Represent NYC: Sex Workers and Sexual Harassment

September 8, 2019

This day and age, shifts like the MeToo and the Feminist movements have encouraged women to push for equality. We’re moving past gender roles and double standards, into a more neutral environment where the general population expectations are challenged.

On October 5th, 2018, the United States stood by their tv’s nervously to hear and understanding a two-sided story that would determine the nation’s future. Divided, conservative America blamed Democrats for a “publicity stunt” to keep Kavanaugh out of the Supreme Court, and liberal American blamed the far-right for the handling of sexual harassment cases. In the end, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation was not enough to keep Trump’s Judge nominee out of the United States’ Supreme Court. It seems history has repeated itself.

In 1991, Anita Hill was put under the same pressure that Mrs. Ford almost two decades before, when an FBI interview was leaked to the press. Hill later testified against Clarence Thomas, and challenged his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Kavanaugh, Thomas was later sworn in, and still serves as an Associate Justice.

We’ve seen various sexual harassment allegations cases dismissed, and we witness victims get backlash for coming forward. What can the newer generation of voters do to successfully challenge older ideologies and pave the way for others?

Represent NYC, guest-host Assemblymember of District 73, Dan Quart; Audacia Ray, Director of Community Organizing and Public Advocacy for the New York City Anti-Violence Project and Founding Member of the Decrim NY Coalition; and Rita Pasarell, Co-Founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group to discuss sex workers and sexual harassment.

Aired September 8th, 2019.


ENGLISH TRANSCRIPT:

DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN info@mnn.org

Dan Quart: Hello and welcome to this edition of Represent NYC of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. I'm Dan Quart, New York State assembly member, representing the 73rd district of Manhattan, which includes parts of the Upper East Side and Midtown East. Today we'll be discussing two topics, starting with the efforts to decriminalize, decarcerate and de-stigmatize the sex trades in New York City and the state. Joining me is Audacia Ray, the director of community organizing and public advocacy for the New York City Antiviolence Project and founding member of the Decrim NY Coalition. Welcome, Audacia. Thank you for being here today.

Audacia Ray: [inaudible 00:01:04].

Dan Quart: Yeah, this is a great opportunity to talk about an issue that what was active and part of the legislative session in Albany. But first before we go into that, can you talk a little bit about your background, your experience, and your work with Decrim NY?

Audacia Ray: Sure thing. So I'm a former sex worker. I'm a survivor of intimate partner and sexual violence. And those experiences are really what have shaped my desire to work in this area of advocacy, to work for the rights of people in the sex trades. And so I was a sex worker during my twenties. I'm in my late thirties now. And when I first got involved in the sex trade, I was really looking for a connection with other workers because I was very isolated. I was an online worker, using the internet to meet clients and I had no community and didn't feel like I could tell anybody in my life about what I was up to. And so I sought out other people in the sex trades and those are the folks that kind of radicalized me and helped me to understand all the different issues that face people in the sex trades.

Audacia Ray: And that led into activism and being introduced into what was then in the 2000s is already a very active sex worker rights movement in New York City. And really since like the 70s, there's been a pretty strong sex worker rights movement. The word, the phrase sex worker was coined in the late 70s and since then, particularly in coastal cities, there has been a lot of efforts around things like bad date lists, keeping people safe from police and potential predatory clients and lots of other cultural and political activism. And so those things kind of came together, and shaped my early experience in the sex trades and oriented me to the the political world. And so yeah, there's really been this movement that's been gathering for 15, 20, 30 years in New York already.

Dan Quart: That's an interesting thing. There's legislation that was sponsored this year in Albany to decriminalize sex workers in the sex industry in New York state. And a lot of people are under the misnomer that this is a new issue or a new movement. In your last answer, you discussed some of that, but can you talk maybe a little more specifically about here in New York, what is our history with sex workers organizing, being activists and moving towards a point where legislation has been sponsored in the state capitol to decriminalize the sex industry?

Audacia Ray: Absolutely. So I mean, part of the work that I did like getting oriented through cultural work in the 2000s, I joined a group of women who were starting a magazine called Spread, which is a sex worker magazine that ran for five years and was volunteer led based here in New York. And one of our members of the magazine, it was a mix of sex workers and allies, and one of the other editors worked for an assembly member. And so one night, we'd been doing lots of this kind of media activism and we started doing media trainings for sex workers and she said, "What would it look like if we actually researched what was out there?" And we dug into what was then and is now the terrible assembly website for searching bills, and we just typed in the word prostitute to see what would come up.

