Bills to Decriminalize Prostitution in NY: Danger for Victims, Protection for Pimps

“You can’t protect the exploited by protecting the exploiters.”

- Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women

In June of this year, lawmakers in New York introduced bills to decriminalize prostitution. The proposed legislation is the first of its kind in the state, and the broadest decriminalization initiative ever in the United States. The proposal aims to legalize both the buying and selling of sex between “consenting” adults, while keeping prohibitions on trafficking, coercion, and abuse of minors in place.

According to their website, the mission of Decrim NY, the coalition behind the decriminalization effort, is to “improve the lives of people who perform sexual labor by choice, circumstance, or coercion, people profiled as such, and communities impacted by the criminalization of sex work and sexual exchange.”

The coalition cites a national poll by Data for Progress which found that “Democratic voters support decriminalizing sex work by a 3-to-1 margin,” and “Nearly 60% of Democrats support the New Zealand model, which removes criminal penalties for adults selling and paying for consensual sex, versus just 17% who oppose.”

So what effect does the New Zealand model have on the lives of so-called “sex-workers?” One survivor of the country’s prostitution system had this to say about her experience: “I thought legal prostitution would give more power and rights to the women, but I soon realized the opposite was true.”

Read the previous blog post here: The Thing With Feathers

In their list of goals, Decrim NY mentions those who purchase sex only in passing, preferring to focus on the benefits that full decriminalization would have on sex workers, but it’s the johns and pimps that truly to stand to gain from the proposed bills. Allowing men to purchase sex without legal consequence increases the demand for prostitution, which makes selling women’s bodies more lucrative for traffickers and results in more women being trafficked to meet the demand.

By comparing data from countries where prostitution was legalized with those where it was illegal, the European Journal of Law and Economics found that trafficking and sexual exploitation are most prominent in countries that had legalized prostitution. In contrast, the 2013 study also found “a causal link from harsher prostitution laws to reduced trafficking.”

Germany, referred to as “Europe’s biggest brothel,” has seen the effects of legalizing the sex trade in the form of online virgin auctions, outdoor “sex boxes,” drive-in sex stalls, mega-brothels and “all-you-can-consume 24/7 flat-rate sex buffets.” Across the country over a million men purchase sex daily from an estimated 400,000 women, most of whom are from Eastern Europe and underdeveloped countries.

And who are the men purchasing them? Alison Phillips, an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City specializing in human trafficking, explains that according to data from police records, Buyer’s Education programs, and surveys of survivors, the majority of sex buyers are “Caucasian, have more than a high school education, are married or in a committed relationship, and have one or more children. The professions commonly cited are lawyers, doctors, judges, politicians, teachers, police officers, priests and pastors, salesmen, and construction workers.”

A 2011 study found that sex buyers, the men that the New York decriminalization bills would protect, have an increased propensity for committing violence against women. Fifteen percent of sex buyers surveyed said they would rape a woman if they thought it wouldn’t be discovered, versus only two percent of men who hadn’t purchased sex.

Phillips explains:

“At the heart of sex trafficking, prostitution, commercial sexual exploitation, whatever label we want to affix to sex-for-money situations, is the reality of one person choosing to use their power, privilege, prestige and wealth/disposable income to exploit the vulnerabilities of another person who usually has little to no choices, and much less power, privilege, prestige and wealth.”

 This power imbalance is never more apparent than in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy financier charged with operating a sex trafficking ring that catered to the rich and famous—from high-level politicians to Hollywood actors—and exploiting dozens of minors. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell this month as a result of an apparent suicide, meaning he won’t have to face the charges brought against him in court. However, the case has highlighted the potential for restorative justice in the form of asset forfeiture and civil lawsuits being filed against Epstein’s estate.

The only way to protect the women and girls being exploited in the sex trade is to stop demand. Asset forfeiture is one of many measures that can be taken to deter buyers, in addition to implementing more serious legal consequences, including punitive fines and prison time, and not allowing them to plea their charges to smaller offenses. As advocates, we can also make their behavior publicly known and implement restorative programs like buyer’s education classes.

A better alternative to full decriminalization being proposed in New York is abolition or the Nordic model. This model targets sex buyers, pimps, and traffickers by criminalizing the purchase of sex as a felony level offense and protects women in prostitution through social services and exit opportunities. As seen in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, France, and Israel, wherever policies that focus on eliminating demand are put in place, the prevalence of sex trafficking drops.

If Decrim NY truly hopes to improve the lives of the vulnerable women and girls caught in the sex trade, #abolition should be their new rallying cry.


Proverbs 31: 8-9