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TS Candii first performed sex work at age 13, after she was forced out of her family home in Tennessee.
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To survive, she decided to lie about her age, she said, taking refuge with a group of older transgender women who became her mentors. They taught her how to support herself by trading sex, warning that she would have few options in the formal economy, which is often intolerant of trans people. Now a New Yorker, Ms. Candii, a year-old trans woman, has since tried to find other forms of work, but at each of the jobs she has held, including managing a gas station and working as a private investigator, she has faced some combination of discrimination, docked pay and termination in response to her identity, so she has always ended up back in the trade.
She also entered the sex trade as a teenager, but not by choice.
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When she was 16, a date with a violent client landed her in the hospital; later, working at a strip club, she endured racial abuse from patrons that eroded her self-esteem. For their history of sex work, Ms. Candii and Ms. Blount have been considered criminals under current New York State law.
Pimps and intermediaries can get up to six months. Buying sex is illegal, too: Patronizing a sex worker can put a person in jail for up to a year.
Recently, a of New York State laws have been implemented to expunge the records of trafficking victims like Ms. Blount, who have been forced or coerced into prostitution. And over the past year, district attorneys across New York City have announced plans to stop prosecuting sex workers and to vacate a of their criminal records.
But given the range of experiences within the industry, not everyone agrees on how to approach the shift. Put another way, the Stop Violence bill aims to legitimize workers and address what is viewed as overreach by law enforcement in the sex trade, while the Survivors bill aims to curb the exploitation of vulnerable people and to prevent New York City from becoming, as one anti-trafficking activist put it, a mecca for sex tourism.
Candii backs the Stop Violence bill.
She is part of a coalition of current and former sex workers, human rights organizations and social justice advocates called DecrimNY. By decriminalizing the entire industry, they argue, there will be fewer opportunities for unnecessary arrest — and better chances of destigmatizing the trade. For example, until this year, people on the street who were suspected of prostitution could get stopped and possibly arrested by the police, a policy that was disproportionately applied to women of color, especially transgender women.
Candii described an incident three years ago when two officers picked her up in the Bronx while she was outside, smoking a cigarette, saying they were going to arrest her for prostitution unless she either became an informant to locate guns and drugs — life-endangering work — or gave them oral sex.
She did the latter. Stories like this are impossible to corroborate, which is exactly why workers like Ms. Candii want protection from law enforcement, she said.
This past February, her organization, DecrimNY, helped instigate the repeal of the loitering ban that the officers used to pick her up. According to a spokeswoman for the Police Department, it shifted its priorities in to focus on arresting buyers and promoters of prostitution instead of sex workers themselves. This decision has meant a reduction in arrests in the sex trade.
This year, there have been 93 arrests to date. The main concern of the rival bill is stopping traffickers like Ms. Blount is employed.
Although supporters of each bill are looking to remove penalties for people in the industry, their differences sprout from a disagreement over whether sex work can be viewed as a consensual exchange like any other form of labor. Backers of the Survivors bill fear that full decriminalization of the industry could turn the city into Amsterdam or Berlin, where prostitution is legal but trafficking is still an issue.
Lloyd said, referring to recent scandals there, like the trafficking of women throughout a large chain of brothels. By criminalizing buyers, the Survivors bill aims to prevent demand from growing. Supporters of the Stop Violence bill, which would uphold current trafficking laws, find the Survivors approach cracking down on buyers and pimps to decrease overall demand disempowering to sex workers.
Gentili said that the leadership of the Survivors bill, which includes several nonprofit executives, skews toward people who have not experienced the sex trade themselves. Gentili consider their approach more realistic, in that they believe decriminalizing an activity that is happening anyway will make it safer.
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Although sex work is illegal, it can and does happen anywhere from hotels and apartments to streets and other public spaces, Ms. Candii said. Under the Stop Violence bill, brick-and-mortar sex work establishments would be able to operate, with age, wherever legal business is allowed. This would eliminate raids and prostitution arrests, which can be dangerous — several sex workers have died in recent years during them — but also just plain frustrating and expensive for consensual workers.
Prostitution cases are currently heard in Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, specialized tribunals deed to divert sex workers from jail to programs — many run by Survivors bill supporters — that provide social, medical and economic assistance. Blount said of one such service, GEMS. But many consensual sex workers feel that the current programs take up time they could be using to make money, and they find the treatment demeaning.
What’s the best way to protect sex workers? depends on whom you ask.
Jared Trujillo, a former sex worker who is now a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union and a Stop Violence supporter, said that sometimes sex workers are so turned off by these court-mandated programs that they decide not to attend, triggering a warrant for their arrest and jailing. According to Alexi Ashe Meyersa former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn who helped draft the Survivors bill, this tactic works. Meyers said. In lieu of forcing traumatized survivors like Ms. Blount to testify, prosecutors can charge trafficking suspects with illicit actions like posting for sex online.
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But the law can catch sex workers and their communities in its net, too. An acquaintance of Ms. The Stop Violence bill would protect these practices, but the Survivors bill would continue to penalize them in most cases, Mr. Trujillo said.
As for those onlinewhich were targeted with federal legislation inhave been mixed. Supporters say that shutting down websites that sold for sex has effectively deterred traffickers though hard s on trafficking are virtually impossible to gather.
But after those laws passed, Ms. Candii said, it became more difficult for consensual sex workers to find clients online, so she began working the street instead. Online, she could vet clients and discuss boundaries, condom use and payment terms.
Eric Adams, a former police officer and the Democratic nominee, has so far rejected calls to decriminalize sex work in any way. In the meantime, the debate remains contentious. Numerous decriminalization advocates say they have stepped back from their work because they have been harassed.
One Survivors bill supporter would not speak on the record because she was afraid of being doxxed. Leaders on both sides, however, are continuing their efforts to support sex workers on the ground.
Candii has been distributing food and rent money to sex workers through Black Trans Nationa mutual aid nonprofit she founded last year. The salary she collects through the organization is enough to keep her in permanent housing and out of the sex trade, but as funding dwindles, she fears that could change. Candii, who hopes to build on her community advocacy with a run for public office.
Depends on Whom You Ask.