Dan Quart: And what did it show?

Audacia Ray: And one of the things that it showed was this bill that had been kind of languishing for many years to ban the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution. So we started looking into it, and realized that around that time was also the time period when New York City had launched the branded New York City condoms. So we had the Department of Health producing and distributing condoms and the NYPD using them as evidence of prostitution. And there also had been some good legislation passed to make sure that the possession of syringes and other drug paraphernalia couldn't be used as evidence. So we thought this was a parallel issue and something that seemed easy.

Dan Quart: Welcome to Albany.

Audacia Ray: I know. It was like this is a no brainer. We can't have these two arms of the government doing this, like work at cross purposes. It's so obvious, like if you want to stop the spread of disease, I mean we didn't really believe that sex workers are vectors of disease, but we figured we could kind of play on that idea that people have and really be like, we want to protect everybody by making sure that everyone can have condoms. And it turned to a six year battle.

Dan Quart: The battle is taking place now, beginning in Albany with a legislation which I'm a cosponsor of, but also there are other jurisdictions. It's not just New York state, District of Columbia has legislation. Can you talk a little specifically about the formation of the actual legislation seeking to decriminalize the sex trade as well as the bill itself in New York?

Audacia Ray: Sure. I mean one of the things that's kind of crystallized in the past couple of years is because of the passage of the federal FOSTA/CESTA legislation, a lot of the local organizing and state level organizing folks have already started to say, "Okay, what's happening on the federal level is a trash fire on lots of different issues and so what can we do at the state level?" And it sort of revived a lot of these conversations. And so over the past year and change, basically the summer after FOSTA/CESTA passed, a bunch of different organizers in New York started coming together and thinking about what would it look like to focus on sex work decrim in New York state. And so we sort of investigated the different bills that were already introduced and started dreaming up what would it look like to make like a more comprehensive decriminalization bill. And that's what became the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades act.

Dan Quart: So I think for people watching at home who may not be as well versed in these issues, two of the points of critique or rejoinders by those who don't support this effort is one, that there's a model, an alternative model called the Nordic model and issues of trafficking that have set forth as a reason. Can you deal with both those issues and explain from your perspective why the Nordic model may not be the, the best model to approach and let's address the issue of trafficking.

Audacia Ray: Yeah. So I think one of the main things for me is that sex work is something that is an economic activity and it's something that people are doing for survival to support themselves, to support their families. And it's part of, right now it's part of the informal economy, which makes it a possible option for people who are undocumented laborers. And so what's happening when you criminalize any piece of the sex industry is that you're saying that punishment is the way to stop this and actually, punishment does not fix people's economic circumstances at all. And so I know that that is a very difficult thing to talk about, to talk about the great potential for violence in the sex industry, but by criminalizing all aspects of the sex industry or just selecting some to decriminalize and keeping other criminalized, you're punishing the most vulnerable people in the sex trades.

Dan Quart: To that point, there was an example, I think that was in Queens a year or two ago, Yang Song, a terrible incident involving someone, involved a massage parlor. The circumstances of her death were published and publicized. Is that a good example of the exploitation whether violence and/or economic exploitation that you're talking about?

Audacia Ray: I mean I think it's important to zoom out and to think the fact that all labor under capitalism is exploitation and it's not particular just to the sex industry. So when you criminalize an aspect of labor, you are creating an environment where there is great potential for violence. And we in particular in New York, see a lot of that. The source of that violence is actually the police themselves. So this idea that if we criminalize one aspect of the sex trade, whether it's clients or workplaces, that would help liberate the folks who are most marginalized and have the most potential for being exploited actually proves over and over not to be true.

Dan Quart: That's the Nordic modal.

Audacia Ray: Because what's actually happening is that the police are the main source of violence against people in the sex trades.

Dan Quart: With respect to more locally than the NYPD, I wrote a letter with a couple other elected officials to the Department of Investigations asking for the Department of Investigations to investigate the NYPD vice squad for all a host of reasons, which I think you've explained in your answer, but if you could talk a little bit about the interaction of law enforcement and sex workers and what I would describe as a somewhat toxic mix that has led to terrible results.

