Moderator’s Note: Social Democrats USA currently has no position on the issue of sex work, but several members have expressed a strong interest in exploring the issue and educating ourselves as well as other progressives.  To that end, last June 30, SD USA hosted a panel on sex work at the 2019 Left Forum, held at Brooklyn’s Long Island University, entitled, ”Will Sex Workers See the Light of Day? Prospects for Decriminalization.” I moderated a panel featuring New York State Senator Julia Salazar and Kate Zen of DeCrimNY.  Salazar spoke about sex work decriminalization legislation she is co-sponsoring with her colleague, State Senator Jessica Ramos; if passed, Senate Bill 6419 would be the first of its kind in the nation.  I’ve known Kate Zen since we met in the NYC chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project back in the early 2010s and are now active in DeCrimNY, which lobbies to empower one of the most marginalized groups of the working class – sex workers. The following is an expanded and updated version of her Left Forum presentation. –> SHELDON RANZ

The voices and concerns of sex workers need to be at the forefront of the conversation about decriminalization of the sex trade.

The lives of sex workers should not be merely an intellectual and theoretical debate. As sex workers and as allies who have walked alongside sex workers struggling to survive under capitalism, we believe it’s important to center the voices of the most marginalized people in the sex trades, when discussing policies and resolutions about their/our lives. We are not fighting just for abstract ideas about women’s bodies; we’re fighting for real people’s material needs and safety from violence, including police violence — and these are people with opinions about their own livelihoods, who deserve respect, dignity and equality, but have long been excluded from the policy table.

As such, we ask that sex workers not to be framed as victims or criminals, but as complex human beings, making difficult decisions under the constraints of poverty and many other intersecting forms of marginalization. Characterizing all people who choose to work in the sex trades as victims takes away their agency. It infantilizes and silences their voices, making it easier to spread misinformation about them under the guise of “care,” while making it more difficult for them to organize for better labor conditions.

A dult sex workers engaged in consensual exchange of sexual services are being pitted against selected survivors and youth, whose testimonies are used by anti-prostitution advocates to deny any validity or humanity to the wide range of stories from other people in the sex industry. While we understand that sex work can often be violent and risky, and that the stories and voices of survivors and youth are extremely important, the violence we all experience stems from the criminalization of not just the trade, but of LGBTQ folks, non-citizens, poor people, people of color, and other marginalized communities.

Existing criminal laws against prostitution do harm to survivors of trafficking, by enabling racially discriminatory policing to arrest and convict the people who need the most support. Youth caught in anti-trafficking sting operations are harmed by arrest records and put back into abusive homes without sufficient access to resources that they need. The Chinese massage parlor workers caught in a “rescue raid” in Florida this past year were arrested and unlawfully detained in “safe housing” to endure months of interrogation, while wealthy profiteers like Jeffrey Epstein who exploit hundreds of youth escaped punishment for decades.

After decades of work within the sex worker community, the anti-trafficking Freedom Network (ex. Womankind), which provides services to thousands of people convicted on prostitution charges, joined a global alliance of anti-trafficking organizations that have determined that criminalization is harmful and traumatic for survivors; and that doing real anti-trafficking work must go hand-in-hand with full decriminalization.

From the Thai and Cambodian garment workers who turn to the sex industry because of the exploitative conditions of garment factories, to the nail salon workers and restaurant workers in Flushing, Queens, who turn to massage parlor work because of the low-paid and bodily extractive labor of nail salons and restaurants, most people who choose to work in the sex industry are doing so in order to escape more punitive, low-paid work that may have stricter schedules prohibitive to people with disabilities, mothers, students, and many people who are primary caretakers for their families. Yet the “rescue raids” which target the most vulnerable sex workers often force them back into garment factories and other low-paid work as a way to “rehabilitate” workers into serving global capital.

