NY Bill Allows Sex Trafficking Victims to Clear Prostitution Convictions

by Cara on June 28, 2010

in feminism, human rights, legislation, misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, sex work, violence against women and girls, work

Good News: earlier this month, the New York State legislature passed a bill allowing victims of sex trafficking to have prostitution convictions against them vacated. The bill currently only awaits Governor Paterson’s signature, but activists are hopeful that he will give it his stamp of approval:

Sex trafficking victims may soon be able to have prostitution convictions against them vacated, thanks to new legislation approved in Albany.

Young women are often lured to the New York area with promises of jobs and then find themselves coerced into prostitution. Many of these young women get arrested and charged with a crime even though they were forced to do the work against their will.

Sienna Baskin, a staff attorney for the Sex Workers Program at the Urban Justice Center, says treating trafficking victims like criminals simply pushes them back into the hands of their abusers.

“They end up with a conviction on their record and they go right back into the hands of their trafficker, so we have clients who were arrested up to ten times before escaping their trafficking situation, usually on their own,” Baskin says.

Baskin adds that those convictions can make it harder for women to get jobs or legal residency. The landmark legislation–New York’s law is the first in the country–will allow trafficking survivors to start their lives over with a clean slate. As it stands, women who’ve been abused for years are then forced to disclose their criminal convictions to potential employers.

Now, personally, I find the need for such legislation in the first place to be very sad. This comes from a position of supporting decriminalization and believing on principle that no one, whether forced into prostitution or engaging in sex work freely, should have to face a prostitution conviction, let alone being ostracized because of it. It also comes from the chill sent up my spine at the thought of women being tried in a court of law and convicted for the “crime” of having been repeatedly raped, since that’s what non-consensual sex work is. It’s an utterly appalling system.

That said, in a climate where decriminalization still seems a hell of a long way off, this bill is a good start. People, usually women, who are trafficked into the sex industry tend to face an uphill battle getting out. Often, they don’t speak the dominant language or have legal immigration/working papers, and have reason to fear law enforcement. Almost always, they lack strong outside support systems, something that made them a desirable target for traffickers in the first place. They also tend to lack a financial support system, making an escape potentially even undesirable, as it means a lack of shelter and ability to feed oneself. To ensure that this battle is even more difficult by leaving a criminal conviction on a victim’s record — and for prostitution, among the most stigmatized of crimes, no less — is unconscionable. Being the first of its kind in the U.S., the bill is a huge victory, and one that was diligently fought for by sex worker’s rights advocates.

Indeed, even more than just advocating for the bill once it was drafted, the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center actually assisted in writing it, ensuring that language was genuinely favorable to trafficking victims. For a group that does work to “protect the rights and safety of sex workers who by choice, circumstance, or coercion remain in the industry” and highlights the voices of actual sex workers and trafficked persons, helping to write a piece of important and passed legislation is a major success, and one that deserves to be celebrated and applauded.

Unfortunately, the Feminist Majority Foundation didn’t seem to think so. FMF, which publishes the major and long-running feminist publication Ms. Magazine, wrote a story last week about the bill’s approval by the Senate, and didn’t see fit as to so much mention the Sex Workers Project’s name — despite working from the same sources I am now, including the press release that was explicitly put out under the Sex Workers Project. Instead, all materials are simply credited to the Urban Justice Center, and no mention of the organization’s role in drafting the bill is mentioned.

Seeing Ms. Magazine’s track history regarding the erasure of the experiences of sex workers by choice, the decision to ignore the self-advocacy done by sex workers, and the regular support of legislation that many sex workers explicitly say hurts them — reasons why, I should note in the interest of full disclosure, I opted to not renew my own subscription with the magazine quite some time ago — it’s incredibly difficult to read the press release and FMF’s own story, and see this as an accident. And even if it was an inadvertent omission, it’s still not at all excusable, when the voices of sex workers and trafficked persons are so regularly left out of stories about them.

Over at SWOP Colorado, where I was first alerted to both the bill and the FMF story, sixtoedkittens writes:

So what did this article do aside from mutilate a press release that someone probably worked very hard on?  THEY LEFT US OUT OF IT.  Entirely.  They wouldn’t even publish the name “Sex Workers Project.”  But it is more than that.  Both major grassroots sex workers rights organizations in NYC, SWOP-NYC and SWANK, not only officially supported the legislation but worked to get it passed.  I was a member of both organizations at the time.  One thing we did was to write a memo of support to legislators that was not only deeply personal to some of us but also well-researched and broadly applicable.  Some of us also contacted our legislators personally, distributed materials, etc.  And the campaign to get this legislation passed in the first place?  It was spearheaded and carried out by….The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center.  Look, there’s that word again.  Sex Worker.  Yes, we were involved!

Some people don’t realize, I think, that there are people involved in the sex workers rights movement in the US who have experienced force, fraud, or coercion in relation to the sex industry.  Well, there are.  And you know what?  Most of the rest of the people involved in the movement are actually decent people, who are as horrified by sex (and labor) trafficking as any decent person, and even organize to improve the lives of those affected by it.  Go figure.