Audacia Ray: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there's this idea of the kindness of community policing, but we see that over and over again, not proving to be real for people in the sex trades. Interactions between police officers and sex workers are often exploitative. So police officers will sometimes trade sex for freedom. And that's really problematic for sex workers. It's very exploitative. Police officers are a source of sexual violence in sex workers, and so the idea that sex workers would turn to the police for help with a situation like being in a trafficking situation, is really ridiculous because sex workers know that the police are a source of violence, not a source of help. And so one of the things that's happened in New York over the past five, six years and shifting towards this human trafficking intervention court model is that there's now this statewide conversation saying that people in the sex trades or not victim ord not criminals, they're victims. And that there can be essentially carceral solutions to victimhood, I think is a huge misstep.

Dan Quart: With respect to carceral resolutions of problems, let's talk a little bit about what happens in the courtroom as an extension of some of the problems that happen with law enforcement. Most district attorneys who have "diversion programs" that have five counseling sessions, if you will, or some semblance of that. Tell me what's your view on the sufficiency of those programs, if this does any good whatsoever?

Audacia Ray: So the human trafficking intervention courts are a statewide court system. There's 11 of them throughout the state, five of them are here in New York city and they coerced people into services, which is totally antithetical to how social workers are supposed to operate in their profession. Folks are supposed to be able to freely choose access to services and being coerced into those services renders them kind of useless for folks. And also, although the course has some talks about itself as this alternative to incarceration, what's actually true is that if you don't play exactly by the rules, you are at threat of having a warrant issued and being reincarcerated. And that's what happened to Layleen Polanco, who died at Rikers Island in early June. And that cycle is part of what led to her death.

Dan Quart: And with our remaining time, let's talk a little bit about Layleen's situation. It's in the news, it's a terrible tragedy, those 17, 18 days in Rikers Island that led to her death. Talk about her experience as an example of what's wrong with the carceral method or the criminalization of the sex work industry.

Audacia Ray: So she had been through both drug courts and the human trafficking intervention courts as this sort of like healing modality. She missed a couple of court dates. She got rearrested because of that, even though she was quite close to finishing her required sessions. And so she was reincarcerated at Rikers Island and then this sort of like confluence of factors, this total failure, all the failures of our system led to her death. So bail reform was passed in April. It doesn't go into effect until January. Under the new bail system, she would not have been held. She was was placed in a restrictive housing unit and had medical issues that she should not have been placed in solitary.

Audacia Ray: And so that was also a factor and just the fact that she was there at all shouldn't have happened. If we're really looking at how do we support black transwomen who are struggling economically, I know from talking to her family that she applied to jobs over and over again and got turned away or laughed at, so she was working in the sex trade as the result, and all those factors really contributed to the violence that she experienced.

Dan Quart: There's tragedy certainly at Rikers Island. Audacia, this has been wonderful to speak with you about these issues and I thank you for your time and we look forward to hearing more from you and working together in Albany in the coming legislative session.

Audacia Ray: Thanks so much, Dan.

Dan Quart: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Audacia for joining us and we'll be right back. Welcome back to Represent NYC. I'm New York state assembly member Dan Quart. My next guest led the effort in Albany to overhaul New York's sexual harassment laws. Joining me is one of the cofounders of the sexual harassment working group, Rita Pasarell. Rita, thank you for being here today.

RIta Pasarell: Thank you.

Dan Quart: Rita, this has been a a year of many legislative achievements on the issue of sexual harassment in Albany workplace as well as government reform, but those successes didn't come without much struggle or much effort. You're one of the founders of the working group, which we referred to in Albany. Can you tell me a little bit about your background, your experience as a legislative staffer and what brought you to the point of a leadership position in the sexual harassment working group.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah, sure. In 2011 I worked for assembly member Vito Lopez, who wound up resigning for having sexually harassed multiple members of his staff. I was one of them. And so for many years it was kind of silence around this, and in 2018, a few, myself and other people who had worked for other legislative members and been sexually harassed, we joined together through some mutual friends and acquaintances because of the budget process. And that is when we saw governor and the legislature going what we felt was way too quickly to try to push through sexual harassment reforms inside of the budget process. And we thought that was just completely inappropriate. It's not where the policy belongs, but also the, the fact that some of the items that we saw that were in the proposals at the time seemed to be not, have not been informed by people who had experience with sexual harassment. So we said this process needs our voices.

