Why We Need Decrim Now
On April 21, 2021, the New York Times reported that the Manhattan district attorney would no longer prosecute unlicensed massage and prostitution cases. As a sex worker who frequently works in Manhattan there are elements of this announcement that I am very happy about. But as a prison and police abolitionist, former lawyer, and founding member of the Upstate New York Sex Workers Coalition, this move also makes me nervous that it may divert us from our ultimate goal of decriminalization if we aren’t careful.
First, the good part: fewer prosecutions are definitely better than more prosecutions. However, counting on D.A.s to not prosecute is not a strategy that we can or should rely on. There is no security in that promise, they can change their mind any time they want to or are pressured to. Unlike decriminalization, which would actually rescind the laws that make prostitution and unlicensed massage illegal, there is nothing besides the words of a member of law enforcement to rely on and, as sex workers, we know better than to count on that.
Second, there is a big difference between not prosecuting and not arresting. This decision by the D.A. means that full-service sex workers in Manhattan won’t be prosecuted (for those particular crimes), but does not prevent us from being arrested. Therefore, it does nothing at all to change the relationship between police and sex workers, and the police can harass us just as much.
Further, just like under the so-called Equality Model/The Nordic Model, clients could still face prosecution which means that law enforcement can once again keep the fundamentally same presence that they have been. In other words, policing won’t change and sex workers will still remain frequent victims of police violence (including sexual violence).
Also, since sex work is still illegal, police can still use allegations of “prostitution” to carry out searches that would otherwise be illegal under decriminalization. This makes sex workers who use illegal substances, undocumented sex workers, sex workers involved in the criminal justice system, and other marginalized sex workers just as vulnerable to law enforcement as they would be otherwise. (And why it’s crucial to not just fight for decriminalization but also to work towards abolition and tear down borders, etc.)
As an abolitionist, I also fundamentally resent having to count on the benevolence of the “top cop” for my ability to work without interference. Our liberation won’t come from any kind of decisions that police can make, and abolitionists need to always be critical about focusing on “progressive” D.A.’s as a route of change.
Critical Resistance—an abolitionist organization—created one of my favorite tools about judging whether police reforms are abolitionist or not. It’s a chart that asks questions of the proposed reform, such as whether it increases the police budget and one of the questions it asks is whether the reform reduces the scale of policing. While the Manhattan D.A.’s changes aren’t (strictly) police reforms, the question about the scale of policing is important because the police cause so much harm to sex workers. This won’t change that.
While I do work in Manhattan, I am based in upstate New York and it’s especially important to me that this doesn’t make Manhattan based sex workers complacent about working towards statewide decriminalization since the regions with less resources (literally every other region) would have a harder time doing it on our own. This isn’t inevitable by any means, but it is something to be mindful about.
I’m not saying that a D.A. refusing to prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage isn’t a victory, it is! But it’s a measured one and we can’t let it deter us from our ultimate goal of decriminalization and abolition.
Katie Tastrom is a writer, sex worker, and sick person. Her work has appeared on the internet at places like Slate, Truthout, and Rewire. She’s currently working on a book about abolition and disability justice. See more at katietastrom.com.