Cecilia Gentili, originally from Argentina, was undocumented for much of her time in the United States. She’s been incarcerated for substance use and trading sex, hassled by immigration agents at Rikers, and struggled for years to find access to unbiased medical care. Like many sex workers, when she was in unsafe situations she feared being wrung through the criminal justice system more than almost anything else.
Since getting clean and being granted asylum almost a decade ago Gentili has been active in a number of organizations, most recently working as a director of policy at the AIDS organization GMHC. But “one thing I’ve always wanted to take part in was the decriminalization of sex work,” she tells Jezebel. “Because of having a history of being arrested for doing the work that allowed me to survive.”
Gentili is a member of the steering committee for the recently launched Decrim NY, a coalition of legislators, activists, and sex workers who on Monday announced a campaign to entirely decriminalize sex work in New York. Since July of last year, members have been meeting in preparation, spurred in part by that month’s SESTA/FOSTA legislation, an anti-trafficking law that shuttered some of the only spaces where sex workers could control their clients and trade information about bad actors. Now more than 20 organizations have signed on to their effort.
The group, in collaboration with a handful of politicians including senators Jessica Ramos, Julia Salazar, and Brad Hoylman, intends to introduce comprehensive state legislation this spring. “This is always an urgent issue that targets the most economically vulnerable and unseen,” says Nina Luo, another steering committee member. “But they’ve been pushed into even more vulnerable places, with fewer clients and lost platforms... it makes the work very dangerous.”
Where other attempts to dismantle the policies that shuffle sex workers between stark categories of victim and criminal have stalled, members of Decrim NY hope to leverage a reactive political climate to make New York the first state in the country to successfully enact this kind of reform. They point to the stances of the federal government as an oppositional rallying point: “Trans Latina women get picked up [for sex work] and deported,” says Luo. “We can address immigrant rights and trans rights at the same time.”
Unlike the so-called “Nordic model,” which punishes the people who buy sex rather than those who sell it, the group is hoping to create something responsive to what they understand to be their community’s needs. That means decriminalizing the practice entirely: the Nordic model is “as dangerous as policing,” says Gentili. In interviews earlier in the week, activists anticipated pushback on that point, and since their launch, presidential hopeful and senator Kamala Harris has publicly favored decriminalization for the first time. But her stances, informed by some of the ideas sex workers and their advocates say they’ve come to distrust, show that even to self-identifying progressives full decriminalization is still a radical idea.
Though even Amnesty International voted to endorse full decriminalization three years ago, reform in America has been slow. Anti-trafficking organizations invoke ghoulish scenarios and claim decriminalization will make women unsafe. Traumatic policing tactics—including, but certainly not limited to, the undercover police work and hidden cameras used to charge Patriots owner Robert Kraft—are dominant across the country.
Center-leaning politicians have been reticent to push for sex workers’ rights, which as Ramos said at a press conference on Monday was “one of the most taboo conversations for us to be having as a society.” Undoing the stigma around sex work—and the policing practices that harm people who trade sex—has been a long and largely unresolved process. Last year, a group called Decrim Now introduced a bill to remove criminal penalties from selling and buying sex in Washington, D.C. It has been stalled since its introduction.
Kamala Harris’s statements to The Root on Tuesday reflect the difficulty many politicians have with harm reduction models for sex work, or considering the complexities of a massive industry: Harris, who voted in favor of SESTA/FOSTA and once said decriminalizing sex work in San Fransisco would “put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on in” told the publication she stood by her SESTA vote. But, she added, when “you’re talking about consenting adults” sex work should be decriminalized. “There is an ecosystem around that that includes crimes that harm people,” she added, who should be prosecuted aggressively. (In the interview, she referred to those people as “johns.”) What all of that actually looked like in practice, Harris didn’t say.
On Wednesday, Decrim NY responded to Harris, saying her call for a model that criminalized people who buy sex, particularly following her previous positions, rang false. “It’s about political opportunism while still getting to do the dangerous moralizing on sex work that, quite literally, kills people in our country,” Lou wrote in a statement.
There is overwhelming research supporting the idea that police and state interaction with sex workers makes an already vulnerable population even more unsafe, and that laws as they’re currently written, in addition to being absurd and ripe for abuse, facilitate deeply biased practices. For undocumented immigrants—and 9 out of 10 massage parlor workers arrested in raids are immigrants—the criminalization of sex work has high stakes: ICE agents are known to use New York sex trafficking courts to track and detain the undocumented. Police routinely harass and abuse sex workers, targeting them and demanding sex in exchange for avoiding arrest. In at least eight states, it is illegal to “loiter for the purpose of prostitution.” As Melissa Gira-Grant reported for the Village Voice in 2016, NYPD officers have used the law to arrest people simply for wearing a mini dress or tight jeans. In the Bronx and Queens, a full 94 percent of people arrested under this law are black women. As Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos noted in an op-ed in the Daily News on Monday, the law so frequently targets trans people Legal Aid filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutional basis.
On the city level, Decrim NY is advocating for a broad range of measures, including an end to arrest mandates, the expunging of records relating to prostitution charges, and diverting funding from enforcement to harm reduction programs. And by expunging records related to arrests, committee member Aya Tasaki says, the group hopes “people can end their ongoing entanglement with the criminal legal system and move on with their lives.” Currently, says Gentili, most social services are oriented around trafficking victims—she still remembers telling a doctor she was a sex worker, and the doctor attempting to save her as if she were part of a criminal ring. “In reality we need services like anybody else,” she says. “Can you get me housing? Can you help me get my act together around my substance use? Can you help me get a breast exam?”
Going forward, “I think the most important part is to educate lawmakers,” she adds. “We’re your neighbors and your siblings. We use the same supermarket as you.”