Arrests for prostitution-related offenses have dropped dramatically in New York City in recent years as the movement to decriminalize the sex trade has gained a foothold in local politics. But a coalition of women’s rights and anti-trafficking groups said on Tuesday that the shift away from criminalization had gone too far.
At a Manhattan press conference hosted by the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, advocates said they were glad those who sell sex are no longer being arrested for prostitution as frequently — but they urged Mayor Eric Adams, the NYPD and local district attorneys to go after their clients, or “Johns,” more aggressively.
An NYPD spokesperson said police have shifted their focus in recent years toward targeting people who promote or buy sex, rather than arresting people for prostitution. But data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services shows that people are hardly ever arrested for patronizing a prostitute in New York City anymore. That was listed as the top offense for just one person who was arrested in the five boroughs in 2022, compared with 1,356 people in 2012.
“The majority of sex buyers do not care whether the person they buy is trafficked, has a pimp, identifies as empowered or is a teenager,” said Ane Mathieson, co-director of the Empower Center at Sanctuary for Families, which provides services to people currently or formerly engaged in the sex trade.
Two of the speakers who said they were survivors of trafficking and had been involved in the sex trade themselves discussed the violence and trauma they faced.
Tuesday’s press conference was held just days after Adams responded to a New York Post report on the sex trade on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens. The mayor said at an unrelated event last week that he was “putting in place an operation to deal with the sex workers.”
Adams did not specify details but said, “we want to also go after the Johns because the demand is creating the supply, and far too often the Johns get away with what they’re doing.”
Adams and the advocates who participated in Tuesday’s rally are at odds with those who want to fully decriminalize the sex trade in New York. That latter cohort has sought to draw a bright line separating sex workers from trafficking victims who are forced into selling sex. The speakers at Tuesday’s event said that’s a false dichotomy and rejected the term “sex worker” altogether.
Cecilia Gentili, who has engaged in sex work and helped launch the state’s movement to decriminalize the industry, derided the advocates at Tuesday’s event, saying they have a “savior complex.”
“Just increasing police officers in an area makes sex workers feel uncomfortable, feel unsafe, feel scared,” Gentili told Gothamist. “Police officers historically have not given a s–t about us.”
Gentili added that targeting Johns would take away business from sex workers and make those in the trade more likely to engage in risky activities to make ends meet. Targeting sex trafficking, she argued, is more complicated than trying to cut off demand.
Arrests are already down
A shift in law enforcement’s approach to policing the sex trade has led to fewer arrests and prosecutions in New York City in recent years, even as the laws governing prostitution have mostly remained intact. About 115 arrests for prostitution happened in New York City last year, down from nearly 20,000 in 1985, according to NYPD stats previously reported by Gothamist.
For a while, the city focused on sending people who had been arrested for prostitution to Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, where they could avoid jail by accepting counseling and other services. But the use of those diversion courts has also declined. The five courts processed just 27 cases in 2022, down from a peak of 2,396 in 2014.
This change is part of an explicit NYPD policy. In 2017, then Police Commissioner James O’Neill said, “We’ve already switched our emphasis from prostitutes and are focusing on pimps and the Johns who pay for their services.”
But the advocates who rallied Tuesday said law enforcement isn’t putting enough resources into that effort.
At Tuesday’s rally, Sonia Ossorio, the executive director of the National Organization for Women NYC, said it was up to the mayor to send a message that law enforcement should hold those customers accountable.
“It needs to come from the top and that starts with the mayor, who publicly sends a message to sex buyers that it’s not going to be tolerated in New York City,” she said.
Some NYC district attorneys are leading the charge away from criminalization. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has declined to prosecute prostitution arrests in the borough since April 2021, according to Emily Tuttle, a spokesperson for his office.
She said when it comes to customers, the DA prioritizes the prosecution of cases that involve violence or children and pointed to his recent indictment of Michael Olsen, who drugged and raped a teen girl in Queens and Manhattan hotel rooms.
Tuttle said Bragg’s Human Trafficking Unit is still aggressively going after traffickers.