Apparently, some feminists think that it’s okay to erase the contributions of women, and the work done in support of women’s rights and safety, when that work contradicts a set of principles set forth by a very specific form of feminism. Not just disagree with or counter those contributions, mind you — but outright act like they don’t even exist. I guess it’s better to act like the majority male legislature, which doesn’t deal with these issues on a very real and personal level on a daily basis, deserves all of the credit. To act like the work that marginalized women do to further free themselves and other women just doesn’t matter.

Maybe its expected that advocates will simply be grateful that they wrote about the story at all. After all, almost two weeks after the Senate’s decision to pass the bill, their story and the one by WNYC are the closest things I could find to “major” news sources reporting on the issue. But I remain personally unconvinced that one type of erasure of marginalized bodies and voices is superior to another.

Thanks to Robin for the link.

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{ 17 comments }

1 Alison June 28, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Great great post, Cara – thank you so much for writing about this. I hadn’t heard of it and am very glad to read this. As you said, it’s sickening to me that women have to worry about this, that victims of sex trafficking have to live in fear of, on top of everything else, the idea of going to prison for the crimes perpetrated AGAINST them.

I really hope Governor Paterson does sign this, because I truly cannot see any non-hateful, non-victim-blaming reason not to.

2 Aaron June 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm

How do they determine if a sex worker has been coerced? It seems if their standards are too high, the new law wouldn’t do much good, while if the standards are low enough to make sure that most coerced women would be able to prove it, they would likely make it fairly easy for non-coerced sex workers to fake it. Admittedly, I wouldn’t really mind that myself (apart from how it would produce misleading statistics about how much sex work is coerced), but I imagine the bill wasn’t intended by the legislators who passed it as a de facto decriminalization of prostitution.

3 Ailuridae June 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Why, why, why does every post like this on any blog or news article anywhere always have a “but what if some women lie about it?” comment as if that’s one of the most important things we should be discussing?

And before you explain that you were just curious about the wording of the legislation, or provide some anecdote about some woman somewhere who lied once, or that you were just wondering because… You don’t need to waste your time because it will be utterly beside the point I’m making.

4 Aaron June 28, 2010 at 8:23 pm

I suppose I am assuming that people who are arrested for crimes they’re guilty of will be reasonably likely to be willing to lie to avoid conviction. I certainly would be. Still, I confess that I don’t have a lot of data to support that assumption, so I could well be wrong. In any event, I did indicate that I wouldn’t myself be particularly disturbed if the law were used in this way; I just figured that the lawmakers would have taken some steps to prevent it, and was somewhat worried that the steps might have been too strict for the law to do much good.

5 Ailuridae June 28, 2010 at 8:58 pm

It’s not you, and it’s not that there is some impossibility of it ever happening, it’s the frequency with which this line of thought is brought up in these discussions.

It was also the phrasing. I think it’s valid to be concerned and wonder if the standards they’re imposing will work to prevent women from actually seeking help, as a lot of these laws do. They seem to serve to help women, but then so narrowly define which women are actually “deserving” of help as to be utterly useless. That’s an incredibly important discussion–although it does seem that at least some of that problem will be mitigated by the fact that actual women and actual sex workers helped create the legislation.

However, the phrasing of your comment focused on the idea that it will be easy for women to “fake it” which is a trope that pops up on literally every thread that has even the vaguest reference to sexual assault. It gets so old. If it wasn’t something that happened every single time, and if your comment had been phrased a little more delicately, I wouldn’t have mentioned it.

I do appreciate your willingness to listen, however.

6 Aaron June 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

Thinking about it more, I guess my question would be whether they’d have to blame someone specific. I wouldn’t automatically assume that anyone would throw an innocent person to the wolves to get themselves off, but if there’s a requirement that they accuse some specific person or people, a coerced sex worker might have difficulty with that, due to fear, etc.

I do appreciate the sensitivity of questioning honesty in this area, and I am actually considerably more skeptical myself of the honesty of police than of the honesty of sex workers. Of course, that’s because I do have evidence in that area; I know something about how hard the police work to make sure nobody scrutinizes their activities, and how much dodgy activity turns up whenever somebody manages to watch them despite their best efforts.

7 RD June 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Wow Aaron, could you be more of an asshole?

8 Aaron June 29, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Probably, if I tried. I suppose since I’m not trying, and don’t intend to start trying, I should just note that some sex-worker advocacy groups consider this progress, and assume they know what they’re talking about and leave it at that. Important though I consider satisfying my own curiosity to be, I do eventually (though never quickly) reach a point at which not wishing to offend people I don’t think deserve to be offended becomes more important to me.

9 Sienna Baskin June 29, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Thank you, Cara, for your sensitive reporting on this issue! We hope the bill will be a model for other states. For readers, the text of the bill is here:
http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/api/1.0/html/bill/S4429.
Those bringing motions would need to prove they are victims of trafficking as defined under state or federal law. Please get in touch if you would like to do further advocacy on this issue.

10 Aaron June 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Thanks for the link. To my eyes, the standards don’t look too unreasonably demanding, but I’m certainly not a lawyer, so I’m never confident in my own judgments of such things.

