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.
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.