“Violence in the sex trade is the norm not the exception,” Nikki Bell, the CEO of Living in Freedom Together, which supports women leaving prostitution, told The Post.
“As someone who works with survivors every day and runs an exit program for survivors and seeing the harm and violence prostitution has caused, witnessing that professionally and experiencing it personally, it’s one more time our voices were ignored,” the sex trade survivor continued.
The coalition of 21 organizations joined together and formed the group Survivors’ Agenda, which released a report at the end of September announcing the official, “collective” perspectives of sexual violence survivors.
The document is meant to “drive and inform policy change” using the voices of those who’ve suffered sexual violence and was created using surveys and conversations with a variety of stakeholders.
“Decriminalization of the commercial exchange of sexual services that is adult, voluntary, and consensual, to protect sex workers from abuse and exploitation and lessen their vulnerability to violence by being forced to work in secret, unsafe locations,” the agenda reads under the subhead “policies that move us forward.”
“This does not refer to any actions involving children, sex trafficking, or trafficking of humans for any reason, which are undeniably human rights violations.”
The surprise move by victims of sexual violence felt like a gut punch for those who worked in the trade or experienced sex trafficking.
“Who the hell are they talking to?” railed Audrey Morrissey, the associate director of My Life My Choice who was trafficked starting when she was 16 and left prostitution at age 30.
“Talk to the ones who just got out,” Morrissey, who works with adult survivors freshly out of prostitution, went on.
“None of them are saying ‘oh if you legalize it, it won’t be painful’… what we know for sure in places where prostitution is legal, there’s still violence. The violence doesn’t go away.”
Cristian Eduardo, 29, a survivor of both sex and labor trafficking, said he felt “silenced and disrespected” by Survivors’ Agenda.
“Most survivors of the sex trade, we don’t support full decriminalization because we have been in hell and we don’t want our communities to be in hell,” Eduardo, a Mexican native who filled out Survivors’ Agenda’s survey, told The Post.
“With their statement they are saying ‘well we’re assuming all survivors support full decriminalization’ and that is not true.”
Rebekah Charleston, a sex trade survivor who worked in Nevada’s legal brothels and now runs the anti-trafficking group Valiant Hearts, was present for a conversation with Survivors’ Agenda leading up to the report’s release and said critical voices were ignored.
“It is very short sighted, I think that they are hearing some stories and they mistakenly believe that legalizing it or fully decriminalizing it will make it safer and better and that’s just not the truth,” said Charleston, 39, referring to Nevada’s higher rates of illegal sex-trade activity despite having legal brothels.
She was disappointed to see Me Too aligned with Survivors’ Agenda, saying sexual violence and harassment are inherent parts of prostitution.
“I think Me Too was a huge step forward and for them to join Survivors’ Agenda and advocate for this policy position is like 20 steps backwards,” Charleston said.
“It was like we were making strides and we were having our voices heard and now we want it to be our right to become products and be bought and sold by men, it just doesn’t even make sense to me.”
Survivors’ Agenda counts Tarana Burke, who created the Me Too movement, as one of their principals and Dani Ayers, Me Too’s current CEO, as a member of the core team and one of the agenda’s co-creators. Other members include the National Women’s Law Center, YWCA and the Center for American Progress. Aside from legalizing prostitution, the agenda outlines support for a host of other issues, including more funding for sexual violence survivors, an expansion of the family and medical leave act and universal health care.
Decriminalization has become a central issue in the fight for racial justice and women’s rights and states like Vermont and New York have bills on the table that would legalize prostitution so people wouldn’t be arrested for doing what advocates call a job like any other. Supporters say legalizing prostitution would reduce sex trafficking and keep vulnerable people safer.
But what’s missed about full decriminalization is it would also legalize pimping, sex buying and potentially brothel owning, which would make trafficking cases harder to bring and would put people, especially people of color, at a higher risk, experts and advocates said.
“With a full decriminalization, that means that the demand will grow and don’t you have a clue that if the demand grows, it needs to be filled,” Morrissey, 57, said.
“The void will be filled with our black and brown children and our black and brown women who don’t have a choice,” the woman of color continued, adding black and brown women are disproportionally impacted by prostitution and sex trafficking when compared to white women.
Bell, who was trafficked at age 17 and didn’t exit prostitution until 2014, said there are no jobs where “choking, getting beaten and sodomized” is the norm.
“When I hear people say it’s a job like any other I’d like to say go hit the track and come back to me after a day after you’ve been choked, raped, sodomized and ejaculated in your face,” Bell, 39, fumed.
“That’s the reality, it’s not a job like any other, there’s no protections, you don’t have any benefits, I would like for somebody to tell me what happens when they go to their pimp and they put in for their PTO and how that transpires.”
Bell said at the center of the decriminalization debate is how trans people of color in the sex trade are disproportionally impacted by arrests and how many of them say prostitution is the only way for them to make money and feed themselves and their families.
Layleen Polanco, a trans woman of color working in the sex trade, died on Rikers Island last June after being unable to post a $500 bail for a prostitution charge. Her story has become a central piece in the fight for decriminalization and criminal justice reform but Bell said lawmakers and advocates supporting the movement are relegating trans women to an inherently harmful line of work.
“What we should be fighting for is to have jobs not discriminating against trans black women in the workplace, we should be fighting for better housing and job training,” Bell said.
“We shouldn’t be relegating them to prostitution.”
The competing ideology to full decriminalization is the “Nordic” or “Equality” model, which decriminalizes people in prostitution while still holding pimps and buyers accountable.
“That’s a position we can all agree on, no one wants prostituted individuals criminalized,” Bell said.
“We want an option where pimps are not called managers and where traffickers are held accountable,” Morrissey added.
A bill that would bring the equality model to New York is expected to be introduced to the New York Legislature by Assemblymember Tremaine Wright and Sen. Liz Krueger.
Hundreds of survivors sent a letter, obtained by The Post, to Survivors’ Agenda asking them to consider the equality model over full decriminalization but their requests fell on deaf ears. World Without Exploitation, which counts 180 member organizations, many of them anti-trafficking and women’s rights groups, also pushed for Survivors’ Agenda to consider the equality model to no avail.
While the agenda claims to be the “collective” perspective of survivors, it notes that not “every organization that has engaged in the creation of the Agenda [has] taken positions on the full spectrum of policies set out here.”
“But we are united in believing that a comprehensive survivor-centered vision is necessary to achieve the changes we seek,” the agenda continues.
Time’s Up told The Post in a statement they haven’t “taken an official position on the nuanced issue of full decriminalization of sex work” but didn’t comment on the voices left out of the agenda.
“TIME’S UP believes work should be safe and equitable for women no matter where they work or the kind of work they do,” the statement reads.
“We support the provision of legal and social support that allow women to choose work that is free from coercion, exploitation, or violence… TIME’S UP will continue working to ensure that all women have the choice of work that is safe, fair and dignified.”
Me Too and Survivors’ Agenda did not return multiple requests for comment.