Stepping Toward Decriminalization

Stepping Toward Decriminalization

By Tess Joseph

On April 21, 2021, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., announced that the borough will no longer criminally prosecute people on “prostitution” and “unlicensed massage” charges, moving to dismiss cases related to anti-sex worker laws. While this historic decision brings us one step closer to decriminalization, the victory is far from complete.

Rather than focus on prosecuting people who sell sexual services, Manhattan’s D.A.’s Office will restrict their focus to prosecuting those who buy such services. Carter Sherman notes that this prosecution model threatens workers’ rights and safety: police maintain incentives to interfere with and surveil workers’ businesses, and arresting or incarcerating buyers puts workers’ incomes at risk. Moreover, as Natasha Lennard writes, there is further evidence that this model harms sex workers by “forcing them into the shadows and entrapping their loved ones and associates in the system of carceral injustice.” In essence, the D.A.’s shift toward this prosecution model is problematic in part because it is still a prosecution model. It doesn’t end criminalization: it redirects it. 

However, to quote Lennard, it’s important to recognize that, following “decades of police harassment, racist anti-trans profiling, and brutal incarceration with sometimes deadly consequences, every step toward the decriminalization of sex work is welcome.” And the D.A.’s decision is exactly that: a welcome step. 

We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation applaud the sex workers and supporters whose relentless activism led to the D.A.’s decision. We also join them in acknowledging that full decriminalization of sex work is fundamental to achieving sexual freedom, and we commit to continue advocating for decriminalization. 

Photo credit: Erik McGregor/Getty Images

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