Dan Quart: The idea that those directly impacted by sexual harassment should be part of the working solution towards it.

RIta Pasarell: Yes, of course. Because we saw the failures, we had some ideas and also we were, I say we're unfortunate experts in sexual harassment, but we also we're policy experts. We all worked in policy. So we had some well-founded ideas as well.

Dan Quart: So in 2018 after the budget, after some reforms were put in place on sexual harassment, I myself called them insufficient and talk to me about the formation of the working group as a policy vehicle to address those insufficiencies.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah, sure. In 2018, we talked to a lot of other experts, a lot of lawyers, a lot of other people in other fields about what needed to be done to better protect workers. And we issued a policy paper with our ideas and then we started to push for getting that passed. And one of the key principles that you mentioned that we kept coming back to was that people affected by the laws need to have a voice in the laws. So that's how we landed on the idea of hearings, and that hearings needed to take place and we were pushing for this for a long time before they came and as you know, you were one of the first legislators to join our call for that. And we were, as we were forming our idea about how are we going to get these hearings, your office and Senator Krueger's office carried these sign on letters to encourage other legislators to understand the importance of these hearings.

Dan Quart: And eventually, the efforts by many led by the working groups, led to public hearings and as one who was present at he one in Albany, done another at 250 Broadway, which had different experts talking about that. Talk a little bit about from your perspective, because I was on the day asking questions and listening to testimony, but you were the one giving testimony, talking about personal experiences, but also to me significantly talking about policy changes that needed to happen to bring about, to codify the law in a way that it advanced things. So talk about as someone who testified in Albany from a personal experience, how difficult that was and how it led to policy changes.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah, sure. So I'll first also want to note that these two hearings were the first public legislative hearings that New York state had in over 27 years. The last hearing was in 1992 and I think it's important to note that that was just one year after the Anita Hill hearings related to the confirmation hearings. And that's so important to think of because that was when the law was still forming around these issues and we hadn't had really a public informed conversation about what to do with those laws since then. So when we testified at the first hearing, the sexual harassment working group members, we were up there for three hours and we had planned... some of our experiences overlapped, but there were all a little varied and we plan to talk about the pieces that we thought needed to be fixed in the laws. So one of those was the standard under which the New York state believes sexual harassment to have occurred and this is severe pervasive standards. So a lot of people have heard about what happened in assembly member Vito Lopez's office, but a lot of those instances wouldn't have met the definition of sexual harassment under state law. And that's shocking to everybody.

Dan Quart: And I think that for those, I think the sexual harassment website is still up and people can read the 17 page policy briefing. And I think it's important because it actually led to legislation. We were, the legislature was not completely successful but successful in changing the standard amongst some other pieces of legislation, the severe and pervasive standard being foremost. If you could talk about some of the legislative changes that resulted in large part due to yours and others' work from the working group.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah, so this year there were a lot of changes to the sexual harassment laws in New York state. They were in a couple of different categories. One was how the state's going to define sexual harassment. Other were protections relating to nondisclosure agreements. Still, others were about extending the statute of limitations, under which a person who's complained can file a sexual harassment complaint. And for me, one of the most meaningful was to change that standard, which used to be severe or pervasive. And that means that that's the level that a worker had to prove if they were to sue in court to prove that they had been harassed. And under this standard, when you look at the cases, there are just these horrific examples where workers were physically attacked multiple times and the courts would decide this did not suffice to meet the standards. So this was something that we knew needed to be standard... have to be changed rather. We can't have a standard that allows for physical abuse of workers and call ourselves a progressive state. And that was in fact changed by this year's laws. And the new standard is petty slights or trivial inconveniences. And that's more in line with what I think workers believe to be harassment already.

