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Manhattan DA Candidate Eliza Orlins Has a Plan to Make New York City Safer for Sex Workers

Michael Ellsberg
·12 min read

Today, Manhattan District Attorney candidate Eliza Orlins is unveiling a comprehensive policy platform calling for the full decriminalization of sex work between consenting adults, The Daily Beast is reporting exclusively. Formulated in consultation with many sex workers and sex worker-advocacy organizations, it is one of the most detailed policy positions on the full decriminalization of sex work ever put forward by a major candidate at any level of U.S. politics.

Shared early with The Daily Beast, Orlins’ policy platform opens, “As District Attorney I will advocate for the full decriminalization of consensual sex work. This will begin with declining to prosecute all cases of consensual sex work. Sex work is work. Criminalizing sex work stigmatizes and disproportionately targets people of color and trans women, who are already marginalized members of our community… Decriminalizing is the most effective way to protect sex workers from police violence. It is the best way to help sex workers access health care and lower the risk of violence from clients. It is necessary if we aim to reduce mass incarceration and advance equality in the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Orlins’s platform is in line with recent national polling, which shows that 52 percent of American voters support the full decriminalization of sex work either strongly or somewhat. For Democratic voters, that number jumps to 64 percent.

The candidate’s platform draws a strong distinction between sex trafficking and sex work. She emphasized that she will aggressively prosecute sex traffickers. Sex trafficking is typically defined as any commercial sexual activity that is brought about through “force, fraud, or coercion,” or that involves a minor. It is generally distinct from sex work, which is commercial sexual activity between consenting adults, without the element of force, fraud, or coercion. District attorneys do not have the power to change laws on sex work, but they have tremendous leeway on which laws get prosecuted, which in turn impacts who gets arrested and who doesn’t.

The Pro-Nudity Social Network Sex Workers Are Flocking to

She is running in the Democratic primary, which will occur on June 22, 2021. (It appears that the incumbent, Cyrus Vance Jr., who declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein in 2015 under strange circumstances before doing so years later, is not running.) Given how blue Manhattan leans, the winner of the Democratic primary will in all likelihood become the borough’s next DA. Orlins has been a public defender in Manhattan for 10 years. (Before her law career, she was a competitor in the 2004 and 2008 seasons of Survivor.)

Orlins is releasing her call for full decriminalization the same week that New York state Senator Liz Krueger, also a Democrat in Manhattan, has announced she will be introducing into the Senate a version of what is known as the Nordic model, which involves arresting the clients of sex workers, and in some circumstances not arresting the sex workers themselves. Originating in Sweden, the Nordic model is designed to force sex workers into other lines of work by starving them of funds from clients. “It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society—so even though we don’t put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them,” Swedish Detective Superintendent Jonas Tolle, one of that nation’s top enforcers of the Nordic model, explained in 2010. “The above negative effects of the ban that [sex workers] describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution,” the Swedish government wrote in a 2007 report, pointing out that the policy is more intended to end sex work than to help sex workers.

In order to cater to rising voter interest in the full decriminalization of sex work, Nordic model advocates recently have begun to refer to their model as “decriminalizing sex work.” Sex worker advocates say this is deliberately misleading, because members of any other profession—say, hairdressers—would hardly consider their work to be “decriminalized” if it were legal to sell a haircut but not to buy one.

In contrast to Sen. Krueger, Orlins denounces this approach in her policy platform: “Prohibitionist models (such as the ‘Nordic Model’) continue to criminalize and stigmatize sex workers. Partial legalization schemes give prosecutors too much discretion to determine which cases to prosecute.”

Several of Orlins’ opponents in the race have also called for full decriminalization of consensual sex work and/or stated that they would not prosecute sex workers or clients on their websites; these candidates include Tahanie Aboushi, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang, and Dan Quart. However, Orlins is the only candidate so far who has issued a detailed policy platform on this issue. In her policy statement, Orlins may be part of a gathering trend: on Jan. 14, Eli Savit, the prosecutor for Washtenaw County, Michigan, issued a comprehensive policy statement calling for full decriminalization of sex work and declining to prosecute it.

Orlins gave The Daily Beast an exclusive interview on her new policy platform.

What got you so passionate about advocating for full decriminalization of sex work?

When I became a public defender, I started representing people who were charged with prostitution—some of whom were the victims of trafficking, and some of whom were sex workers just trying to do their job to make money, to put food on the table, to pay their rent, to exist. I saw how they were treated by our cruel, unjust criminal legal system, and I saw the paternalistic way our system thinks that they can help people by demonizing, stigmatizing, targeting, and prosecuting them. I realized that this was such a broad issue, one of racial justice, gender justice, LGBTQIA justice, economic justice, and disability justice.

How would you distinguish your approach toward combating sex trafficking versus decriminalizing sex work?

As district attorney, I will aggressively prosecute sex trafficking, where someone is coerced or forced into sexual labor. Opponents of full decriminalization tend to conflate sex trafficking and sex work. For example, under the Nordic model, sex workers working together in one location and protecting each other is still considered sex trafficking, and sex workers are arrested for doing so. I will never prosecute that. The Nordic model is a prohibitionist model in which—even if the act of prostitution itself is not illegal for the sex worker—all activities which are essential to sex workers’ safety and survival, including advertising, or renting spaces, or communicating with other sex workers, or buying sex, are illegal. It continues to push the industry underground where clients, fearing arrest, refuse safety screens, or it forces sex workers to meet at clients’ homes rather than in places that the sex workers themselves designate. This results in sex workers having less control over their working conditions, and puts them in danger. One of the objectives of this Nordic prohibitionist model is to make the sex industry so dangerous and so violent that it ends.

