Sex workers storm New York protest against decriminalisation of prostitution: 'Nothing about us without us'

'Sex workers have had a struggle to be listened to. For too long policy and law on prostitution has been dealt with without sex workers'

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Tuesday 12 March 2019 17:35 GMT
Sex workers crash protest against decriminalization of sex work in New York

Two sex workers stormed a demonstration by women opposed to a bill which would decriminalise sex work in New York.

Lawmakers have announced plans to introduce a piece of legislation which would make New York the first state in the US to decriminalise sex work.

The bill, which is scheduled to be introduced in the New York State Senate this session, would remove all criminal penalties for the consensual sale of sex between adults.

But members of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and other anti-trafficking organisations came together to stand against the bill.

They argue the legislation would transform New York into a “Las Vegas of the Northeast” – enabling pimps and customers to exploit women without ramifications.

The demonstration, outside of City Hall, was disrupted by two sex workers who carried placards which said “Listen to sex workers” and “Consensual sex workers against sex trafficking”.

“Listen to sex workers. Nothing about us without us. This is my city. Decrim now,” shouted one of the counter-protesters.

One of the original protesters could be heard shouting “Kill the bill” in the background.

“As always I protest peacefully,” one of the counter-demonstrators, who goes by the name SXNoir, tweeted.

“Several women felt the need to physically attempt to block me and my message. Thankfully I stand tall with the support of my community. If your feminism does not include sex workers, it ain’t feminism #RightsNotRaids #RightsNotRescue.”

She added: "Shortly after this my sign was forced out of my hands without my consent and taken from me. I was doing nothing outside of what anyone else was doing. But my voice was not respected or important enough to be heard apparently."

NOW was criticised ahead of the actual rally on Monday – with Women’s March Inc co-president Bob Bland urging the organisation to cancel the demonstration.

International Women’s Health Coalition President Francoise Girard tweeted: “This is terrible @NOW_NYC. These policies hurt sex workers and lead to their arrest and further harassment by the police. Time to decriminalise all sex work and ensure sex workers enjoy labour protections.”

A leading British campaigning group, which supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, applauded the actions of the sex workers who crashed the protest in New York.

Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), said: “We are delighted with their efforts in New York City. Criminalisation undermines safety. We have been demanding a change in the law here so sex workers can work together – both from premises and on the street. They are currently prevented from working together in safety. Even though their job is legal, prostitution laws prevent women from working together.”

The ECP recently launched a campaign called “Make All Women Safe” for the decriminalisation of sex work. They argue sex workers often have to choose between keeping safe and possible arrest, or avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger.

Ms Adams applauded the “bravery” of the counter-protesters for storming the demonstration, and said: “You have to do that if you feel like your needs and demands are being overlooked”.

“Sex workers have had a struggle to be listened to,” she added. “For too long, policy and law on prostitution has been dealt with without sex workers. But we have a crisis – on one hand, the number of women going into prostitution is increasing and on the other hand, there is an increase in violence.”

She is hopeful that the anti-decriminalisation position is becoming obsolete among the younger generation of feminists.

“It is going to be washed away by the younger feminist movement who are not hostile to sex workers and who realise you should listen to the person affected,” she said. “They will change the terrain and wash away the old guard.”

The anti-decriminalisation protest, which featured a written statement of support by famous American feminist Gloria Steinem, also included members of OBJECT, a UK-based organisation that advocates against prostitution, pornography, and “transgenderism”.

A statement on the group’s website says it is “concerned by the dangerous impact ‘transgender’ ideology and practice has on women and children,” and that transgender acceptance is “in direct opposition to the views of feminists.”

“I’m not surprised the trans community was targeted here,” Mateo Guerrero-Tabares, a trans advocate and Decrim NY Steering Committee member, said in a statement. “We fight to decriminalise the sex trades because it is a matter of survival for our community.”

Both NOW and Democratic US representative Carolyn Malone, the only legislator to speak at the protest, denounced OBJECT’s message on Twitter.

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