November 30, 2019
Two years ago, during a raid on the Flushing massage parlor where she worked, 38-year-old Yang Song jumped from the building’s third-floor window, rather than face the vice officers who were running up the stairs. Yang died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital the following morning.
Yang Song had been arrested months before on prostitution charges. Her case was referred to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), and a court date had been scheduled for December. Hyphen magazine’s interview with Yang’s family following her death confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody.
An officer had confiscated her money and her phone and then demanded sexual services. An immigrant working in a criminalized industry, Yang felt powerless to refuse. She bravely reported the assault to the local precinct and helped them identify the police assailant.
This victory was short-lived and costly for Yang. Following the report, vice agents began to harass and threaten her. They pressured Yang to become an undercover informant, to turn in clients and friends. When Yang refused, law enforcement targeted her in repeated stings. With the assault in recent memory and a December court date scheduled, facing re-arrest would have meant prison time and possible deportation, not to mention the prospect of another attack, or worse.
Yang’s experience at the hands of law enforcement is an illustration of why sex workers are unlikely—and in some cases unable—to report crimes committed against them (especially by the police). Following her death, a report issued by the Queens District Attorney’s office denied any wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.
The raid took place months after NYPD pledged to curb prostitution arrests. A 2017 report by the Urban Justice Center revealed that arrests of Asian-identified people for prostitution and unlicensed massages increased by 2700% from 2012 to 2016. Fully 87% of the arrests for unlicensed massages were of Asian migrant women.
Tragedies like this are enabled by bad laws that systematically disenfranchise immigrants and sex workers. Police raids are traumatic and violent, treating supposed victims as criminals. Arrests do not help, saddling defendants with court fees and criminal records that further limit their ability to find another job. HTICs, established in Queens Criminal Court in 2010 and later expanded to NYC’s other four boroughs, fail to identify trafficking survivors and neglect to provide workers with the services they need, such as employment, housing, education, and healthcare.
A report by the Yale School of Public Health found that courts increase harm by providing a way for ICE to target immigrants.
Criminalization of prostitution allows discrimination and government-sponsored violence to thrive. Yang Song’s tragic death brought these realities to light. In a world that pities, condemns, or erases them, sex workers continue to demand rights. Organizations like Red Canary Song and Womankind advocate for Asian sex workers and survivors of trafficking in New York. Red Canary Song held a beautiful vigil to honor Yang Song’s life on November 30 of this year.
Help support the rights and safety of all by visiting DSW’s Take Action page.
Marchers honor Yang Song at a vigil in 2018 and call for decriminalization to prevent more harm. (Photo: Emma Whitford/Hyphen magazine, 2019)
Yang Song’s family traveled to New York the month after her death in the hopes of gaining insight into the circumstances surrounding her death. Yang’s mother, Yumai Shi, and brother, Hai Song, are pictured in the office of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team’s office on 40th Road, across the street from where Yang fell. (Photo: Scott Heins/The Appeal, 2019)
November 20-22, 2019
DSW attended the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (NACDL’s) 2019 Defending Sex Crimes Seminar, an annual event that brings together defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates. NACDL is an opportunity for experts to exchange knowledge around protecting the rights of defendants and promoting a more equitable justice process.
This year’s seminar, “Zealous Advocacy in Sexual Assault & Child Victims Cases,” covered topics such as alcohol and memory, campus sex cases, DNA, false confessions, issues with juveniles in sex cases, and the psychology of the jury, among others. Melissa Broudo and Kaytlin Bailey of DSW got a warm reception at the conference. They enjoyed talking to compassionate litigators with decades of experience working on legal issues related to sex and crime.
DSW’s booth illustrated the disastrous consequences of conflating consensual adult sex work with trafficking; the former should be decriminalized, and the latter should not. Defense attorneys visiting the booth expressed nearly unanimous support of DSW’s work.
DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey and Melissa Broudo (left to right) on the first day of the conference.
Making friends and gaining allies: DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Kaytlin Bailey are pictured with new DSW supporter, criminal defense attorney Rick Horowitz.
November 6, 2019
Melissa Broudo joined fellow activists and attorneys for a panel discussion on the whats, whys, and hows of sex-work decriminalization. The panel was organized by the NYU Law School chapter of If/When/How—Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. Fellow guests included Tiffany Cabán, who is a career public defender, recent candidate for Queens District Attorney, and national organizer for the Working Families Party; TS Candii, committee steering member of DecrimNY and sex work activist; Jared Trujillo, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and steering committee member of DecrimNY; and Kate Zen, the co-founder and interim director of Red Canary Song. All speakers have a history advocating for marginalized communities in New York City, in particular, LGBTQ and TGNC folks, migrants, sex workers, and survivors.
The panelists brought a variety of skills, backgrounds, and experience to the panel, which led to an informed discussion articulating the compounding harms of current policies criminalizing sex work. Despite their diverse backgrounds, all five advocates vigorously emphasized that the decriminalization of sex work provides the best path toward decarceration, harm reduction, restorative justice, and community health and safety. The conversation included a history of the sex workers’ rights movement, the conflation of sex work with human trafficking, the push for “End Demand” (partial criminalization), and the exclusion of sex workers from the Me Too movement.
