On a corner of Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, two men bargained with two sex workers outside a discreet brothel. A few feet away, a message written on the ground in chalk appears aimed at them, “Get off our block.”
The sight of street sex workers on this crowded avenue that connects the diverse communities of Jackson Heights and nearby Corona has long been common. But in the last year, by one estimate, the number of them has more than doubled, escalating tension between local residents and sex workers, mostly Asian women and Latina trans women.
“It’s just very unacceptable,” said Massiel Lugo, 31, a lifelong resident of Jackson Heights. “My daughter sees sex workers every single day on her way to school.”
Mercedes Saguay, an Ecuadorian employee in a nearby bodega, agreed.
“It is too ugly lately,” Saguay said.
Next to her store, a group of women made subtle hand gestures to invite passersby to enter a business where “acupuncture” was written in Mandarin. “It’s 24 hours.”
In September, two opposing demonstrations highlighted the tension in this area surrounding sex work, an illegal activity in every state, except for Maine, which partially decriminalized sex work last July, and a few counties in Nevada.
Both groups agree on one thing: the sex trade has mushroomed. And they link it to the growing economic pressures after the COVID-19 pandemic and the high flow of migrants arriving to the city (more than 120,000 since the spring of 2022, according to Mayor Eric Adams.)
During one September protest, dozens of residents, including Lugo, came together to demand local and state authorities “clean streets of prostitution.” Demonstrators, which included children, walked down Roosevelt Avenue in the rain, wearing T-shirts and carrying signs that read “no prostitution in school hours, we want safe children.”
Two weeks later, the so-called Marcha de las Putas (Slutwalk) condemned the “harassment and persecution” sex workers face from police and neighbors. “What are we? Sluts,” they shouted in Spanish, as they walked down the avenue. “Sex work is work.”
Liaam Winslet, an Ecuadorian trans woman and activist, was one of the demonstrators who felt “very harassed and trolled” that day.
“We received aggressions, neighbors threw eggs at us from a building,” said Winslet, who leads Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, an organization that offers legal and medical help for the transgender community in Queens. “The neighbors have organized and there is a very radical feminist movement with a whorephobic speech.”
Winslet was referring to statements like those from Lugo, who has accused sex workers of being “a danger for the society and our children” in social media posts.
“This is going to backfire in a couple of years when we have an outbreak of HIV in the community,” wrote Lugo on Instagram.
Some Queens neighbors preferred not to take a stance, but the increase in the visibility of sex work has not gone unnoticed. On Roosevelt Avenue, where smoke rises from grilling meat and cumbia music competes with the rumble of the 7 train, there used to be “two stretches” with street sex workers, “from 91st to 89th streets and from 79th to 77th,” said César Espinoza, a Venezuelan street vendor. “Now, it’s on all of them.”
According to Colectivo’s estimates, there are currently around 185 people engaged in sex work surrounding the avenue. A year ago, they counted about 75.
“With this wave of new migrants, the streets have become overcrowded,” said Kendry, a Honduran trans woman who asked for anonymity over her safety concerns. Kendry, who used to work late nights as a sex worker on Roosevelt Avenue, now works at Colectivo, seeking to empower sex workers.
In the last year, one of her tasks has been to alleviate, through awareness-raising meetings, what she calls the “corner fights” between newcomers and more established sex workers.
“There have been several confrontations between girls,” she said. “I understand the neighbors’ complaints.”
But few comprehend better than Kendry the need to somehow make a living. When she arrived in New York City in 2016, sex work was the only way she could survive as a new immigrant trans woman. In four years in the business, she said she was arrested twice, she said.
“Today, the police don’t harass like they used to,” she said. “It is the neighbors who are chasing the compañeras.”
Even as the laws governing sex work have remained the same, arrests for sex work-related offenses have dropped significantly citywide in the face of a national growing movement to change criminal justice system’s approach to sex work, seeking less prosecution of sex workers, instead targeting their employers, sex traffickers, and customers.
Arrests for sex work-related offenses in the city dropped from nearly 1,800 in 2012 to 135 in 2022, according to information obtained through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Queens accounted for nearly 30% of all city arrests recorded in the last five years, even though this borough is home to only a quarter of the city’s population. The Queens district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the New York City Police Department.
Despite celebrating that sex workers are no longer being arrested as frequently, some women’s rights and anti-trafficking groups claim that the shift away from criminalization has gone too far.
“What we have now in New York is de facto decriminalization,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. In 2021, for instance, New York State counted 207 victims of sex trafficking, but only five people were arrested for this crime, compared to 74 arrests in 2018, according to the Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking.
After a tour on Roosevelt Avenue, Mayor Eric Adams said last August that he was “putting in place an operation to deal with the sex workers.” But he didn’t provide more details nor a timetable.
What would help, advocates and sex workers agree, is decriminalization because it would protect people engaged in sex work from abuse and exploitation, and would maximize their ability to exercise key rights such as access to justice and health care.
But there is no consensus on this point either, as evidenced by two bills that have been pending for years before the New York State Senate, with two different approaches to the same purpose.
“We all want to end violence and exploitation, the distinction is really an ideological battle,” said Melissa Sontag Broudo, a sex worker advocate and defense attorney who participated in the so-called Stop Violence in Sex Trades Act. This bill, introduced by Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, seeks to fully legalize consensual adult sex work, arguing that sex work is no less legitimate than any other profession.
Another piece of legislation, introduced by Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, would decriminalize sex work but increase penalties for employers of sex workers, traffickers and sex buyers, based on the understanding that the “system of prostitution” is inextricably entangled with violence and organized crime.
“Our ultimate goal is to create equality between men and women and as long as you have prostitution, there will never be equality,” said Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, who participated in the drafting of this bill known as the Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act.
But eliminating one of the world’s oldest professions is unattainable in the eyes of many. “It is like saying I want a unicorn,” said Sontag. “It’s ridiculous.”
Winset, the director of Colectivo, insisted that everyone “deserves to survive in some way.”
“We are seen as a danger, but we are not; the system, the stigma and discrimination is what puts us in danger every day,” she said.