Sex Workers and Cabbies Swept into New York’s Anti-Prostitution Dragnet

Michelle Chen

Cabs line up for fares outside of Port Authority. A new law would penalize New York cab drivers for "facilitating sex trafficking" by picking up passengers involved in the sex trade. (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

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Two quintessential cliches of New York City street life are heading into more trouble with the law: yellow cabs and prostitutes. To combat the sex trade, the city is pursuing pimps via taxi. But some civil rights advocates fear the measure targets the wrong kind of traffic.

The newly signed legislation aims to punish cab drivers who abet prostitution, with a focus on those who knowingly engage in a business of transporting individuals to patrons for purposes of prostitution, procuring and/​or soliciting patrons for the prostitution, and receiving proceeds from such business in collaboration with traffickers and pimps.” The law imposes new criminal penalties, including fines or the loss of a license, for various forms of promoting prostitution” while using the taxi. It also mandates trainings to inform drivers about the legal consequences of facilitating sex trafficking” and about social services available to trafficking victims. The evidence of cabbies’ involvement in the sex trade is anecdotal at best — there was recently a high-profile trafficking case in which livery cab drivers were nabbed in connection with a brothel on wheels.” But the ubiquity of taxis, popularity of paid sex services, and lack of parking space in the city has apparently led lawmakers to focus on yellow cabs as a critical link in the crusade against trafficking.

The reality of sex work in the city involves far more than dramatic stereotypes of pimps, johns and their drivers. First, advocates for sex workers point out that prostitutes are not necessarily trafficking victims, and that the language of the legislation threatens to blur the line between voluntary prostitution and trafficking, which generally involves coercion and economic exploitation.

Kate D’Adamo, an organizer with Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), said in a correspondence with In These Times that the legislation inappropriately conflates all prostitution with human trafficking” by focusing on the vaguely defined promotion of prostitution” by drivers, rather than drawing a clear distinction between coerced and non-coerced commercial sex. Criminalization of the people around sex workers and trafficked persons alike will do nothing to support trafficked persons,” she added, and will only further marginalize those populations.”

The legislation has generated a flurry of controversy. WNYC reported that even Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially worried that cab drivers would be pressured to profile women based on the way they dressed, steering clear of anyone resembling the hooker” typology or, as the Mayor delicately put it, a lady dressed in a sporty way.’”

To D’Adamo, the zero-tolerance mentality shames and alienates women suspected of sexual deviance. Law enforcement-based tactics make it harder to help people who truly are trafficked, whose exploitation reflects underlying social problems, including socioeconomic and gender inequities:

Beyond the much talked about issues of profiling and discrimination along lines of dress, sexual identity, gender identity, class and race, this bill will simply not support the identification or support of trafficked persons. Coercion and exploitation within the sex trade, like other industries, are effects of marginalization and a lack of access to resources, and this bill does nothing to address either of those root causes.

Besides, cabs, rather than being agents of sin, could in fact be lifesavers for trafficking victims. Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, a legal advocacy group, testified before the City Council last December, Without taxi cabs or for-hire vehicles, these sex workers could face considerably greater dangers in going to and from their workplace. Additionally, a driver who knows that their passenger is engaging in prostitution can help or report information to the police should the sex worker disappear or if she is the victim of a crime.” So, the legislation purports to crack down on victimizers, but by making cabbies reluctant to intervene in a crisis, it might actually expose women to more danger.

The backdrop to the anti-trafficking taxi law is a groundswell of militant campaigns against advertising services like Village Voice’s Backpage, which anti-prostitution activists say are accessories to sexual slavery because they run advertisements for sexual services. While there is always a risk of commercial websites becoming a channel for trafficking, advocates for sex workers argue that criminalizing internet outlets could actually drive victims away from resources for help, while further stigmatizing sex workers who choose to engage in the trade. Sex-worker activists nationwide call for a more holistic societal response to sex trafficking that decriminalizes consensual commercial sex, while connecting trafficking victims to social services and positive interventions outside the criminal justice system.

The City’s new anti-prostitution strategy turns away from the harm-reduction approach and instead heaps another layer of liability onto cabbies. Fear of being unfairly implicated in sex trafficking will likely add to the many other burdens they face on the job. As we’ve reported previously, taxi drivers are vulnerable to violent attacks, punishing work schedules, and a labor structure that forces drivers into virtual vehicular serfdom.

The city’s anti-prostitution crackdown ironically does place prostitutes and cabbies on the same side of the law, but for reasons probably not anticipated by the City Council: both sex workers and taxi drivers have seen their labor devalued and tarred with stereotypes of criminality, when in reality they’re just, like most other New Yorkers, trying to make an honest living.

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Laurel Eisner, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, a group that supports the anti-prostitution-taxi law, has sent a response to this article. Below is the message emailed via a communications associate at the market research firm Global Strategy Group: 

The new law was enacted to combat a vicious form of sex slavery prevalent in New York City and penalizes only those previously convicted of a felony offense of promoting prostitution, compelling prostitution or sex trafficking, and using a TLC-Licensed vehicle for those purposes. Several of these crimes involve force or intimidation or prostituting a child under the age of eleven. The law targets drivers of brothels on wheels” who recruit customers (johns), force their victims to perform specific forms of sex on these men, and take half the proceeds of the forced prostitution, with the balance for the woman’s trafficker or pimp. A women or girl who resists is beaten. The impetus for the law was not one anecdote” as your blog claims. It was the devastating personal testimony of many trafficking victims who have sought refuge with Sanctuary for Families, a NYC not-for-profit organization that assists victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

The author’s response:

I appreciate your response, and thank you for highlighting the need for more public awareness of the scourge of sex trafficking. It should be noted that nowhere in this article do I assert that this legislation was based on one anecdote.” Nonetheless, the evidence that taxi drivers actively engage in either prostitution or sex trafficking enterprises is indeed anecdotal – that is, based on evidence gathered through anecdotal cases, which is not to suggest that these individual cases are not tragic and compelling. That said, legislating on this basis raises some concerns. For instance, while the brothel on wheels” case involves egregious behavior on the part of drivers, how would cracking down on Taxi and Limousine Commission-licensed cab drivers involved with promoting prostitution” reduce sex trafficking and its root causes? More broadly, this criticism of the bill does not address the systemic issue raised by civil rights advocates: how to protect victims of trafficking while also ensuring that sex workers who are not trafficked are not unfairly treated by law enforcement or subjected to criminalization and stigma. Sex worker advocates certainly want to protect people from being victimized, but they also believe that legislation that potentially conflates sex work with forced prostitution is not only ineffective as law enforcement, but also does harm to women involved in the sex trade. Sadly, this could make them more vulnerable to the very dangers that the law purports to address. And that is why the debate on the criminalization of sex work will continue.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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