Could prostitution be next? Lawmakers across the country are beginning to reconsider how to handle prostitution, as calls for decriminalization are slowly gaining momentum.
Decriminalization bills have been introduced in Maine and Massachusetts; a similar bill is expected to be introduced to the City Council in Washington D.C. in June, and lawmakers in Rhode Island held hearings in April on a proposal to study the impact of decriminalizing prostitution.
New York may be next: Some Democratic lawmakers are about to propose a comprehensive decriminalization bill that would eliminate penalties for both women and men engaged in prostitution, as well as the johns whom they service.
The debate is unquestionably polarizing in many circles, even among advocates for sex-trafficked and abused women who fear that creating a legal path for prostitution will not eliminate, but rather actually encourage underground sex trafficking.
Decriminalization is already facing intense pushback in state capitals from opponents who call the measures naïve and potentially dangerous.
Still, the issue has crept into the Democratic Party’s nascent presidential campaign: In late February, Senator Kamala Harris of California became the first candidate to endorse some manner of decriminalization, an idea also floated by another contender, the former Colorado governor, John Hickenlooper.
Supporters of decriminalization see their efforts as part of a larger, decades-long liberalization of American mores, like lifting Sunday bans on selling alcohol and legalizing marijuana.
Prostitution is legal only in a few counties in Nevada, and even there, the brothel industry had to recently beat back a bill that would have outlawed prostitution in the state.
At a recent rally in Albany to repeal a statute criminalizing loitering for the purposes of prostitution, former sex workers stood next to lawmakers like Senator Ramos and Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, the chairman of the health committee.
A second bill would repeal loitering for the purposes of prostitution statute, a law that advocates say leads to unfair arrests of people – often transgender – for wearing skirts, carrying condoms or even “Walking while trans.” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has offered no opinion of those bills or of decriminalization, saying only that he would review such proposals.
The results of such reforms are mixed: In New Zealand, for example, which decriminalized prostitution in 2003, a 2012 study found that “The vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off” with decriminalized conditions.
The report also added that “Many sex workers were still vulnerable to ‘exploitative employment conditions'” and that some sex workers were being forced to take clients “Against their will.” It also found that “The number of sex workers, and those workers underage, do not appear to have significantly changed” because of decriminalization.
Some opponents of legalization support a form of partial decriminalization known as the “Nordic model,” or the “End Demand” approach, which emphasizes the prosecution of people who buy sex, but not those who are selling their bodies, and offers prostitutes social services instead. Such policies have high-profile supporters like Gloria Steinem, who offered her endorsement of the Nordic model at a recent demonstration at City Hall in New York City aimed at fighting efforts in Albany.
“And equally crucial not to decriminalize the pimps and traffickers who exploit them.” Adding to the complexities around the issue, some opponents of full decriminalization, like Sanctuary for Families, support vacating criminal records and eliminating loitering statutes, a position also held by Decrim NY, the coalition behind the broader decriminalization push in New York.
The decriminalization bills offered by lawmakers in Massachusetts and Maine would create systems something akin to the “Nordic Model,” eliminating criminal penalties for prostitutes, but continuing to criminalize sex buyers and pimps.
State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat who ran a successful insurgent campaign for office last year that included an endorsement of decriminalization, said that the “Nordic model” did not solve the problem of prostitution because it still made sex workers “Complicit in illegal activity.” “It still would not bring the industry to the surface,” she said.
The Maine bill was declared dead in the State Senate in late May, and other recent efforts have also stalled: in 2017 the New Hampshire House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill establishing a legislative committee to study decriminalizing sex work, like the current proposal in Rhode Island.