Legal Rights for Sex Workers Liberate People of Color

From the laws that made it illegal for enslaved people to marry and learn how to read, to the earliest drug laws, stop-and-frisk, and the “War on Drugs,” the American legal system has continuously and systematically targeted people of color. But there might be an inkling of hope, as the past few years have seen the rise of social justice movements led by and for people of color.

One such movement is Decrim NY, a New York City-based coalition comprised of current and former sex workers and their allies. The group aims to decriminalize sex work in New York state. Although there are sex workers of all genders, discussions about decriminalization of sex work usually center around female sex workers because four out of five sex workers are female.

Newly-elected state Senators Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) wrote an open letter to the New York Daily News last month outlining their position on sex work. Along with Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the two women are bringing a bill to the state Senate that would fully decriminalize sex work. They’re also not shy about highlighting how anti-sex work laws disproportionately affect people of color and trans people.

“Criminalization encourages rampant abuses by law enforcement,” the senators wrote. “An estimated 94 percent of people arrested for the loitering for the purposes of prostitution in Brooklyn and Queens are Black women. Police so often use the statute to target trans people, including individuals who aren’t trading sex, that Legal Aid filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.”

Community activist Cecilia Gentili, a member of Decrim NY’s Steering Committee, takes an even more explicit stance against the criminalization of sex work. “This kind of legislation is really racist. They are specifically put out there to increase criminalization of Brown and Black bodies.”

When asked why she thinks sex workers are finally getting real political support in New York, Gentili noted how this new wave of young politicians are more racially and economically diverse than ever before. Jessica Ramos, for example, “grew up in Jackson Heights, in an area specifically known for trans-Latinas working in the sex trade.”

“I think this new wave of politicians in New York City and New York state are much more connected with reality and their constituents,” Gentili said. “[Ramos understands that] everyone lives in the same Jackson Heights, and it shouldn’t be a crime to do what you have to do.”

Gentili added that much of the anti-sex worker activism of the past and present comes from white women, especially self-identified feminists. She pointed specifically to Carolyn Maloney, a senator representing the 12th district of New York, who was one of the co-sponsors of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). FOSTA is a federal bill that passed last year that was ostensibly to fight sex trafficking but, in reality, targeted and harmed all communities that trade sex for money. “A very privileged white woman trying to draw policy for my community?” Gentili said. “What the f— is that?”

Gentili’s outrage points to another aspect of the anti-sex work movement: The White Savior complex. Whether it’s “radical” feminists on the left or conservative religious groups on the right, White Saviors seem to believe it’s their mission to “save” sex workers — who are disproportionately women of color — from the life. Gentili is not having it.

“They’re trying to speak for me, a trans woman of color, about what’s good for me,” she said. “Check this out: I know what’s good for me. I know exactly what’s good for me and what I need to do to be okay.”

When asked if she thinks it’s significant that the politicians who are working with Decrim NY are largely women of color, Gentili laughed. “Of course! Everything that is good in life comes from women of color.”


About the Author

Emma McGowan is a veteran blogger, SFSI-endorsed sex educator, and Bustle’s sex advice columnist at Sex IDK. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Startups.co, Unbound, Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot’s The Kernel, Mic, Bedsider, and The Bold Italic.