers, and the idea that sex work can never be consensual is just wrong.”

“Just with the language that’s been used here … it’s basically painting us as victims, which is not our story,” the second woman, who identified herself as Adrienne, said. “People have that story and I think that’s valid. But that’s not my story and that’s not a lot of people’s stories, and those deserve to be heard as well.”

When Jezebel spoke with NOW-NY’s Ossorio the morning after the rally, she stressed that there’s much she and advocates for full decriminalization agree on. “We don’t want to see women arrested over prostitution,” she said.

But she is skeptical that the Nordic model—what NOW-NY has described as a “middle ground”—further marginalizes sex workers, despite evidence to the contrary. “Decriminalizing it for the people who are selling but not for the buyers, who are the ones who walk into that transaction with the upper hand, it’s somehow now going to put the women who’ve just been decriminalized in a far more dangerous situation?” Ossorio asked. “I don’t see how it’s pushed more to the margins.”

It’s worth noting, however, that Amnesty International found that in Norway, police officers continued to harass and target sex workers, despite the legal status of their work. From the Nation:

Mercy, a Nigerian sex worker in Oslo, told Amnesty researchers how she was essentially punished for trying to report a rape and violent robbery. After she was threatened at knifepoint, along with the other women working in the same house, she said the police took two or three hours to come. “[W]e went back to the house and, two days later, the landlord threw us out,” she said. “The police put pressure on the landlord. She gave us half a day to get out.” Mercy, along with the other women, was suddenly homeless. “I had to wander around Oslo for hours with my bags until I found somewhere to stay.”
They are not alone. In Oslo, Amnesty found that police “used sex workers’ reports of violence to facilitate their eviction and/or their deportation.” Sex workers reported routine harassment by police, targeting migrant and Nigerian sex workers in particular. Police still regard sex workers as evidence of a social problem—as sex work has been redefined in Norway. They are also easy targets.

And the press conference highlighted another aspect of the debate around decriminalization and its opponents—the anti-decriminalization movement’s uncomfortable overlap with trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs. After journalists Melissa Gira Grant and Emma Whitford pointed out that the United Kingdom-based group OBJECT was in attendance, with two members standing in the back holding a sign denouncing “transgenderism,” groups participating at the rally, as well as Representative Carolyn Maloney, moved to distance themselves from OBJECT and issued apologies.

Ossorio told me the British group had not been invited to the press conference, and that she and others at NOW-NY did not know who the organization was until they looked up their website afterwards. (Though their visible presence at a fairly contained press conference raises questions about why they were allowed to remain.)

Yet for all of the statements of support for trans rights, opponents to full decriminalization are often at odds with trans sex workers. “I’m not surprised the trans community was targeted here. We fight to decriminalize the sex trades because it is a matter of survival for our community,” Mateo Guerrero-Tabares, a Decrim NY steering committee member, said in a statement.

Bianey Garcia, a former sex worker, trafficking survivor, and a Decrim NY steering committee member added: “As a formerly undocumented trans woman of color, I know what I need to be safe from violence and exploitation. […] And criminalizing our clients, housing, loved ones, and the sex workers we collaborate with to keep each other safe means taking away our only means of survival.”

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