In Flushing, Queens, the majority of Chinese immigrant massage workers turn to this work simply because it pays better than nail salon work and restaurant work. Many migrants have large debts to pay for entering the country. Other low-wage work pays too little in a city where living costs are so high, making it difficult to escape compounding debt. Massage work is frequently seen as the most sensible way for some immigrants to free themselves from debt bondage. While this is a difficult decision, by and large, most people are not doing this work against their will any more than other types of immigrant work. It’s the job of allies to support their agency as well as to help people leave this work who no longer want to be there. According to Project Free Director Mary Caparas at Womankind, police raids are harmful to both migrant sex workers and trafficking victims. Due to stigma, the public spreads harmful misinformation about this industry, using the excuse of anti-trafficking to allow for violent arrest, deportation, and even the deaths of migrant sex workers like Yang Song, who was killed in a police raid in November, 2017.

Across the country, very few police raids on migrant businesses result in any actual convictions of trafficking. Like the heavily publicized case of Robert Kraft and the Asian Orchids of Day Spa in Florida, zero convictions of human trafficking were found, even after a lengthy 8-month multi-agency investigation. In this process, the right to habeas corpus of many migrant workers was violated, and their life savings stolen away from them by law enforcement. How was this helpful in fighting the exploitation of these migrant women?

The majority of clients of Chinese massage parlors in Flushing are Latino workers, just as the majority of men arrested on solicitation charges and sent to Johns Schools in the United States are not white men but people of color. Most of these workers are separated by borders from their own families, to earn a profit for their employers. Borders serve as a way to cut the reproductive cost of labor from employers, and pass these costs onto the worker — as the grandparents of migrant children take on the costs of raising the daughters and sons of migrant workers.

There are many forms of bodily work that primarily employ men, such as military conscription, farming, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad or the massive sites of luxury building in Dubai and other global cities where deadly trafficking is currently taking place. Accompanying these are other forms of bodily labor from women, who have always worked, sometimes forcibly, to provide sexual services near military bases, by the bachelor houses of Chinese railroad workers, and in the red light districts surrounding rich, urbanizing cities that are being built up by migrants. Borders, and the wars waged to protect them, serve as a way of maintaining global aristocracies, maintaining low labor costs, and segregating the sexuality of immigrants. As in the case of the Chinese Exclusion Acts following the building of the railroads, they have also been a way of preventing the reproduction and full integration of an unwanted race in the country.

In these spaces of coerced labor, where all migrant bodies are exploited by the systems of global Capital, the migrant massage parlor so often serves as a place of comfort, healing, and survival — for both the immigrant men and women struggling to maintain wholeness within a capitalist state that coercively cuts them apart with borders and arbitrated currencies.

Sex workers and their allies are often dismissed by anti-prostitution activists as “liberal feminists”. However, the sex worker movement is built on a strong critique of capitalism, and identifies more strongly with socialist feminism. Most people in sex trades are working to survive the capitalist system that we are working towards overturning. For some, sex work provides a space to escape more oppressive workplaces under the current neoliberal economic system, such as shipping centers and electronics factories. Women throughout history have also relied on sex work to survive outside the system of patriarchal marriage, when domestic violence, widowhood, or lesbianism left them no other options. Sex work is work, because so many people depend on it as such; they do it regularly to gain income necessary to house and feed themselves and their families.

No one should be forced to do this work. Any kind of non-consensual sex work is NOT work, but slavery. We need to distinguish between the two, while also fighting against the real legacy of chattel slavery in the United States, which is mass incarceration. Sex workers are the best partners for fighting trafficking; and supporting sex work decriminalization is also part of the broader movement towards prison abolition.

Opponents of sex worker organizing often slander the movement as a “pimp lobby.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The underfunded grassroots sex worker organizations across the United States are built up entirely by workers. The sex work decrim movements in D.C. and NYC are primarily led by black and brown, immigrant and trans workers, who are the ones most frequently criminalized by anti-prostitution laws. (The same cannot be said about the people who oppose us, who advocate the abolition of the sex industry.) There are no customers or managers in our organizing spaces, and we are not in the least bit interested in promoting the rights of “pimps” or “johns”. In fact, we are asking for full decrim in order to be able to engage in labor organizing, to transfer power away from management into the hands of workers.