11 Clarisse Thorn June 30, 2010 at 11:01 am

For what it’s worth, my initial response — as someone who’s worked with sex workers and who has spent the last year in Africa working directly with the most underprivileged populations in the world (literally) — was pretty much along the same lines as Aaron’s. Like him, I don’t think it’s bad for more sex workers to get out of convictions (being as I think sex work should be legal anyway), but it would be nice to think that we could get accurate statistical information about how the sex industry actually works across the USA someday, and this is exactly the wrong way to do that.

12 RD July 1, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Oh, as someone who has “worked with” sex workers (how about sex trafficking victims), you must know so much more about this than me, seeing as I’ve been a sex worker for a number of years and have experienced force/coercion in relation to the industry before I was a sex worker from someone who was a pimp, idk if he would self-ID that way or not but it’s how he operated. Yes, you and Aaron must have a much more valid view of things.

13 RD July 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm

You both are just assuming that sex workers who did NOT experience force, fraud, or coercion, who were not trafficked, will now be able to clear convictions using this law, messing up your precious “statistics.” Where do you get off with that assumption, seriously? I too think it would be a good thing for all sex workers to not get convictions, but this is a law benefiting victims of trafficking. And to tell someone who was a victim of trafficking that s/he is lying? Is seriously fucked up. Can you not see that?

14 RD July 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm

By the way it is awfully obnoxious for a SEX EDUCATOR with probably no relevant experience to weigh in on issues of trafficking OR sex worker rights.

15 Clarisse Thorn July 2, 2010 at 6:06 am

I don’t know why I’m bothering to respond to you since you obviously have no interest in having a real conversation with me, or in fact in expressing anything but rage now that your triggers have been transgressed. But for the record, (a) I’m not assuming anything about what sex workers will or will not be able to do; (b) I’m not asserting that any victims of trafficking are lying.

My position is that I’m in favor of this law, and I’m glad that sex workers will have more options, especially because I can imagine few nightmares worse than being coerced into sex work. However, I suspect that this law will not only increase reported incidences of trafficking, but that those incidences will not always be accurate. This is an acceptable cost for the law, but it is a real cost, mainly paid in knowledge about the landscape of sex work.

16 Clarisse Thorn July 2, 2010 at 6:19 am

Oh, and also? Considering that ridiculously extreme, absurdly conservative notions about trafficking are routinely used to attack and restrict consensual adult sexual expression — I mean, some of my sex worker friends in Chicago have even described trafficking as a “red herring” — I would think that a consenting adult sex worker would be a little more concerned about laws that give so much power to the trafficking crusade without acknowledging the right of consenting adult sex workers to engage in their profession.

17 RD July 3, 2010 at 10:53 am

I don’t know why I’m bothering to respond to you since you obviously have no interest in having a real conversation with me, or in fact in expressing anything but rage now that your triggers have been transgressed.

Wow. Do you even know what the word “trigger” means, cuz it doesn’t sound like it from that reply. Some sex educator you must be.

But for the record, (a) I’m not assuming anything about what sex workers will or will not be able to do; (b) I’m not asserting that any victims of trafficking are lying.

Really. So how is this going to “skew statistics” if there is no lying involved, unless you just want to paint accurate statistics as skewed. Me, I don’t think statistics are all that important compared to women’s lives, especially the lives of women who have been trafficked and sex workers.

My position is that I’m in favor of this law, and I’m glad that sex workers will have more options, especially because I can imagine few nightmares worse than being coerced into sex work. However, I suspect that this law will not only increase reported incidences of trafficking, but that those incidences will not always be accurate. This is an acceptable cost for the law, but it is a real cost, mainly paid in knowledge about the landscape of sex work.

That’s good at least. Shows you are at least a somewhat decent human being, but again, you are still calling trafficking victims liars. “Reported incidences of trafficking will not always be accurate” under this law? This is a very victim-centered law. So again, you are calling trafficking victims liars, just dressing it up in fancier language.

Oh, and also? Considering that ridiculously extreme, absurdly conservative notions about trafficking are routinely used to attack and restrict consensual adult sexual expression

When that happens, I argue against it. I have done this very publicly on numerous occasions, especially when the laws in questions are harmful to victims of trafficking also.

— I mean, some of my sex worker friends in Chicago have even described trafficking as a “red herring” —

Then they are assholes, scum, who I am ashamed to say may even be working for sex workers rights but are shooting themselves in the foot in the process. I wish I could say they are not part of the movement I am part of, but broadly speaking, they probably are.

I would think that a consenting adult sex worker would be a little more concerned about laws that give so much power to the trafficking crusade without acknowledging the right of consenting adult sex workers to engage in their profession.

Hi, I don’t think we’ve met and I don’t think you know anything about my story, my history, and my current sex work employment status. So stop making assumptions.

Furthermore I DO ACKNOWLEDGE THE RIGHTS OF CONSENTING SEX WORKERS TO CONTINUE IN THEIR PROFESSIONS.

Maybe you could point out how you think this gives more power to the “trafficking lobby.”

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