So, we’re all hearing about a proposed bill that is poised to pass that would legalize prostitution in New York State.  Not on my watch!

In my organization, a mom disclosed that her 12-year old daughter had a close friend at school of the same age.  This close friend was acting as a facilitator for a trafficker—her mother. Another mother still lives with the trauma of her daughter who was raped, abused, starved and trafficked. These stories are becoming common place. And when we look at the ethnicity of trafficked victims, the FBI estimates that Black children, overwhelmingly girls, make up 55 percent of all prostitution-related arrests. Legalizing prostitution would exponentially grow that percentage, since New York would be sending the message to sex buyers that our girls are for sale in the free and legal market. 

So, when our elected officials are hoping to pass a law that would decriminalize prostitution wholesale, we have a serious problem. Senators Julia Salazar (18th District), Jessica Ramos (13th District), Brad Hoylman (27th District) and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried (75th District) have announced their plan to do so, and, if successful, this law would open the floodgates for sex establishments who want to set up shop in New York.  They’re framing it under decriminalization of “sex work” but all it means is legalization of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying.  This proposal is nothing more than a smoking gun for what’s to come. Prostitution is violence; not sex, not work.  And it is violence perpetrated primarily on Black and Brown women and girls.

Please know that we are working very hard with the NYPD and other city officials to make sure they stop arresting prostituted women. No one should be punished for their own exploitation. We are working with city agencies to make sure services are offered, from housing to medical to income-generating alternatives.  So much needs to be done to help this invisible population recover and thrive. But we also have to ask ourselves who are the agents perpetrating this harm? Who is harming and who is benefiting in the sex trade?  The sex trade is a business like any other: supply, demand and the push to make a profit.  How do pimps and traffickers make their money? Sex buyers.  Take away the demand and the business crumbles.

Those of us who remember Times Square during the 1970s have vivid images of African-American women lining up on 42nd Street and the surrounding red-light district like it was an auction block. We cannot go back to a New York that rolls out the red carpet for pimps, pornographers and traffickers. New York is already a global hub for sex traffickers and sex establishments—we can’t condemn more vulnerable people, especially our youth, to dehumanization and violence with New York State’s blessing. 

Decriminalize the victims by providing supportive services, not by aiding the sex buyers and pimps. New York can’t protect the exploited if you pat their exploiters on the back and give them a key to the city. Our women, girls and LGBTQ youth are not for sale, New York.

We fought hard to get bills passed into law to protect victims and survivors of sex trafficking and with this being entertained we will now lift the protections that have been put in place.  We cannot have it both ways.  It will not work. It will never work.  We must look at the ramifications this will have on our city and state at large.  This does not mean we do not care for those who feel this is the only choice they have.  It means we need to focus on what we can do to provide the economic empowerment they need in order to survive. 

Growing evidence shows the catastrophic effects of decriminalization of the sex trade.  The German government, for example, which deregulated the industry of prostitution in 2002, has found that the sex industry was not made safer for women after the enactment of its law.  Instead, the explosive growth of legal brothels in Germany has triggered sharp increases in sex trafficking and helped organized criminal networks to thrive. Older estimates indicate that roughly 400,000 women and members of the trans community, mostly from the poorest Eastern European countries and the global south, are servicing 1.2 million men every day. A German trade union estimates that the industry generates around 14.5 billion euros annually (roughly $16.5 billion). Legalization has produced flat rate brothels and mega brothel chains, offering men menus with sexual acts galore.

For example, for the grand opening weekend of a brothel near Stuttgart, “management” offered a deal (70 euros for the day/100 at night) that attracted about 1,700 men bussing in from near and far. The sex buyers could then post on internet chat rooms the quality of “services.” A number complained that the women were no longer as fit for use after a few hours. At closing time many of the women “collapsed from exhaustion, pain, injuries and infections, including painful rashes and fungal infections that spread from their genitals down their legs.”

In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution as well.  A 2005 report revealed that the number of unregulated brothels had increased and that there were significantly higher reported incidents of violence—including murder—against prostituted women. Rather than reducing the number of children exploited in the sex industry, both New Zealand Commissioner for Children, Dr. Cindy Kiro, and Inspector Gary Knowles of the Christchurch, stated that there has been a noticeable rise in the number of sex-trafficked children since the law passed. It is reported that girls as young as 12 are bought and sold on the streets, sought mostly by men wanting unprotected sex. Police in Wellington have also reported that the age of prostituted women has declined since the Act.

In the Netherlands, where legalized prostitution generated a proliferation of organized crime in the sex industry, many Dutch cities have closed their legal prostitution zones because of rampant violence. In 2006, 37 prostitution venues in Amsterdam were closed when the city council determined that they were run by sex and drug traffickers. Europol investigations revealed that pimps and brothel owners were collaborating with traffickers to bring women into the country.

Up to 90 percent of women in both Dutch and German brothels are populated with these trafficked women.

In 2008, the National Police Service was commissioned by the National Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the status of prostitution in the Netherlands. The report, entitled “Beneath the Surface,” documented that criminal gangs, working as pimps and bodyguards, had been using extreme violence against women in the legal, licensed supposedly safe sector of the industry for years. 

Former Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen stated “It appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that wasn’t open to abuses by organized crime.” Despite all of this, city council efforts to repeal legalization have continued to fail because big business interests of the sex industry and the significant taxation and tourism profit trump concerns for those harmed by the industry.

Is this what we want for New York? 

It will be just a matter of time. Is this what we want to see? Is this what we will accept?  How do we feel about our children growing up believing that buying and selling human beings for sex is OK because it’s “legal”? It becomes the norm. If the sex industry is legal, it grows. It increases the demand, which increases human trafficking, which attracts violence.

The sex trade is a dangerous industry and to ignore its dangers will destroy our children and our communities.

Some say decriminalizing prostitution will keep it safer, but not one of the governments mentioned above have found any measurable or actual improvement in the social protections, safety, working conditions, or the ability of prostituted women to exit. Quite the contrary; up to 90 percent of women in brothels are undocumented, foreign and most likely trafficked.  Criminal activity and suffering rises, not diminishes.

What is going to stop this from happening in New York City?  It has failed in other countries and it will surely fail here if it happens, but why risk such pain and violence?  When asked about legalizing prostitution in New York, let’s stand together in solidarity and declare, Not on my watch!

Rev. Dr. Que English, CEO/founder, Not On My Watch, Inc.; convener, TrafficK-Free NYC; and member of the New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution (NYAALP)

Follow us @NotOnMyWatchNYC #partofthesolution #NoLegalizationSexTrade