The sex worker movement is “anti-pimping” and anti-corporate, which is why we’re not advocating for legalization, but for decriminalization. Legalization, in the German or Dutch context, is a regulatory framework that continues to put power into the hands of capitalist industries through expensive licenses and public listings, which exclude poor workers and migrant sex workers who can not gain a license. The goal of decrim is to allow for self-determination, and for the industry to be worker-run and led. Following the New Zealand Model of full decriminalization, we believe that any non-sex worker involved in the industry should be required to have an “operator’s license”. Ideally, in addition to the criminal background check that the New Zealand Model mandates, this licensing would also be substantively useful in certifying that managers are complying with labor regulations, and providing licensed fiduciary or administrative services to sex workers, who hold the power of employing and firing them, rather than the other way around. Instead of criminalizing “pimps”, we want sex workers to work independently, or in collectives with other sex workers, or be the bosses of their “pimps”, having access to licensed professionals, such as accountants, bodyguards, and drivers, just like any other industry.

We are opposed to current laws against “pimping”, which are overly broad, and often used to target landlords, drivers, phone girls, partners who share rent or living expenses, and especially other sex workers working side-by-side. These laws effectively isolate sex workers and contribute to making the industry more dangerous. Instead of criminalization, sex workers want to transform this industry from the inside, by pushing out exploitative management, asserting new norms of what is acceptable or unacceptable treatment in workplaces, and creating more respectful working environments that can serve as the norm within the sex industry. The current campaign against criminalization is just the first of many future fights for sex workers’ rights as workers, but it is necessary to lay the groundwork for our continued labor struggles to come. We are committed to working towards the transformation of the oppressive dynamics within the sex industry itself, and not normalizing the violence within the sex industry by insisting that all sex work is inherently violent.

Equating all sex work to “sexual exploitation” is harmful to people in sex trades, because it makes it so that we are unable to organize against specific forms of exploitation that we experience in our day-to-day jobs. As survivors of rape and sexual assault, we know how to distinguish between actual rape and a consensual paid date with a client. It is dangerous for us when outsiders to the industry try to erase the distinction between the two through metaphorical rhetoric. We are not your metaphor — we are people! We strongly believe that an employment law approach, combined with robust collective bargaining rights, would be more effective than using the broad stroke of criminal law to fight against specific forms of exploitation that we experience in the sex industry. Sex workers need the same employment protections and benefits as other workers, including healthcare, unemployment benefits, healthy and safe working environments, reasonable working hours and vacations.

Sex worker-exclusionary, anti-prostitution advocates defend a “right to exit”, which we think is a misleading framework. We all agree that people in the sex trade who are there against their will should have the right to exit. In fact, we advocate for the right of sex workers to refuse any client for any reason during their shifts, as part of the basic employment rights of a sex worker. We also believe that sex workers should have equal access to financial services and sound financial planning advice, instead of being taken advantage of by intermediaries or staying dangerously unbanked — so that they could plan wisely for smooth transition into other careers, or invest for retirement.

There are bakeries and small businesses dotting the landscape of Queens that were started by immigrant women who only had their bodies as capital. Similarly, in Thailand, there are farms and houses bought by young rural women who travelled to cities to earn money that would support their family for years to come. Instead of thanking sex workers for the ways that they have contributed to their communities and bolstering the economies of whole developing nations, these hidden heroes of our society are subjected to violent shame.

How can the consent and agency of a sex worker can be protected? The Nordic Model (or “Equality Model”) proposes relying on prisons and police to enforce “partial criminalization” on customers and third parties. It is naïve to assume that the criminalization of pimps and johns will not introduce police violence, surveillance, and interference into sex workers’ lives in harmful ways. Even the idealistic version of this criminalization — fining pimps and johns, and using educational programs to rehabilitate pimps and johns — ignores the obvious fact that fines are produced and sustained by the police and continues to be an entryway for cop intervention in sex workers’ lives.

This past June, Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman died in solitary confinement, after being arrested in April, unable to afford $500 pre-trial bail. She had first been brought in on prostitution-related charges and low-level drug charges. She had a warrant for re-arrest after missing a single court date and being unable to complete mandated social services at the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, which are promoted as a more benevolent approach to help survivors of trafficking, providing a path towards vacating their criminal records. However, relying on police arrest, courts, and prisons to provide mandated “counseling” has proven to be lethally coercive for some of the most marginalized people in sex trades, especially trans and migrant women in sex trades, like Layleen Polanco and Yang Song.

