The world’s oldest profession is still illegal in most of the U.S., but if bills introduced in the state Legislature are passed and signed into law, prostitution will no longer be a crime in New York.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week she would consider the idea of decriminalization, a change from the previous administration.
Banning prostitution was based on what many consider immoral behavior. Yet it thrives to this day, a lot more than we’d probably like to think, and making prostitution illegal has only made it more dangerous for those involved.
Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, are championing a bill that is designed to take sex work out of the shadows by decriminalizing not only prostitution but patronizing a prostitute and “pimping,” that is, setting up the encounters for profit.
A second bill, advanced by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, would decriminalize prostitution itself but increase financial penalties for pimps, traffickers and sex buyers.
The New York bills are an outgrowth of a national movement to counter the commercial exploitation of those who provide sexual services for a fee, by removing the criminal penalties.
“It is absolutely something I’ve thought about and am considering,” Hochul told City & State, an online news outlet.
Hochul’s comment drew attention because former Gov. Andrew Cuomo never warmed to the idea that the sex trade should be decriminalized.
Hochul also announced the appointment of Amit S. Bagga to deputy secretary of intergovernmental affairs. In an unsuccessful campaign for a New York City Council seat earlier this year, Bagga ran on a platform that called for the full decriminalization of sex work and provision of paid sick leave benefits for those involved in the trade.
“I’m sure Gov. Hochul is the first governor of New York in 250 years to be looking at this,” said Gottfried, a legislator since 1971.
Hochul’s comments on the subject drew a rebuke from state Conservative Party chairman Gerard Kassar.
“There is nothing to study here,” Kassar said. “It’s an awful idea. It will create havoc in urban areas and stress throughout the state. You cannot decriminalize sex workers and not have a negative outcome.”
Can the outcomes be any more negative than they are right now?
It might make more sense to make the entire profession legal — and regulated, although the bills introduced don’t go that far.
Nevada is the only state in the nation where prostitution is legal. New York could learn from its example.
If prostitution is regulated, like hairdressing and tattoo parlors are, licensed prostitutes could have to undergo regular testing to make sure they are healthy. Regulations would also help prevent some of the worst aspects of the current underworld of prostitution — human trafficking and pimps taking advantage of women — and men — who may see prostitution as their only choice.
If those entering the profession know that there are laws in place to protect them, they will have a voice. If people are comfortable using their body as a money-making tool, why shouldn’t they be allowed to?
Gottfried said the prostitution bills fall into the category of measures that require “a lot of people changing their thinking,” citing marijuana legalization and legislation allowing same-sex marriage as other examples.
“A governor can plan an enormous role in changing public attitudes on very fundamental issues,” he said.
We’ll see if any of those attitudes change any time soon.