The Case for Decriminalizing Sex Work in New York City

7 min readJan 27, 2021

Anya Milberg, an existing student intern at PROP, co-wrote the article below with her peer Rebecca Wasserman. The piece is set to be published by their high school’s newspaper in late January.

The Case for Decriminalizing Sex Work in New York City

By Anya Milberg and Rebecca Wasserman

In 2013, 34-year-old Song Yang emigrated to the United States from China with her husband Chau Chuong, then 74. Due to her husband’s age, Yang became the sole income earner in her household, responsible for supporting both Chuong and her family overseas in China. Despite trying her luck at waitressing and attempting to become a restauranteur, Yang was unable to accrue a sufficient income. Desperate for a more profitable career path, Yang turned to 40th Road, an infamous sex workers’ street in Flushing, NY. While working a job at a massage parlor, Yang was frequently arrested for prostitution. She worried that the criminal history could jeopardize any opportunities to obtain a green card.

According to documented communication between Yang and her lawyer, a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer coerced Yang into performing oral sex at gunpoint in October of 2016. Just a few weeks later, one of Yang’s clients physically abused her, leaving her battered and depressed; she did not report either incident to the authorities for fear of further harassment.

In 2017, after years of repeated abuses from both her clients and the NYPD, Yang became the target of a Queens North Vice Enforcement Squad undercover operation. After one of the undercover members posed as a client, Yang caught wind of the operation and jumped off of the building’s balcony to escape, causing severe injuries that resulted in her death the following day. At the time of her passing, as reported by The New York Times, she was weeks from returning to China to visit her family and had completed 4 of 5 appointments with Restore NYC, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping foreigners involved in New York’s sex work industry.

The New York Police Department is responsible for much of the exploitation inflicted in the city’s sex work industry. A recent Propublica article reported several cases of NYPD officers physically, sexually, and verbally harrassing sex workers while on the job. The NYPD Vice Squad, whose members investigate and prosecute crimes pertaining to public order (gambling, substances, prostitution) are most often the perpetraters of non-consensual acts. Protected by the ambiguity of their professional responsibilities, undercover officers of the Vice Squad have been known to most egregiously exploit sex workers, just as in the case of Song Yang.

Vice Squad officers are permitted to make an arrest at the moment of transaction between sex worker and client, yet the conversation need not be recorded or verified by any backup officers. In recent years, in pursuit of earning overtime and gaining larger salaries, officers have resorted to making false arrests during undercover work. There have been many documented reports of officers arresting individuals who have clearly denied undercover police propositions for sex. As a result of the manipulation and falsified charges, the city has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in reparations for the victims of the NYPD’s coercion. Much like other elements of the criminal justice system, false arrests disproportionately affect people of color. Despite the majority of clientele being white, Propublica reports that 91.5% of the NYPD’s sex work related arrests are of those who identify as individuals of color.

Among the challenges of the sex work industry is a glaring lack of safety in interactions and transactions. A 2017 HuffPost article about sex work in New York reported that more than 80% of street-based sex workers endured some form of violence while working, while 46% of indoor sex workers were coerced into performing non-consensual sexual acts for clientelle. Despite often being the victims of sexual assault, sex workers freqeuntly do not report cases of harassment for fear of criminalization. Workers across the country have been arrested by police officers while attempting to report cases of violence themselves.

To more comprehensively understand the intricacies of the industry, The Daltonian spoke with Mariah Grant, the Research, Organizing, and Advocacy Director of the Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center. In addition to supporting efforts for decriminalization, the SWP offers legal support and advocacy for members of the sex work community.

Beyond the conventional understanding of sex workers as prostitues who charge for penetrative intercourse, Grant explained that the industry has various facets, including individuals who work in adult film and pornography (“camming”), club dancing (commonly referred to as “stripping”), brothels, massage parlors, as well as those who work from their homes or on the street. “We have a very limited view of who is a sex worker, when really it’s a very expansive field.”

Grant also noted that sex work is “something that occurs on a continuum…from choice, circumstance, to coercion.” Where “choice” refers to individuals who voluntarily select sex work as their chosen career path, “circumstance” includes those who enter the industry out of financial necessity. Coercion, Grant clarified, describes situations in which there is exploitation that would meet the legal definition of trafficking.