In IrelandNorwaySweden, and France, sex workers in countries that have implemented the “Nordic Model” say that they continue to be surveilled, criminalized, and deported under the “partial criminalization” framework. Migrant sex workers are especially impacted. Especially in Ireland, sex workers say that few resources have been offered for housing, job transition, or counseling to help sex workers deal with the loss of income. In Sweden, three government reports show that under the Nordic Model, the sex industry did not so much decrease as become less visible, moved online, and pushed underground to more isolated places. Meanwhile, the increased social stigma against sex work has legitimized discrimination against sex workers seeking social services. Swedish sex worker activist, Jasmine Petite, was denied custody of her child, which was instead given to her abusive partner, who killed her during a visitation. Under this seemingly benevolent “Swedish Model”, which authorizes deadly discrimination against sex workers, the Swedish state put a working mother and her child directly into the murderous hand of her abuser.

Other sex workers in Sweden have reported being forced to work in more dangerous conditions, faced eviction and discrimination in housing, felt unable to work or live with others, including their partners, experienced increased isolation, and fear of carrying condoms, with Swedish social service providers going so far as to oppose the provision of condoms as “prostitution-promotion” — which creates obvious public health risks. When clients were criminalized in Sweden, they also became more reluctant to report violence, coercion, or exploitation that they may witness against sex workers, for fear of criminalization.

By contrast, in New Zealand, after the Prostitution Reform Act passed in 2003 which fully decriminalized sex work, the sex industry and sex trafficking did not increase in size. An independent review in 2007 showed that 90% of sex workers said they have better access to health and safety on the job, and 57% said that society’s attitudes changed for the better. In addition, 64% said they are more able to refuse clients — the remainder of which, it is not clear from the data, whether they had ever felt unable to refuse clients previous to the law passing. Many of the more exploitative brothels that existed before the law was passed were forced to close down because sex workers simply stopped working there, since they were able to safely work independently and in collectives with other workers. Careful laws were also put in place to protect against employer discrimination based on prior sex work status, to give unemployment benefits to sex workers and services for job transition, and to save records of sex work registrations in a confidential database inaccessible to other government departments, including police. Overall, the results of full decriminalization led to more dignity and respect for sex workers, who are treated like human beings with agency, rather than victims or criminals, able to participate fully in the democratic processes governing their lives.  However, even the New Zealand Model did not guarantee visas or working rights to migrants. This is where we want to push for improvement in our migrant-led advocacy in New York State.

(PHOTO – Indian sex workers form the world’s largest labor union of 65,000 such workers – the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee – which fights to maintain a higher standard wage, to mandate the use of condoms, and bar youth from working in the red light district.}

While early sex worker organizers in the 70’s to early 90’s were compelled to take on a “sex-positive” rhetoric of enjoying their work (called “happy hookers” by anti-prostitution advocates), the current sex work decrim movement, primarily led by black and brown women of color, immigrants, indigenous women, trans women, and people with disabilities, say they do not need to defend their jobs as “happy” or “empowering”, when workers in other jobs are not required to do the same to be seen as a valid job.

The U.S. state agenda of anti-trafficking rose rapidly to prominence from a place of relative obscurity in the post-9/11 Bush era alongside the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. Just like in Thailand, where the American anti-trafficking movement suppressed decades of labor rights struggles that were won by Thai sex workers who had been steadily improving working conditions; similarly, in the U.S. sex worker rights movement, which had been the dominant form of advocacy for people in sex trades since the ’60s, has now been entirely suppressed in the popular imagination by the anti-trafficking movement’s monotone stories of horror and violence.

The current anti-trafficking movement is direct descended from a vocal 2nd Wave feminist group of anti-pornography and anti-prostitution advocates like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who were ideologically opposed to sex with all men as patriarchal violence, because “penetration, by its nature, is violent.” Many of these 2nd Wave feminists, like Dorchen Leidholdt have directly proceeded into building up the current anti-prostitution human trafficking movement, which arose during the post-9/11 Bush administration, in a strange carceral alliance with religious conservatives and military/policing interests. Leidholdt purposefully conflates trafficking with sex work, insisting that “what we call sex trafficking is nothing more or less than globalized prostitution”, and insists to the face of black and migrant sex workers that “sex work is not work,” while spreading many false statistics in her talks about prostitution. She said on numerous occasions that the sex worker movement is a pimp-led conspiracy funded by George Soros. She also takes a founding or leading role in almost all of the anti-prostitution organizations in New York City and worldwide: CATW, Equality Now, and Sanctuary for Families.

