New York State Allows Trafficking Survivors to Vacate Prostitution Convictions

On June 15, 2010 the New York State senate passed a bill that, effective as soon as Governor Paterson signs it, enables survivors of human trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution-related offenses. This amendment to New York State Criminal Procedure Law grants those who were trafficked into commercial sex the opportunity to start over with a clean slate.

The Sex Workers Project (SWP) worked closely with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried to draft and introduce the bill in April 2009, which is also sponsored by Senator Thomas Duane. Supporters include the New York City Bar Association, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network, and Sex Workers Action New York.

The new legislation empowers survivors of trafficking by allowing them to move on with their lives, and function in society without the stigma of past exploitation. Survivors have a better chance of escaping re-victimization or further coercion when they do not have criminal records that often prevent them from obtaining work, getting stable housing, and adjusting their immigration status.

Who does this affect?

Over the past eight years the Sex Workers Project (SWP), a legal advocacy and services organization housed by the Urban Justice Center, has given legal assistance to many people who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion. As they assisted survivors of trafficking in accessing their rights and attaining safety, security, and a better future, it became clear that there was a need for a legal remedy that would allow survivors to move forward with their lives.

One client, “Carmen,” was trafficked from Mexico, and was beaten, abused and forced to do prostitution. She was arrested over 10 times during this nightmare, but her fear of the police made it impossible to inform law enforcement that she was being exploited by a third party. “Stacey” is a United States citizen who was trafficked into prostitution as a teen when she ran from an abusive home. She recovered with help from service providers, but has had trouble getting a job because of her prostitution conviction. As a result of the passage of the vacating prostitution convictions legislation, Carmen will no longer be blocked from immigration status because of her prostitution record, and Stacey will no longer have to inform potential employers of her record.

Why is this good?

People who are coerced into the sex industry and are then convicted of prostitution are handed a raw deal. In addition to being survivors of abuse and coercion, they saddled with lifelong stigma by the criminal justice system. With a prostitution conviction on their records, survivors of sex trafficking have a difficult time moving forward. This is not justice; it is harmful to survivors and can lead to re-victimization if they are unable to secure legal status in the United States and in the workforce.

The passage of this bill has shown us that it is possible for sex workers rights advocates to have their say, and that there are state legislators who will listen to our concerns. This gives us hope for changing a system that so often institutionalizes violence and discrimination against sex workers.

What’s next and what can I do about it?

If you live in New York State, this is a really great opportunity to make your Assembly and Senate representatives’ acquaintance. Send your representatives a letter (feel free to use the sample text below or write your own).

  • Find out who your Assembly member and Senator are here. Call or write to them to express your thanks!
  • To make it even easier, we’ve set up a form you can submit. Sign a “Thank you” petition on Change.org – which will automatically be sent to your representatives –  here.

There is, of course, more work to be done. There is another bill making its way through the legislature right now that, if passed, will stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence that people are engaging or intending to engage in prostitution. Right now in New York people who are profiled as prostitutes, very often trans women, often have their condoms confiscated as evidence of prostitution. In addition to thanking your representatives, you should urge them to support New York State Bill A10893/S01289A.

Sample letter:

Dear ______ ,

Thank you for voting in favor of New York State Bill A7670/S04429, which enables survivors of human trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution-related offenses.

I live in your district and I support the human rights of people who are in the sex industry by choice, circumstance, or coercion. The reasons a woman, transgender woman, man, or transgender man may enter and continue to be in the sex industry are complex and are often tied to economic instability and inequalities faced by women and LGBT people.

As you know, an advocate’s work is never done. Currently, bills A10893/S01289A are making their way through the legislature. If passed, this bill will stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence that people are engaging or intending to engage in prostitution. This practice affects public health initiatives promoting condom use and distributing condoms to at-risk populations. Please support this bill and remove the fear of carrying condoms among our most vulnerable populations.

Sincerely,

NAME

Address

I’m not a New Yorker. How can I advocate against harmful policies in my state?