Decriminalizing sex work would allow for the creation of safety regulations to protect both sex workers and buyers from exploitation. If decriminalized, sex workers could safely report incidents of violence and sexual assault without fear of entering the criminal justice system themselves. Removing the legal penalties for sex work is also crucial to reducing the spread of STIs, particularly HIV, among sex purchasers and sellers. According to The Lancet, the decriminalization of sex work could result in 33–46% fewer cases of HIV infection among sex workers and their buyers. This is largely because decriminalization would better position sex workers to demand that safe sex practices (including the use of contraception) be met. Additionally, the elimination of criminalization would render testing and treatment for STIs much more available for those involved in the industry.

Ending the criminalization of sex work would also abolish the broken laws that currently govern the industry. For example, The Loitering for the Purpose of Prostitution law, colloquially referred to as the ‘Walking While Trans Ban,’ allows police officers to arrest any individual “who remains or wanders about in a public place and repeatedly beckons to, or repeatedly stops, or repeatedly attempts to stop, or repeatedly attempts to engage passers-by in conversation…for the purpose of prostitution.” Passed in 1976, this law has led to extensive police profiling practices and arbitrary arrests. Those most affected by its existence have been the transgender, brown, Black, and Latinx communities, who represented a majority of the arrests under this statute in 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In recent years, the arrest numbers have only increased, with the same demographic of individuals consistently targeted based on unsubstantiated assumptions pertaining to their clothing, behavior, and appearance. If sex work is decriminalized, laws such as these would be voided, creating a safer environment for communities both involved and removed from the sex work industry.

The extent to which prostitution should be decriminalized is an area of controversy among many advocates. While some support decriminalizing the practice for all parties involved, others believe in maintaining criminal penalties for buyers — the latter of which is embodied in the Nordic model. The idea behind this form of regulation is to reduce the size of the industry, decrease trafficking, promote gender equality, and support sellers who are already involved. However, a system whereby ‘one half of the exchange’ is decriminalized is inherently flawed. When criminal penalties remain present for buyers, law enforcement continues to overpolice the industry, denying sex workers their right to privacy and liberty. Sex workers continue to be harassed and regulated by law enforcement, as it is near impossible to surveil only one side of the transaction and not the other. In countries where this type of reform has been implemented, analyses have indicated that abuse, exploitation, and demand does not decrease. As Grant noted, “We don’t see [the Nordic Model] as something that actually protects the rights of anybody. It further criminalizes entire communities and has led to really disastrous effects, mostly in Scandinavian countries…We are very clear in advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work, and that would include for people who are documented in a country as well as people who are undocumented.”

In conversation about the reformation of the sex work industry, the question of whether or not to decriminalize or legalize prostitution is frequently raised. While the act of decriminalizing removes criminal penalties, legalizing provides the framework for regulatory legislation to be passed. While there are benefits to the latter model, legalization can negatively affect those involved in the industry. Grant explained, “There’s different counties [in Nevada] that have decided to legalize the practice of sex work, but only within the confines of a brothel. And with that, it creates a division between people who are able to legally access the work and people who are still criminalized. Within that division is where vulnerability and exploitation can thrive. It doesn’t actually create a world in which sex work is valued.”

Often influencing the above discussions are misconceptions of the industry. As Grant explained, “the common refrain [among those in the industry] is that sex work is work, and just like any other labor sector, there’s possibilities that exploitation might happen. But that’s not indicative of the field itself. It’s just indicative of labor itself and that we exist in a capitalist society where people take advantage of one another…the [sex work] industry itself is not inherently exploitative.” Grant also clarified that sex work and sex trafficking are often erroneously conflated as a single issue or industry. Anti-trafficking efforts supported by prominent policymakers and politicians, she explained, frequently “seek to make it as if sex work and trafficking are one of the same when they are not.”

In a criminal justice system wherein New Yorkers are incessantly harassed, mistreated, and disrespected, it is crucial to implement reforms that value and protect the rights of all individuals. Decriminalizing sex work is a necessary step toward acheiving this goal; it will give those involved in the industry an opportunity to defend themselves against violence and abusive practices. But the reformation of the sex work industry through decriminalization will not immediately solve its existing issues. Sex work is a heavily stigmatized practice, and negative societal views of the industry continue to render it dangerous. Widespread education, such as that organized by the SWP, is a critical element of creating a secure industry. The city must address the pervasive abuses and pass concrete, comprehensive legislation to decriminalize all sex work. Together, reformation and information have the potential to restore the safety and dignity of thousands of New Yorkers.




Working to expose the abusive ineffective, unjust & illegal practices of the NYPD.