While multi-million-dollar charity organizations like Polaris pay their executives six-figure salaries to “raise awareness” through racially biased misinformation about trafficking, the biggest portion of funding from anti-trafficking legislation does not actually go towards women’s shelters like Sanctuary for Families or Womankind. Instead, in the U.S., most of the funding has gone towards policing and surveillance. Instead of creating jobs for sex workers who want to exit, the majority of funding from anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution legislation goes towards creating jobs for the police and ex-military. For example, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in 2015, provided for:

  • Recruiting wounded and retired veterans into special “Hero Corps” to rescue child trafficking victims [Sec. 302] — Former combatants, who have been trained to kill on sight with deadly firearms, and experience a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, will now be exposed to highly sensitive and complex situations, predominantly in neighborhoods already vulnerable to police brutality.
  • Funding wiretapping initiatives [Sec. 203] and a Cyber Crimes Center [Sec. 302] specializing in computer forensics and internet surveillance technologies to be used by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which will be authorized to collaborate with the Department of Defense to monitor the telecommunications and activities of immigrants, border residents, and foreign nationals.
  • Prioritizing funding for paying law enforcement salaries and creating new units of judicial prosecutors, with data sharing across departments and sectors, equipped with the authority, resources, and expert training to investigate and monitor anyone potentially deemed a victim (mostly sex workers), in partnership with health and social service organizations that are encouraged to collaborate with law enforcement, sharing information to enable the ongoing supervision of people involved in trafficking cases, regardless of criminal charge.

In Southeast Asia, Thai and Cambodian sex workers protest the U.S. imperialism of the “rescue” charity industry that aligns with Christian evangelical organizations and the police to literally kill and detain sex workers, while white, middle-class “social entrepreneurs” are paid six-figure salaries in a sector that profits off of the trauma porn of whorephobia.  If this is not modern day colonialism, what is?

The Department of Homeland Security funds its coffers with racist images of black “pimps” and profits from “certified trainings”, including showing Instagram photos of “known pimps”, in which they point out the patterns of men having teeth with metal grills and African-American women with expensive hair extensions as “signs of pimps and trafficking.” The corporations which pay for their employees to sit through sessions of “anti-trafficking awareness” campaigns are then educated with such racist misinformation, and advertise in their hotel lobbies that encourage public participation in cultural discrimination, with “indicators of trafficking” such as visible tattoos, and not making eye contact, or not speaking the language well. Meanwhile, some of these corporations are neglecting the labor trafficking in their own staff, and failing to pay their own workers decent wages.

The focus on sex trafficking distracts from all the labor exploitation that is happening in every other corporate sector, exonerating American consumers from the blame of fast fashion purchases, while using a fear tactic combined with a Hero narrative to empower police and install surveillance. These elements of a fascist police state are literally being built off the fear and hatred of the public for sex workers, who are canaries in the coalmine, first to experience these forms of state violence that chip away at the freedoms of all.

This is a particular shame because these resources that fund militarization should be going towards services that addresses poverty, housing and education, the root cause of why people enter the sex industry. And yet, a Truthout investigation reveals the ways in which these anti-prostitution charities have appropriated money from the public through misinformation, while simultaneously funding state violence against the very people they fundraise to protect.

