ALBANY, N.Y. -- More than 100 current and former sex workers rallied at New York's Capitol on Tuesday to encourage lawmakers to repeal a loitering law they say police use to harass people simply for their appearance.
Members of the group known as Decrim NY said that while they'd prefer the complete decriminalization of prostitution, the elimination of criminal penalties for loitering would be a good start.
Advocates noted that many sex workers are underage, homeless or the victims of sex abuse or human trafficking. Criminal penalties, they said, do little but punish and stigmatize already vulnerable people who need access to housing, health care and education.
"For many of us, sex work has meant survival," said Jessica Raven, who said she got into sex work as a minor after running away from abuse in the foster care system. Raven is now an advocate for sex workers and a leader of the decriminalization effort.
Under current law, loitering for the purposes of engaging in prostitution is a violation, the lowest level of offense, for first-time offenders and is a misdemeanor for repeat offenders. Several speakers referred to the charge as "walking while trans" because, they said, transgender people are often charged by police based on their clothing or appearance.
Five years ago, in response to similar concerns, New York City police ended their longstanding practice of confiscating unused condoms from suspected sex workers as evidence of prostitution.
The New York Police Department said in an email Tuesday that it had "shifted focus" to target traffickers and those who promote or solicit prostitution, and that it connects trafficking victims with social services.
"The NYPD understands that many of the persons involved are doing so because they are being forced, coerced or otherwise made to against their will," said Detective Sophia Mason, a spokeswoman.
Decrim NY also supports legislation before lawmakers that would make it easier for former sex workers and trafficking victims to expunge convictions from their records if they were forced to commit the crime by traffickers.
Trafficking victims may already seek to expunge prostitution charges, but not other crimes often associated with sex work and trafficking, such as trespassing or drug possession.
Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat, sponsored the bill after talking to sex workers in her district about the best ways to help them.
"I want to represent every single one of my neighbors," she said.
Neither bill has been scheduled for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. While no lawmakers have spoken out against the legislation, passage of the bills before lawmakers end their annual session late next month is a long shot.
Still, the current and former sex workers who came to the Capitol said they have survived harder challenges than Albany politics.
"People are going to say awful things to us," said Audacia Ray, a former sex worker who now advocates on their behalf. "I know our experience as survivors — and as hustlers — is going to get us through."