Ask most people about government and they tend to talk about their federal representatives, the White House, or maybe their Mayor. But the state government may have the most significant impacts on our daily lives, particularly in the realm of criminal justice. Although the process from bill to law varies widely state to state, there are some common strategies sex worker advocates can take.

  • Familiarize yourself with the current laws that affect sex workers.
    • Criminal Law– find out what crimes sex workers are arrested and convicted for – it could include prostitution, solicitation, loitering, or others. Talk to sex workers in your community who have been arrested and ask them about their experiences with the law.
    • Civil Law – find out if sex workers can be evicted from their homes, denied custody of their children, or lose their jobs.
    • Exotic dancers, pro-dommes, porn actors, and others – Find out if there are laws that discriminate against these workers.
    • Ask a friendly lawyer for help!
  • Look for current bills that make changes to these laws – for better or worse. Try a search on your state’s legislative webpage for key words like “prostitution.”
  • Make allies – research local organizations that may be allied with your goals. Try LGBT orgs, public health orgs, harm reduction orgs, civil rights orgs. These organizations may have legislative advocacy staff that can help you get oriented.
  • Develop your platform. Think small – look for concrete objectives that can be accomplished with adjustments to the law. Any of these New York bills could be used as “model legislation” to make similar changes in your state. Your platform may include opposing bad bills that increase penalties for sex work.
  • Research your local representatives. Identify potential allies and opposition to sex workers rights.
  • Write, call, and meet with your legislator once you have a clear ask (“I would like to ask for your support on bill XXXXX” or “I have an idea for a piece of legislation that would accomplish…”). Assume they know nothing about sex work and may be surprised to hear from a sex worker/ally constituent.
  • Register to vote, and vote in local elections!

New Report Examines the Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons

On Friday, January 9th, The Sex Workers Project, at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, released a new report, Kicking Down the Door, that analyzes the use of “rescue” raids in the fight against human trafficking.

The report “summarizes findings from interviews with 46 people with experience of such raids, including service providers who have worked with hundreds of trafficking victims, law enforcement personnel, and 15 immigrant women who have been trafficked,” and “concludes that so-called “rescue” raids are not an effective way to stop trafficking in persons and in fact can be counter-productive.”

From PlanetWire.org:

WASHINGTON DC, Jan. 9 – Law enforcement raids designed to rescue victims of human trafficking may do more harm than good for the victims and are ineffective or even counter-productive in curbing the practice, a coalition of advocates for sex workers said today. They urged President-elect Obama to adopt a rights-based approach to the problem.

The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based coalition of service providers, researchers, advocates, donors and sex workers, released a report analyzing the experiences of 46 people involved in such raids during 2007 and 2008.

“The findings suggest that vice raids are an ineffective means of locating and identifying trafficked persons,” said Dr. Melissa Ditmore, primary author of the study, during an audio news conference announcing the release. “They are often accompanied by violations of human rights of the trafficked persons and sex workers and are therefore counterproductive to their own goals.”

Kicking Down the Door concludes with a lengthy list of recommendations for the US government, law enforcement personnel, and service providers. For some of us, these recommendations are common sense, but most of us also know that common sense isn’t really the cornerstone of policies involving sex work.

The Sex Workers Project (SWP) provides legal services and legal training, and engages in documentation and policy advocacy, for sex workers. Using a harm reduction and human rights model, we protect the rights and safety of sex workers who by choice, circumstance, or coercion remain in the industry. They released two previous reports, Revolving Door and Behind Closed Doors, which examined street-based sex work and indoor sex work in New York City, respectively.

Proposition K on RH Reality Check

SF’s Proposition K: Changing the Landscape for Sex Workers

Sienna Baskin and Melissa Ditmore on October 28, 2008 – 8:00am
Next week, San Francisco voters will vote on Proposition K, which would prohibit the use of public funds to enforce laws criminalizing prostitution, and mandate that police investigate crimes against sex workers. The passage of Proposition K would change the landscape for sex workers in San Francisco in critical ways. First, by removing police officers’ power to arrest sex workers, it would reduce sex workers’ vulnerability to all of the abuses of that power sex workers currently experience: police profiling and harassment, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and extortion of sexual favors under threat of arrest by police officers, and entrapment.