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were early heroes in this movement, and created the STAR House, which protected young trans women and sex workers. Under the law right now, they could be arrested for trafficking and charged with crimes because they were showing kindness and keeping each other safe. As DA, I will make sure that we go after anyone who uses coercion or force, but not go after people who are working together to survive and stay safe. I don’t think that we should be focusing prosecution on people who are not forcing or coercing anyone to do anything against their will. My focus will be on prosecuting traffickers.

A number of your opponents in the race have also called for full decriminalization of sex work. None has released a policy platform on this issue as detailed as yours, but they have called for it. The one who has openly said she is not for full decriminalization of sex work is Tali Farhadian Weinstein. What’s your opinion of her position on this?

Only full decriminalization of sex work will address all of the harms that I’ve been talking about. These prohibitionist models, including the Nordic model, continue to criminalize and stigmatize sex workers, do not keep them safe, and force them into traps of poverty. In fact, it makes it easier for them to be trafficked, makes it more likely that they will face abuse and be unable to come forward, and makes them unable to protect their health. It makes them more vulnerable, and puts their lives in danger. It’s absolutely not good enough. I don’t think that anyone who considers themselves progressive can remotely support the Nordic model.

Furthermore, I do have something to say about the other people in my race who’ve said that they’re pro-full decriminalization. I am very, very glad that this is a position that is coming to the mainstream, and has become something that a lot of people can get on board with. But I worry that a lot of people have just learned the progressive talking points. I think there are people who, until they were running for office, never said one word about standing up for sex workers. We need to make sure that the person we’re electing has an authentic commitment to these issues and isn’t just learning the talking points and saying them because they think it will assist them in gaining progressive support. I particularly worry that people who have spent their careers as prosecutors, and who have really been responsible for perpetuating the injustices of this cruel and inhumane system, should not be the ones trusted to make these desperately-needed reforms.

One of the things you’ll often hear by proponents of the Nordic model is the idea that full decriminalization leads to an increase in sex trafficking.

It’s simply not true. If you look at places where there has been full decriminalization, such as New Zealand and Australia, there’s been no evidence of an increase in trafficking.

The New York Post ran an inflammatory headline in 2019 around Queens DA candidate Tiffany Cabán’s advocacy for full decriminalization. It read, “Tiffany Cabán would turn Queens into a giant brothel, critics say.” What would you say if they ran a similar headline about you?

I expect the potential negative headlines from the New York Post. But there’s no evidence that full decriminalization of sex work increases the number of people who are engaging in it. On the contrary, in New Zealand, the government report they issued after five years of full decriminalization found “the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced.” In San Francisco, the progressive DA Chesa Boudin announced he won’t prosecute sex workers or clients, and there’s been no evidence of an increase in sex work there. As I state in my policy, “The District Attorney’s office does not have the power to authorize the creation of commercial sex work establishments… [A]ny suggestion that decriminalizing sex work would create a sex tourism industry boom are little more than misplaced fear-mongering.”

There’s a reason that international human rights and public health organizations like the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the medical journal The Lancet, the ACLU, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, UN AIDS, and the UN Population Fund all support full decriminalization of sex work. Who do you trust more on this issue: the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Lancet, the ACLU, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, UN AIDS, and the UN Population Fund… or the New York Post?

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Activists and sex workers hold up signs near police as they protest for the decriminalization of sex work in Miami Beach, Florida, on December 5, 2020.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty</div>

Activists and sex workers hold up signs near police as they protest for the decriminalization of sex work in Miami Beach, Florida, on December 5, 2020.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty

This position of full decriminalization will be seen as controversial in many political quarters. It will probably gain you some enemies, just as it will create allies as well. The National Organization for Women NYC endorsed Melinda Katz for Queens DA in 2019 against Tiffany Cabán, in part over this issue. Why did you choose to go out on a limb politically, so to speak, despite the pushback you’re likely to get?

For me, it doesn’t feel like going out on a limb. This is something that I’ve always said and that I will always continue to say. I think that this policy will facilitate the health and safety of all New Yorkers. And it will also allow us to redirect resources to focus on the prosecution of trafficking, sexual assault, and of victimization of children. I want people to understand that declining to prosecute consensual sex work allows us to go after the real perpetrators: sex traffickers, those who sexually or physically assault sex workers, and those who try to purchase sex from minors. These will all continue to remain criminalized, and I will go after them aggressively. I want sex workers to know that under my administration, they will be free to report violence, report sexual assault, report trafficking. I fundamentally disagree with the position that NOW and others take. I think that these prohibitionist models, including the Nordic model, increase violence and police coercion. We see this with alcohol, and we see this with drugs: criminalization creates underground markets, underground markets encourage violence, and violence leads to more victims.

Full criminalization of sex work, and the partial criminalization of the Nordic Model, have never discouraged people from engaging in it, nor will they ever. It’s far past time that we stop criminalizing the choices people make with their own bodies and that we focus on public health, and on fighting the actual people who are engaging in trafficking and child exploitation. That’s why I’m grateful to have a platform to talk about this issue, to bring attention to it, and to try to de-stigmatize it, because sex work is work. I’m so grateful to all of the incredible people who are engaged in the sex work community, who have been such incredible advocates for so many years, and who have taught me so much. With their help, I have been able to formulate this policy. I certainly didn’t do it on my own, and that’s how we will be able to build a safer, healthier, and more equitable New York, together.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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