It was exciting to see activists come together, share their expertise, and educate the next generation of social justice lawyers on decriminalization. The panel lasted nearly two hours. After the discussion concluded, the audience was allowed to ask questions and stressed how appreciative they were to learn about these issues, so often misportrayed or overlooked. It’s time to start listening to sex workers.
DSW’s Melissa Broudo explains the difference between full decriminalization and partial criminalization.
Melissa Broudo of DSW and the SOAR Institute, Kate Zen of Red Canary Song, Tiffany Cabán from the Working Families Party, Jared Trujillo of Legal Aid Society, and TS Candii of DecrimNY (L to R).
November 2-6, 2019
DSW highlighted the public-health implications of decriminalizing sex work at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA’s) annual international conference in Philadelphia. Attendees conduct harm-prevention research on STI prevention, drug use, the environment, migration, sexual health, and violence on national and global scales. The vast majority of public-health professionals who approached DSW’s table agreed that the data from across disciplines support full decriminalization to improve public safety, health, and human rights for workers and communities.
Health professionals and researchers understand that decriminalization is the only way to combat violence, vulnerability, and health risks sex workers currently face. Many attendees have experience working in STI and gender-based violence prevention, and issues related to sexual and reproductive health. Their research informs their support and understanding of DSW’s work.
The conference is the largest and most influential annual gathering of public health professionals in the world. This year there were close to 13,000 attendees. Melissa Broudo and Frances Steele presented DSW’s work at the Expo and attended the Bloomberg School of Public Health Alumni event. Attendees expressed their appreciation for DSW’s work and our presence at APHA. We are excited to return next year!
DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Frances Steele work the table at the APHA expo.
October 4, 2019
The New York State Gender Diversity Coalition convened at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar to exchange ideas about how to support gender diversity, equality, and sex worker rights in New York. This new coalition of sex workers’ rights and LGBTQIA* activists highlights the important overlap between DSW’s mission and the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community.
The event was organized by The New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and The Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute, co-directed by Melissa Broudo and Crystal DeBoise of DSW. NYTAG and SOAR have a veritable history of fighting for both of these communities in the New York area and beyond. DSW was honored and excited to join them at this event.
Activists march for sex-worker and trans rights in Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2019. (Photo: Twitter/SWARM)
DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Frances Steele join with the organizers and attendees of the Brooklyn event.
This alliance continues to be incredibly important to the policy we are striving towards. On October 2, LGBTQ advocates in Washington, DC, delivered a letter to DC Council members advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work on the grounds that it is “critical to the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ community.” There will be a hearing on October 17 in DC on the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. If passed, the bill will decriminalize sex work in our nation’s capital. Kaytlin Bailey will testify at the hearing.
September 29/30, 2019
Twenty years after Sweden passed the Sex Purchase Act of 1999, the country hosted “Sex Work, Human Rights, and Health: Assessing 20 Years of the Swedish Model” in Stockholm. The conference brought together activists, researchers, and policymakers from around the world to discuss the impact of the 1999 law, which criminalized the purchase of sex (arresting clients) while permitting the sale of sex (not arresting sex workers).
According to a report released by the organizers of the conference, Sweden’s law has “contributed to [the] increasing stigmatization and vulnerability of women, and people of all genders, contradicting the proclaimed feminist-humanitarian principles of the lawmakers.”
Fuckforbundet, a sex-worker rights organization founded by and for sex workers, organized the conference and published the report “Twenty Years of Failing Sex Workers: A community report on the impact of the 1999 Swedish Sex Purchase Act.”
The report explains how sex workers’ living and working conditions have deteriorated since 1999 because of the Swedish government’s “widespread systematic attempts to eradicate the sex industry.” Rather than empowering women, the Swedish model increases the stigmatization and vulnerability of workers in a criminalized industry. This criminalization is particularly dangerous for immigrants and women of color.
Before the conference concluded, hundreds of activists marched through Stockholm’s streets to demand that the Swedish government protect sex workers. Protesters explained to reporters from PinkNews UK that criminalizing clients contributes to the stigmatization of those in the sex industry.
Notably, the Swedish government has yet to a systematic evaluation of the law. Despite this lack of research, the policy has spread to other countries, including Norway, Iceland, Finland, Canada, and Northern Ireland.
In 2014, a study commissioned by the Norwegian government concluded that sex workers in Norway today suffer from diminished bargaining power and increased safety concerns, instead relying more on abusive third parties.†
The results from Norway prompted Amnesty International to conduct its 2016 study of sex-worker rights, which recommended the full decriminalization of sex work in order to “respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of sex workers.” These findings have been backed up by scholars of multiple disciplines, whose work can be found on the “resources” page of DSW’s web site.
†Bjørndahl, U. (2012). Dangerous Liaisons. A report on the violence women in prostitution in Oslo are exposed to.