Two op eds about the current state of affairs in the field of sex work appeared recently, a week apart, in the Daily News. The one published March 1, 2019, by Melanie Thompson, a sex trafficking survivor, was given the title “Hell no to legal prostitution.” On March 8, 2019, the op ed by Heather Robinson, a journalist, was entitled, “Stand up for powerless women.”
The first one argues compellingly against a drive by state senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos, joined by State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, to legalize what is called prostitution—a term considered dehumanizing by some activists, who prefer to call it commercial sexual exploitation. The other op ed argues strongly for programs to give women job training and protection from situations in which they are tricked and trapped by unscrupulous employers into doing sex work.
This is not a victimless crime. Nor are the women caught up in this institution criminals; they are victims. They should not be arrested; but those with money and power who participate in this sordid and abusive trade, taking advantage of women who are given no means of escape, should be. Legalization would only promote these fiends.
Ms. Robinson focuses on shady massage parlors such as the one Patriots owner Robert Kraft is accused of frequenting. There are 9,000 massage parlors in the U.S., and many of them, though not all, are likely to be sex trafficking dens, according to experts. A typical scenario is that Asian women are lured from overseas with the promise of legitimate jobs and then are forced, with threats of violence, into letting their bodies be used for sex so that the men controlling them can collect the profits. The women may lack English language skills and are usually poor; they lack support systems and job skills. One survivor of such exploitation is cited by Ms. Robinson as estimating that about 90 percent of the women in those places are coerced. Some are doing “survival sex,” so called because they have no other option. The survivor, an Indonesian named Shankar Woworuntu, says, “Men, you don’t know the woman you are buying…It’s not a happy ending for [her].” (“Happy ending” is a term for sex after a massage.)
Ms. Robinson says the U.S. Department of Homeland Security definition of human trafficking is “modern-day slavery involving use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex acts.” Ms. Thompson, the sex-trafficking survivor who wrote the other op ed, argues that this “is neither sex nor work, but an inherently harmful practice, rooted in gendered violence and discrimination based on sex and race.” Most of the women are black or brown “like me,” she says. She describes what it’s like for American-born black or brown women: “Black women and girls represent about 7 percent of the U.S. population, yet by some measures are more than half of those in the sex trade.” Many of them are violently abused: “I can’t describe on this page what these men have done to me. Why would New York want to legalize indescribable violence?” Her life as a trafficked human began when she was only 12.
She counters a common argument for legalization—that it would empower sex workers to come out of the shadows and report crimes against them. Since it is, in fact, an inherently abusive, violent and exploitative trade, no legalization would empower these women. They need the means to get out of the business.
“New Yorkers should know,” she explains, “that the vast majority of people in prostitution were sex-trafficked as children, homeless, sexually abused, in foster care or otherwise racially and economically marginalized. When they turn 18 they don’t become ‘consenting adults’ who stay freely in the sex trade. The trauma they experienced never goes away.”
Ms. Thompson was often arrested as if she were a criminal; she says, “I was blamed for my agony.”
Ms. Robinson, the journalist, cites other activists and those working to help victims of trafficking who say that the #MeToo movement, the Robert Kraft case and the increased recognition of women as achievers have created a moment when sex trafficking can be brought to national attention and combatted. Job training and other means of assistance are desperately needed by these women.
Then there is the situation of people who engage in sex work to pay excessive college tuition, as highlighted in the Roger Paradiso film The Lost Village. They are well educated and apparently not disadvantaged, but are caught in a dilemma with seemingly unavoidable choices that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. They are not unusual, though. They, too, need help through pressuring colleges to lower their tuitions and provide other forms of help. Can lower-cost schools provide good schooling? Maybe.
Popular dramas on film and stage have sometimes romanticized sex work, making it appear carefree and happy. If we looked at them in a different light we might see such a career, if it can be called that, would ultimately not be fulfilling; but even more important, how in real life the “oldest profession” is dangerous, demeaning, enslaving and prone to be run by crime syndicates. Has anyone ever heard of a kind and honest pimp?
An inquiry to state senators Hoylman and Gottfried received the reply that currently there was no bill on this subject. However, Hoylman also wrote: “I carry legislation to repeal a section in New York’s penal code (240.37) that criminalizes loitering in a public place by anyone whom the police determine is present for the purposes of prostitution. Under the law, “purpose” is not defined, leaving the reason of one’s presence up to the discretion of the arresting officer. That means that on any street, sidewalk, bridge, plaza, park, subway or inside a vehicle, New Yorkers can be arrested for repeatedly beckoning or attempting to engage passersby in conversation, if police interpret these actions as an intent to engage in prostitution. They can also be surveilled, searched, and detained if any office[r] takes issue with their clothing. Communities of color, LGBTQ people, and other vulnerable New Yorkers have long said that they are disproportionately targeted under the law, just because of who they are.
“No bill has been introduced yet by the sponsors of any broader decriminalization effort, Senator Ramos (D-Queens) and Senator Salazar (D-Brooklyn), so I can’t speak to the details of the proposal, but I agree that the goal of any decriminalization legislation must be to empower and protect sex workers, not enable those who would seek to exploit them.”
Ms. Thompson had been under the impression that the proposed legislation covered considerably more. News articles on this subject have been somewhat confusing, but also conveyed a similar impression. This may be due to the fact that some activists seem to have pushed for full legalization of sex work.
I hope that by saying he advocates for protection and empowerment of sex workers, Hoylman means “empowerment” in the sense of counseling, training and job opportunities that would enable a person to break completely free of sex work. The sex trade itself should not be legalized.
Let us oppose legalization of sex work and do what we can to promote all the kinds of assistance needed by these women—NOW. Sex work is not the choice of women who are able to do anything else to support themselves and find happiness. And let’s not forget that there are also men who need help getting out of the sex trade.