New Yorkers Still Want the Women’s Equality Act. But Will It Hurt Sex Workers?


In the last legislative session, as you might recall if you could stay awake for it, Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced something seemingly everyone should have been in favor of: the Women’s Equality Act (WEA), a 10-point plan to strengthen women’s rights in the state. The omnibus bill, which was ultimately split into 10 individual bills, focused on everything from preventing pay and pregnancy discrimination to strengthening laws against human trafficking to protecting abortion rights. But in the end, the whole WEA failed, after a group of Democrats in the Senate sided with Republican lawmakers to block the abortion rights measure, and the Assembly and Senate couldn’t agree on whether to proceed without it. The fight to pass it will be back on next session; groups like the New York Women’s Equality Coalition have made it clear that isn’t over, not by a long shot.

But now there’s a new concern from sex workers and their advocates: in trying to prevent human trafficking, would the WEA really just hurt prostitutes? And is the anti-trafficking provision why Assembly Republicans are suddenly so enthusiastic about the bill?

This debate is still happening among a small group of people; a new poll by the Siena Research Institute shows that most New Yorkers still have no idea what the Women’s Equality Act is , with 58 percent saying they “need more information” about the bill before passing judgment on it. But among voters who were familiar with it, the support for the abortion measure was fairly strong: Fifty-four percent want the version passed that protects abortion rights, while 28 percent supported the version passed by the Senate, which left out the abortion plank.

In other words, New York voters are, as always, supportive of abortion rights. That seems to have escaped the notice of Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who didn’t even want to allow a vote on the WEA in the Senate as long as the abortion provision was still attached.

But Skelos claims he’s a huge fan of the ladies and their equality, issuing a statement last week calling on the Assembly to come back and pass the abortion-less bill.

So, what gives? In a word, trafficking, which has become Skelos’s cause célèbre. His statement was issued after an FBI sting, Operation Cross Country, rescued 105 sexually exploited children and teenagers. (The FBI said some of the teens had been trafficked through, as well as other sites. Backpage was formerly owned by Village Voice Media. The two entities split in September, with Backpage becoming its own company, and the new Voice Media Group taking full ownership of all the newspapers in the chain, including the Voice.)

Skelos accused Assembly Democrats of ignoring human trafficking, adding, “The New York State Assembly can no longer ignore this critical issue. It’s time for the speaker to bring his members back to Albany and join us in passing a women’s equality agenda for New York, and to protect the innocent victims of sex trafficking. No more politics, no more stalling. The New York Democratic Party needs to wake up and help us achieve a positive resolution now.”

And preventing trafficking and sexual exploitation is something everyone supports. But sex worker advocates, as well as at least one anti-trafficking group, say the language of the WEA doesn’t actually do much for trafficking victims. Instead, they argue, it’s a back-door way to create new penalties for prostitutes who aren’t being trafficked. As reproductive news site RH Reality Check notes, “[T]he bill language focused almost exclusively on criminal penalties on prostitution. … Initially, it was a challenge for anti-trafficking advocates who did not have an anti-prostitution agenda to get information on the WEA language. So not only were sex workers left out of advocacy on a bill that affected them directly, but even advocates who either support or have neutral positions on the rights of sex workers were considered outsiders.”

If you read the full text of the SB 5879 (available here), there are a number of provisions that do seem to further penalize sex workers, without doing much to address trafficking. There’s a new criminal offense created, for example, if you let someone use your car for prostitution without making a “reasonable attempt” to stop it. That would now qualify as “permitting prostitution.” Other measures, like stiffening the penalty for “promoting prostitution” in a school zone, also seem to crack down on prostitutes and johns, without necessarily distinguising between sex workers who are there voluntarily and those who have been trafficked and exploited.

The New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN), a group that provides direct services to victims of trafficking, is also concerned. In a memorandum, NYATN expressed reservations about the bill, writing that it didn’t ultimately do much to create new protections for victims:

While NYATN welcomes efforts to improve upon New York’s current anti-trafficking law, it is crucial that such efforts actually improve upon current law and meet the needs of trafficking survivors. Unfortunately, much of the TVPJA does not focus on human trafficking and human traffickers, but on prostitution, whether or not it involves force, fraud, or coercion. The bill creates new offenses, widens the net of those caught in existing offenses, and increases the consequences of being convicted of many offenses. Such consequences include being subject to mandatory minimum sentences, being added to the sex offender registry, facing civil commitment, and being threatened with eviction.

NYATN wants to see better protections in the bill for both trafficking victims and “minors at risk of engaging in commercial sex,” pointing out that they, too, need help and services: “[M]ost young people who engage in commercial sex will benefit from fully funding adequate shelters for homeless and unaccompanied youth, programs that create opportunities for living wage employment, and services that treat youth with a rights-based approach that is respectful and nonjudgmental.”

It’s still not clear when or if the debate over the bill will continue, or whether the abortion provision will survive. But one thing seems pretty clear: “respectful, nonjudgmental” services for all sex workers are still a long, long way off, no matter which party we’re talking about.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the WEA stalled after Democrats in the Assembly failed to support it. In fact, the Assembly passed the whole ten-point-plan. But a group of Democrats in the Senate sided with Republican lawmakers to oppose the abortion rights provision, leading ultimately to the bill’s failure. I apologize for the error.