Laws like SESTA-FOSTA were intended to combat trafficking and ‘pimping’ by prohibiting the advertising of sex work on the internet and on general purpose platforms like Backpage.  But, they have failed to do so, and instead contribute to making it much harder to identify trafficking victims. It has also pushed sex workers onto the street and increased violence in sex trades. Meanwhile, financial intermediaries like Paypal and Visa have discriminated against sex workers, and communication platforms like Twitter and Tumblr “shadow ban” or disable the accounts of sex workers on the platform. These ways of undermining internet freedoms and privacy rights are currently being challenged by civil liberties organizations like Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Criminalization is a root cause of “pimping.” It has not proven to be successful in eliminating trafficking; in fact, criminalization is what makes sex workers vulnerable to violence and theft. Under existing laws, sex workers who have been raped by clients have had their case dismissed (ex. in Philadelphia) as mere “theft.” When all sex work is treated as violence, the specific incidents of violence that sex workers experience get normalized, and the voices of sex workers who try to define for themselves what constitutes consent vs. victimization get erased. Sex workers are often unable to get justice as victims of specific crime, since we are treated either as criminals, or dismissed as perpetual victims. Thieves and serial murderers, like Gary Ridgeway who confessed to 71 murders in the ’80s and ’90s, targeting people in sex trades, knowing that the criminal status of prostitution will make them less willing to seek redress for violations committed against them.

While proponents of “partial criminalization” propose criminalizing “johns and pimps” as a solution to the harms of criminalization, sex workers in countries that have implemented this framework still face barriers to reporting violence as a result of penalties targeting “pimps”. For instance, laws against operating brothels frequently make it illegal to rent to or otherwise house sex workers, thus ensuring that being outed for selling sex means risking eviction. This puts sex workers at greater risk of blackmail and other coercion, and prevents them from seeking forms of support which require self-disclosure.

We are well aware of the role of bosses in capitalism, and do not propose decriminalizing managers as an attempt to grant managers “workers’ rights”. Instead, we do so because we understand that criminalizing managers for employing sex workers ultimately results in criminalizing sex workers themselves, in the same way criminalizing managers who employ undocumented migrants ends up criminalizing undocumented people. Police have never defended working class interests and they won’t start now; workers win rights by organizing for them, and that self-organization is most possible when sex work is decriminalized.

Historically, the Prohibition on the buying of alcohol put money directly into the hands of gangs and helped to create organized crime rings in North America. This was repealed in 1933 and deemed a failure. Similarly, the criminalization of the buying of sexual services also puts people in sex trades into the hands of organized crime. It’s time to repeal hateful laws that dehumanize and endanger people in sex trades, and support sex workers to organize for better labor conditions, fight more effectively against trafficking, and establish new norms of acceptable practice that is more respectful towards women, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and the ever-increasing number of heterosexual men working in sex trades.

As the sex industry is becoming more divided into niches, with more specific categories of workers who specialize in ever more specific fetishes and services, there is a growing diversity of people in sex trades, as well as a growing number of women who purchase sexual services from men and other women, a natural consequence of women’s increasing economic power and busier executive schedules.

{PHOTO – Red Canary Song: Community teach-in with know-your-rights trainings outside Flushing Library}

The struggle for decriminalization, in NY State and elsewhere, includes people of all genders who are or have been involved in the sex trade out of choice, circumstance, and/or coercion. As most trafficking targets people who are already selling or trading sex, it’s vital that sex workers’ voices are not excluded from discussions of how best to serve trafficking victims and survivors. There is no dichotomy between the needs of sex workers and survivors, and criminalization does nothing to equip victims with the resources they need to escape abusive situations.

There are so many sex workers across the United States that are vocally fighting for housing, healthcare, education, better job options, and an economy that works for everyone. They have played leading roles in struggles for racial justice, LGBTQ+ liberation, and the rights of all workers. Many are people of color with strong relationships in other grassroots movements, who would love to bring their energy and fighting spirit to the democratic Left — if it is willing to fight alongside them.


Kate Zen is the Executive Director of the New York State Assembly Asian Pacific-American Task Force. She is a first-generation Chinese immigrant and daughter of a domestic worker. She has been an activist with DecrimNY, a community organizer and co-founder of Red Canary Song, advocating for the labor rights of migrant massage workers in Queens, New York. While a student at Columbia and New York University, she participated in activism against domestic violence and youth homelessness, and has created projects for women’s economic empowerment and migrant workers’ rights. In Toronto, she was part of Butterfly and the Migrant Sex Worker Project, and on the board of the Chinese Canadian National Council. She previously organized with domestic workers and street vendors, co-founded the Chinatown Literacy Project and directed Chinatown Youth Initiatives.

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