sex work

Are Politicians Finally Ready to Take Sex Workers Seriously?

New York state senator Jessica Ramos at the Decrim NY rally in Foley Square on February 25.
New York state senator Jessica Ramos at the Decrim NY rally in Foley Square on February 25. Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

For those involved in the sex trade, the mainstream discourse around decriminalizing sex work has never felt like much of a debate — largely because sex workers have been excluded from the conversation. Those directly impacted by laws related to the buying and selling of sexual services have time and time again told lawmakers that criminalizing their livelihood puts them in serious danger — especially black women, trans people, and undocumented immigrants, who are disproportionately targeted by police. But politicians have continued to push forward punitive policies that they mistakenly claim will protect people in the sex trade, many of which have done the exact opposite.

That could be changing though, thanks to an effort by Decrim NY, a sex worker–led coalition of 20-plus organizations working toward fully banning law enforcement from regulating the sex trade in New York. On a cold, blustery day this past February, approximately 150 people gathered at Foley Square. The attendees weren’t just those who work in the sex trades and their allies — there were also several progressive politicians present, who plan to put forward what would be the country’s most comprehensive decriminalization bill in the spring. If it successfully passes, New York would become the first state to end the criminalization of sex work.

Among them was Jessica Ramos, a freshman state senator from Jackson Heights who, along with senator Julia Salazar, has included sex workers’ rights in her platform. At the rally, she yelled into the crowd that her entire life, she’s seen the discrimination sex workers have faced in her community — and why we can no longer sweep the issue “under the rug.”

The Cut spoke to Ramos about how she formed a political position on the criminalization of the sex trade, how policing has affected her community, and how she came to be a rare elected official who actually listens to sex workers.

At the Decrim NY rally, you said that you’ve “seen sex workers on Roosevelt Avenue your entire life,” and have met with people “who want to erase the people on Roosevelt Avenue.” Could you speak a little bit about how you’ve seen sex workers treated in your community, and how that has changed over your life?
Sex work has been around since the beginning of time from what we can surmise, and we’ve never been able to collectively deter people from sex work, whether it’s by choice, circumstance, or coercion. Not everybody is trafficked, and we’ll never know who’s trafficked if we keep lumping all sex workers together. By marginalizing them and casting them aside and not realizing or acknowledging that they’re our neighbors, we haven’t included them in the conversation.

We also haven’t realized that there’s been such rampant employment and housing discrimination, especially for transgender people, but also black women, who make up 94 percent of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” arrests. We have failed in creating economic opportunities — sincere ones. And the fact of the matter is, we need to ensure that there’s work for everybody. Ultimately, if people choose to engage in sex work, they need to be able to do it in a safe way. This is a public-health issue — safe sex. We know that decriminalizing sex work contributes to lower HIV rates and other STD rates.

It’s rare to see legislation regarding sex work that actually centers the worker’s concerns — for example, proponents of FOSTA/SESTA argued that it protected sex workers, when in reality it has forced them to conduct their work under much more dangerous conditions. How have you listened to people in the sex trades to ensure that their voices are heard?
As a lawmaker, I can’t emphasize enough how important [it is] that we speak to all stakeholders involved, especially about controversial topics. We’ve always talked about sex work as something that is morally unsound, but government should not be in the business of deciding what is moral and what is not, but rather, protecting the well-being of residents. When we did talk to the sex workers, and we did hear these stories of how they ended up in this line of work — whether it was a coyote who helped them come to the United States and they’re repaying their debt, or they lost their job because they were undergoing their transition and were ultimately fired and had no other recourse — these are the stories that people need to know about so that we can really begin to understand the work and put forth as much economic empowerment and public-health policy as possible.

Do you remember the point in your life when you started to think about the discrimination and policing of sex workers as a political issue?
This is not easy for me to talk about. When I was young, in my early 20s, I was coming from Manhattan with some of my girlfriends, and it was a hot summer night. I think it was past midnight, and we were stopped on Roosevelt Avenue and 75th Street by police officers. They stopped and frisked us, emphasis on the frisking, and admitted to us that they stopped us because they thought we were working the street. It was really a dehumanizing and humiliating experience, and really helped me start thinking about how society often casts aside people who engage in “morally questionable” activity.

Being in the State Senate and taking advantage of this political climate as an opportunity to lift up those who we have seen cast aside for such a long time is a really important part of my work. I want to ensure that I am representing every single one of my neighbors. My personal political philosophy: We all do better when we all do better. In helping sex workers, we are helping the entire community.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a handful of 2020 presidential candidates — Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, for example — be pushed by reporters to give a stance on decriminalization. What did you make of their responses?
Okay, so let me address both separately. For Bernie, who said he wasn’t ready to take a position, I think that’s a very wise answer, especially if he hasn’t sat down with sex workers himself. Knowing his reputation, I’m sure at some point, he will, and it’ll be interesting what he decides is his policy. With Kamala Harris, I really appreciate her leading the conversation onto the national stage, but like many sex workers who are wary of her work as Attorney General, as a policy-maker, I have concerns around her support for the Nordic model [which criminalizes the buying but not the selling of sex], which we’ve seen does not really work. When you’re policing the customers, you’re policing the workers, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

The Nordic model would truly hurt my community. I have many undocumented single men in my district who often seek company, and we’ve heard of stories where police go undercover as sex workers in order to lure them and then arrest them, and that of course ends up affecting our community. We could be ripping them away from their families — these people, who are part of the fabric of my community. Ultimately, the Nordic model doesn’t help us achieve a reduction in violence or really recognize the dignity in sex work.

Do you think decriminalization could become one of the next big progressive issues?
I’m not the best at making predictions, but I can promise you that I will try my best to do right by my neighbors.

Are Politicians Finally Ready to Take Sex Workers Seriously?