Continue reading

Sex Workers Denied Right to Safe Work

Another great piece by Melissa Ditmore at RH Reality Check: Sex Workers Denied Right to Safe Work.

Sex Workers Denied Right to Safe Work
Melissa Ditmore on October 17, 2008 – 8:00am

This December marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to livelihood is enshrined in the declaration. I mention this because it is one of the rights most often denied to sex workers.

Around the world, people turn to sex work in the hope that it will enable them to earn a living. But authorities and misguided anti-prostitution policies routinely deny them that right.

The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center has released two reports highlighting this fact. (See them here). Sex workers interviewed for these reports described becoming involved in commercial sex for financial reasons, and they described the difficulties faced by unskilled workers, especially transgender workers, in their efforts to earn a living wage.

Continue reading

What kind of job do you have to pay just to go to work?

Many of us know this song and dance all too well.

Dancers at Queens Club Claim Wage Violations

If the dancers win their lawsuit, it could have ripple effects at the city’s many for-hire dance clubs, latter-day versions of Depression-era joints where men paid 10 cents for a dance. Many of today’s dancers, like their customers, are illegal immigrants who earn their money off the books. Amy Carroll, a lawyer for Make the Road, said it was ridiculous for the Flamingo to suggest that the dancers were independent contractors.

“It seems that Flamingo is doing the worst of both worlds,” she said. “They’re not paying the workers anything, and they’re controlling every aspect of the dancers’ work life. They tell them what days to work, what time to show up, what outfits to wear, what makeup to use. They even make the dancers sign in and out to go to the restroom. That level of control makes them employees, not independent contractors.”

Lawyering and Organizing for Sex Workers’ Rights

CUNY Outlaws presents

“Lawyering and Organizing

for Sex Workers’ Rights”

Tuesday April 1, 2008 at 6pm

CUNY Law School Auditorium,
6521 Main St. in Flushing Queens

Join us for Dinner and the Film, “A Safer Sex Trade”, to be followed by a discussion that addresses how criminalization and stigmatization of sex work affects both our clients as well as our work as attorneys.
Speakers include:
Sienna Baskin is a CUNY law alum and Equal Justice Works Fellow with the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Worker project. Sienna’s work with SWP combines organizing, legal services and impact litigation for and by victims of trafficking into prostitution. Her work will include family law and criminal law remedies for women trafficked by their boyfriends and husbands, as well as immigration representation through the T and U visas. Sienna will also work with former victims to develop a collective voice to contribute to policy efforts around trafficking. Finally, by litigating for victims of trafficking who remain excluded from the U.S. for their acts of prostitution, Sienna will ask the courts to question the hard line between “bad” sex workers and “good” trafficking victims.
Eliyanna Kaiser is the Executive Editor at $pread Magazine (www.spreadmagazine.org), a quarterly publication produced by and for sex workers and those that care about their rights. She is also the co-founder and a Board Member of Sex Work Awareness, a new non-profit dedicated to public education and advocacy for sex workers.  Eliyanna has worked in public policy for the New York State Assembly for over 5 years. She lives in New York City with her wife.

Ruthie Doyle is a Brooklyn-based artist, activist, and trained doula who has advocated for labor and human rights, as well as for better public health policies domestically and abroad, especially as related to gender and sexual rights. She has worked advocating for sex worker rights in New York and internationally. 

Moderated by Professor Ruthann Robson. Questions may be directed to: alanachazan@gmail.com

Co-sponsored by the CUNY Labor Coalition.  Any donations may be made to CUNY Outlaws.

Awesome interview at Feministe

Holly interviews Sienna Baskin from Sex Workers Project.

The barebacking thing is slightly different, because its about a client asking for an experience that could be physically unsafe for the sex worker. My experience has shown me that this is very unusual. Sex workers who have access to safe sex stuff—and the power to use it—universally do. Even in very poor countries, where sex workers are really working to put food in their mouths, if they have unrestricted access to condoms, they are enforcing their use, educating their clients, and really leading the fight against HIV/AIDS.