Dan Quart: And one of the things that I felt at the second public hearing down in lower Manhattan on sexual harassment, we had a lot of the experts there, the lawyers who practice in this area. But there was a discussion also of culture and not just changes in law but changes in attitudes. And as you well pointed out, we had not had a hearing in this state since one year after the Anita Hill. People think much has changed, but maybe more things have stayed the same. But culturally and as a subsequent to the MeToo movement, talk about some of the things, not just that you've encountered, but as part of the working group that you are pushing for and changes of culture, what is acceptable and how to change not just our workplaces in government, which certainly deem to be changed, but in the private sector as well.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah. I think that a lot of the protections are applied to both private and public and something that we've noticed is that culture changes a little bit, then the laws catch up and then the laws catch up to the culture and the culture to the laws and vice versa. So I think that's something that was missing from the culture. It's starting to change with the MeToo movement and speaking out more is this feeling of embarrassment or shame when somebody is sexually harassed. And it's also... I mean it's well-founded embarrassment. It's not out of the blue, and this is because often there are career consequences, immediate career consequences when somebody has reported sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination. Many people, I think the most recent EEOC figure was 75% of workers who report experience some form of retaliation. So it's actually quite logical for a worker to be afraid to report.

Dan Quart: And with respect to that, I think maybe your personal experience comes in here of the state entity that was supposed to address these matters is called JCOE, the Joint Committee on Public Ethics, which is still in place and still I guess the process bound body that's supposed to address sexual harassment in the state, if you could talk about your experience and its obvious insufficiencies to address the problem.

RIta Pasarell: Sure. So JCOPE, just generally, it's not structured well to investigate the people it's intended to and that's because the people who appoint the commissioners to JCOPE are the people subject to the laws that JCOPE is investigating. So right from the get go, there's a mismatch. When I spoke to JCOPE, it was hours and hours of interviews and it's a very opaque process. So something that I have in common with other members of the working group is this confusion surrounding the JCOPE process that we had gone through. Many people in the working group who had been interviewed by JCOPE about the harassment they reported were traumatized beyond the initial trauma they already had from the harassment. And one of the traumas that a few people in the working group experienced was that they were asked by JCOPE about their former sexual history, which is completely inappropriate. When you're a victim of sexual harassment, this is just not relevant. So JCOPE needs to be reformed fully and have some protective rules or else people are not going to want to use the process.

Dan Quart: That's the biggest fear, that the process there that's supposed to resolve these issues is seen more as an adversary.

RIta Pasarell: Yeah.

Dan Quart: From yours and the working group's prospective going forward, both in reforming JCOPE or creating a new entity, what is the best path forward to help victims actually come forward and be comfortable that their voices will be heard and investigated appropriately?

RIta Pasarell: I think transparency is the key because you're already dealing with a person who's been traumatized and lost a lot of trust and something that takes place when you are harassed in the workplace is something called institutional betrayal. And this is a place that's supposed to have protected you, has now harmed you. And so you don't want to exacerbate that with a process that is confusing to victims or that doesn't seem neutral. So I think those are the two key pieces that any investigative body needs to have is an impression of neutrality, an actual neutrality and the transparency.

Dan Quart: And for the coming session, although we had some legislative advances on sexual harassment and addressing that in both government and the state, by no means is the job done. And I think your point was well taken. This is a continuous process because the cultures will change and the laws have to change with them. We can't be, this can't be 1992 to 2019 and that many years behind. So what do you see as the legislature do to return back to Albany in January. What do you see as the legislative priorities for the state legislature with respect to sexual harassment? Either what was not accomplished this legislative session and or what needs to happen next year?

RIta Pasarell: Two of the most important future changes that we'd like to see are banning liquidated damages against workers in nondisclosure agreements. That's number one. That's something that was in my nondisclosure agreement. There is a provision, if I were to be accused of violating the agreement, I'm subject to a $20,000 liquidated damages clause, which the other side is not. The assembly is not subject to that. Vito Lopez is not subject to that. So it's already a mismatch. It's Not a fair agreement. And then the second change would be ensuring that all forms of discrimination experienced the same protections that sexual harassment protections have received. There's a few pieces of our law where it's like a jigsaw puzzle. Sexual harassment is more protected than other forms of discrimination, like racial, racial discrimination, which is, that's not fair. That's not right. And we want that to be all, even down next year.

Dan Quart: Great. Rita, thank you so much for being here today and that's all the time we have today. Thank you for joining us, Rita, and to our viewers, thank you so much for tuning in to another episode of Represent NYC

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Represent NYC

"Represent NYC" is a weekly program produced by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) that gives local elected officials and candidates the chance to update voters about the issues shaping the future of the city, and how they'll deliver on campaign promises. The show features a rotating cast of...

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