The race for district attorney of Philadelphia is heating up for the May 18 primary, and one of many issues on the table is the future of sex workers in Philly.
Will the city continue to move progressively on the issue, as part of a national trend toward decriminalization? Or will we go back toward a traditional model of arresting and jailing people, purportedly for their own good?
Recently, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced his office would no longer prosecute prostitution cases. This move is cautiously applauded by activists, along with the repeal of “anti-loitering” laws that had largely been used to harass trans women of color, as well as the decision to no longer consider possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution. In March, a Queens D.A. requested 700 related cases be dismissed, and a Brooklyn D.A. vacated outstanding prostitution-related warrants dating as far back as the 1970s.
These changes will not only make it easier for sex workers and victims of trafficking to seek help and report crimes committed against them, but will also free up police and court resources. Of the changes, Vance said in a statement, “Criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers.”
The only way forward is full decriminalization. This includes the distribution and possession of drugs and the procurement and solicitation of sex.
Much of the national coverage of New York has mentioned that similar action has been taken already in Philadelphia – as well as Baltimore, San Francisco and Ann Arbor, Mich.
When then-candidate Larry Krasner was first running for office as Philly D.A., he met with members of Project Safe, a local mutual aid organization for “women, queer, and trans people involved in the street economies of Philly” that focuses much of its effort on the Kensington area. According to Project Safe’s Aisha Mohammed, Krasner reached out to them for information that would help inform his office’s policies and “keep sex workers safe.”
As D.A., Krasner has received both praise and scorn for his policy of declining to prosecute prostitution cases. Instead, his office said in a statement to Philly Weekly, “Generally, those who are arrested for solicitation are offered a diversion program.”
We know where incumbent Krasner stands on the issue. What about the other candidates?
In a phone interview with Democratic challenger Carlos Vega, the candidate told PW: “What I want to address is, those women who are really in the sex trade, is that they are victims – these ladies are addicted to drugs: Heroin, crack, whatever – and they are being basically abused and exploited by the pimps and also by the drug dealers.”
Vega supports the diversion programs like Dawn Court, which he says will avoid giving sex workers a record and, “Gets these ladies out of that environment, get their needs met for job training, get them clean and sober, getting them housing and putting them onto the straight and narrow. And those ladies give us information on drug dealers and pimps. By not addressing that, we’re saying ‘go figure it out and hopefully you’ll be alive in a year.’”
Additionally, Vega says addressing sex work is a quality-of-life issue and references growing up in New York.
“Let’s say on your street you buy a house and you’re raising a family. Those ladies don’t take you to a home, they commit acts in an alley, a hallway or a car. I don’t think anyone wants that in their neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, Republican challenger Charles Peruto, Jr said in a statement to PW: “We are not doing anyone any favors by not prosecuting sex workers. They are mostly drug-addicted females who need the system to at least attempt to get them clean, and counselled. Like other crimes of this nature, they can work their way out of the system by completing our drug program, and staying clean. They can even work their way to an expungement.”
But what do diversion programs mean in practicality? While sex workers may not be facing prosecution for the sale of sex, they may still face aggressive interactions with police. And if their clients still face criminal prosecution – a strategy known as “end-demand,” or the “Nordic Model” – they may actually be more endangered. International research has shown that this model ironically has increased the amount of violence that sex workers face at the hands of clients and police and does nothing to reduce issues of housing and employment discrimination.
A 2015 study found that decriminalization of sex work would be the single biggest policy change that could be made to curb HIV transmission.
Further, while the diversion programs themselves are an upgrade from jail and a criminal record, they are not without criticism. Currently, if a woman is picked up for a prostitution-related charge and has similar (non-violent) priors, she can qualify for Project Dawn, a diversion program that takes roughly a year to complete, often much longer.
According to sources within the Project Dawn system, participants will undergo trauma therapy, drug and alcohol treatment, they’ll be set up with a case manager and then will have regular reporting to a probation officer and monthly court appearances before a judge. It’s a fairly intense intervention.
Conversely, the men who are first-time arrestees for soliciting will undergo a SER (Sexual Education and Responsibility) program that only requires one afternoon-long class.
Aside from not being particularly egalitarian, these diversion programs are not seen by sex work activists as true reform. In a joint statement, sex worker rights organizations Project Safe and Philadelphia Red Umbrella Alliance said:
“The only way forward is full decriminalization. This includes the distribution and possession of drugs and the procurement and solicitation of sex. These issues are intertwined, and decriminalization allows us, as a city, to address the history of harm caused by criminalization. Further, decriminalization is an effective anti-violence measure that helps reduce violence, including police violence, in our city.”
After New York’s latest announcements, sex worker rights activists and some politicians – like Manhattan D.A. Candidate Eliza Orlins – are pushing to go further, to full decriminalization. Many health and social science researchers, including the World Health Organization, support this policy. A 2015 study found that decriminalization of sex work would be the single biggest policy change that could be made to curb HIV transmission.
For advocates of decriminalization, drug treatment and housing services could be rendered without involving police or courts. But for many in the city, the criminal justice system is still seen as the solution to social problems. The upcoming election will help determine the trajectory of this issue in Philly.
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