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

Michelle Chen June 28, 2012

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)

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.

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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