You won’t see any ‘working girls’ walking the streets of the Upper East Side anytime soon, however, sex work is alive and well here and across New York City. With a quick search online or on social media, you’ll find Upper East Side in-calls, outcalls and ‘massage parlors’ offering services in the neighborhood. Even arrests for prostitution across the five boroughs are down from thousands just a few years ago to 115 last year, according to the NYPD. As public opinion on sex work shifts to largely be ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ one lawmaker representing the UES is pushing the state to go even further.
New York State Senator Liz Krueger recently announced that one of her goals in the coming year would be to pass the Sex Trade Survivor Justice and Equality Act, which removes any criminal liability for sex workers and imposes monetary fines on their clients rather than jail time.
Penalties would start at $50 and fund services for those interested in leaving the sex trade. That’s a problem for Kara, a 30-year-old sex worker who spoke candidly with Upper East Site under the condition of anonymity.
“It still criminalizes the buyer,” explained the five-year industry veteran and advocate with clients all over NYC, including the Upper East Side .
“This still creates an uneven dynamic between buyer and provider that puts sex workers at risk because if a client is taking a higher risk by potentially being fined, they can use that as leverage when negotiating price, condom use, screening process, where to meet.”
This isn’t the only part of this complex human issue that Krueger and some in the sex worker community may disagree upon.
“Sex work is a term, I believe, that should only be used to define those being prostituted, accepting the concept that it is their job to be raped,” Sen. Krueger explained. She believes that those working in the sex trade, most often were forced into it in some way, so the phrase ‘sex work’ should not be used.
Kara tells Upper East Site she’s a willing participant who uses the term ‘sex work’ in her community proudly.
“I got into sex work because I was working as a freelance writer and part-time nanny and was working so many hours and barely making rent,” Kara recalled, “I was tired of that and tired in general, so I started and once I realized I could work less hours and make more money, I never looked back.”
“Krueger’s commentary is condescending and patronizing and unhelpful. Thinking she knows better than those with lived experience is insulting,” Kara chides.
This disagreement is nothing new to Krueger.
She says the data she has studied shows that most performing sex acts for financial gain, even when they believe they are doing so of their own free will, are actually pushed into it from past abuse or trauma.
“I did my research and homework,” Krueger added, noting that full decriminalization caused those in the sex trade to be faced with more violence and worse, not better conditions.
“Fully decriminalizing has led to far more human trafficking – so much so that some countries are trying to walk it back,” the longtime lawmaker explained, “Brothel owners, pimps and clients have shown to become more aggressive and those in the trade have little recourse to report.”
Kara asserts that Krueger’s bill would not make her safer, explaining, “The client will likely also be less open to providing their information during the screening process and it is obviously dangerous for sex workers when we aren’t able to fully screen our clients prior to meeting.”
Unlike what you may have seen in the old movies, sex work in Manhattan doesn’t involve hanging out on a sketchy street corner waiting for a stranger to pick them up. Providers, as they are known, will verify the identity of clients, their careers and even require references from other sex workers.
The NYPD tells Upper East Site that the department’s “enforcement priorities shifted in early 2017 … leading to fewer arrests over recent years of sex workers for prostitution.”
“We have refocused our investigation efforts to cases involving sex trafficking, indentured servitude, and the exploitation of children,” a police spokesperson added.
“This is a supply and demand story,” Krueger contends. “We need to change the cultural thinking that it is okay to buy sex and help people get out of that life.”
While clients rarely discuss policy with Kara, she has had to turn down bookings because they refuse to provide identification because they fear legal repercussions. This could lead to those in the sex trade putting themselves in very unsafe situations.
“Fully decriminalizing sex work would actually help combat trafficking,” Kara argues, “Authorities have even admitted that laws [to fight exploitation online]pushed trafficking even further underground where it's harder to find and then can more easily thrive.”
It’s only once all aspects of sex work are decriminalized, Kara feels that sex workers can feel more comfortable going to the authorities when they experience or witness violence.
“Let me tell you, the police are not our friends,” Kara said emphatically.
“I can promise you that they will interfere with business and likely still harass us, and use their ability to interfere with business as a way to catch undocumented sex workers and deport them,” Kara explained, adding the she was glad to see prostitution arrests are down.
However, Kara says Sen. Krueger’s bill offers no happy ending for New Yorkers like her.
“Anything other than the full decriminalization of sex work falls short and ultimately fails sex workers.”