Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council announced their plan to support sex workers as part of the City’s police reform efforts. But this plan is destined to fall short of its purported goals because it ignores accountability for the NYPD’s Vice Enforcement Division.
Vice is, in theory, tasked with policing so-called quality-of-life offenses such as consensual sex work, narcotics use, and gambling. But in reality, Vice officers use their badges to exploit, sexually harass, and otherwise terrorize sex workers, and their clients.
New York City must heed the call of advocates, community members, and elected officials to dismantle the Vice squad and redistribute its budget to harm reduction groups and supportive programs.
A long history of corruption
There have been numerous high-profile Vice scandals since de Blasio took office. In 2019, a former Vice Detective Ludwig Paz – along with seven other Vice officers – organized an exploitative prostitution ring. In 2017, Vice Officer Michael Golden was busted for having sex with numerous noncitizen sex workers while he was on duty, and then arresting them.
That same year, Yang Song, a 38 year-old immigrant that worked as a masseuse and a sex worker in Queens, jumped nearly forty feet to her death during a Vice raid. Yang Song confided in her mother and her attorney that she had been sexually assaulted by a Vice officer who made threats and wielded a gun and his badge. Her family and attorney claim that Yang Song filed a complaint against the officer, but there was never a response, and she lived in fear of retaliation.
Since Mayor de Blasio took office, New York City has paid more than $1 million to settle false arrest claims by people targeted for patronizing sex workers. A former Vice officer even admitted to falsely arresting people for patronizing sex workers. Notably, 93 percent of those targeted by these fraudulent arrests were men of color. Yet after each of these scandals, the Mayor’s response ranged from anemic to non-existent. This is despite the fact that sex workers have complained for years about Vice officers coercing sexual favors from them, only to arrest them anyway.
The only acceptable option to combat Vice’s reign of terror is to eradicate the unit.
A recent Propublica report provides numerous accounts from former Vice squad members recounting how officers within the unit use their positions to coerce sexual favors. In the report, one retired sergeant admitted “the undercover can have a nice, cold beer and watch a girl take her clothes off - and he’s getting paid for it.”
The City paid several gay men over $500,000 collectively for falsely arresting them for patronizing sex workers at adult video stores between 2008 and 2009. Arresting non-abusive clients of adult consensual sex workers merely pushes the trade deeper into the shadows, and makes it more difficult for workers to screen clients and access services.
In other countries that employ the so-called “Nordic model” in which sex workers are not arrested but clients are, the results have not been inspiring. This model leads to greater isolation, less access to resources, increased police surveillance, eviction, and violence. Sex workers and their roommates are often still arrested.
Moreover, decriminalization has been recognized by leading NGO’s and scientists as the most effective way to reduce STI transmission, while the “Nordic model,” “equality model,” and other prohibitionist models make it more difficult for workers to negotiate safety and condom use with clients.
Criminalizing either side of sex work transactions prevents workers from using harm reduction tools like screening their clients to make the trade as safe as possible.
Calls for real change go ignored
As Vice’s corruption has continued unchecked, many sex workers and advocacy groups for consensual sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking have asked for Vice to be investigated and defunded. But the Mayor has ignored them.
The only acceptable option to combat Vice’s reign of terror is to eradicate the unit. Instead, the Mayor put out a sex work plan that is thin on details, and does nothing to curtail Vice's abuse. In fact, the City’s plan does not even fully acknowledge the harms caused by the unit. It merely suggests that the threat of arrests from Vice officers “potentially result in coercive practices” (emphasis added).
The City’s initiative commits to formalizing a task force dedicated to expanding supportive services for sex workers. The task force will include many City and NYPD representatives and it will consult with – but not include – sex workers. Vice survivors should not be forced to work with their abusers in order to advocate for the services they deserve.
The plan is unclear about which sex workers will continue to be arrested. It seems that clients, sex workers who live or work together, and those who collaborate with sex workers will still be charged.
Importantly, the plan also does not commit to stopping arrests for unlicensed massage – a felony with dire immigration consequences. This is how many – particularly Asian and Latinx women - are surveilled and ultimately arrested.
What we really need
Instead of nibbling around the edges of reform, New York should invest in established harm reduction mechanisms that would elevate both sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking.
In the wake of coercive Vice practices, several organizations formed to provide comprehensive services. These include help for legal issues, housing, immigration, health care access, mental wellness, harm reduction strategies, help transitioning to different professions if that’s what consensual sex workers choose to do, and help escaping coercive situations for trafficking survivors.
One of the most important groups the City must support are street-based workers, who tend to be the most marginalized. The City should fund peers to do outreach, to offer services, and to be a non-carceral response to any community complaints. Importantly, street-based workers can also be a lifeline to those currently experiencing trafficking and other coercive situations. Utilizing peer outreach models would bolster community trust, support more survivors, and eliminate the risk of further criminalization or harmful interactions with Vice.
The City must also recognize that consensual sex workers are in the trade on a spectrum between choice and circumstance, with race and sexual identity playing a huge role in who is criminalized. LGBTQ+ young people are more than seven times more likely than their counterparts to trade sex due to familial rejection, homelessness, and exclusion from formal economies. Black, Brown, and East Asian New Yorkers account for almost all arrests of both workers and clients, and criminal records only make it more difficult for sex workers to access housing, education, and employment.
Furthermore, the City must recognize poverty, domestic violence, and homelessness increase people’s susceptibility to becoming trafficked. Eliminating or even curbing these social ills will do far more to stop sex trafficking than any law enforcement intervention.
It is unacceptable that in an era of heightened awareness of sexual harassment, Mayor de Blasio is unwilling to reign in sexual violence perpetrated by his own. We must destroy Vice and invest in proven ways to support people who have been forced into the shadows and abused by police for decades because of a backward approach to sex work.