#sextrafficking | Should sex work be a crime? As debate over decriminalizing heats up, a look at what it means on S.I. | #tinder | #pof | #match


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Sex-for-sale on Staten Island is just a few clicks away.

There are websites advertising scores of girls for either “incall” or “outcall” appointments on our borough. There are erotic massage parlors and brothels catalogued in online directories. And for wealthier clients, there are escorts advertising by word of mouth and communicating via personal email.

Investigations by local and federal law enforcement agencies over the years have put human traffickers operating across state lines and/or internationally behind bars — providing a service to the public that’s supported on all sides of the issue. And local law enforcement agencies now offer aid in lieu of criminal charges for some sex workers on certain conditions.

But some argue it’s not enough.

Several Democratic lawmakers in New York and sex-worker advocates have cited allegations of misconduct by undercover detectives, and the deportable element of prostitution laws, which they say pimps use as one tactic to threaten sex workers who in many cases already are trapped by poverty, a language barrier and threats of violence to their families back home.

Investigations over the years have uncovered a wide range of circumstances in how men and women become involved in the industry. Some are trafficked and abused. Some are homeless and promised a roof over their head. Some enter the business voluntarily, seeking out wealthier clients by word of mouth.

SOLICITING ONLINE ON S.I.

An online search by the Advance/SILive.com found multiple websites soliciting dozens of sex workers with descriptions of their gender, race and physical build.

Another website lists brothels or massage parlors throughout the city, with online forums where clients can provide detailed descriptions about their experiences.

Multiple locations with addresses on Staten Island are listed, included the Zen Zen Spa in Graniteville, which was fined by the city and ordered to shut down over prostitution allegations last month.

In 2015, six businesses were shut down on Staten Island for allegations of illicit sex acts. Many of the women working in the brothels at the time were Asian-born with home addresses in Queens, the Advance/SILive.com reported.

In the cases of young American women working under a pimp and/or being trafficked for sex work in New York City, they’re often from poor and/or abusive backgrounds; sometimes a dependency to drugs also being a factor, experts say.

Women at Zen Zen Spa at 1401 Richmond Ave. agreed to perform sex acts for cash on undercover cops on two occasions in 2020, alleges the city. (Google street view)

TRACING SEX-TRAFFICKING

Earlier this month, authorities announced a 45-year-old man from Mexico was charged with allegedly trafficking young women into the country for more than a decade and forcing them to perform sex acts in New York City and 14 other states.

Trafficking rings from Mexico typically are members of the same family or close friends who all hail from the same town in Mexico, a law enforcement source recently told the Advance/SILive.com.

A male member of the group courts the young woman with false promises of a life in America. When she arrives in New York, she owes a debt for the travel, doesn’t speak English and doesn’t know anyone. Sometimes she’s threatened with violence against her family in Mexico if she doesn’t comply.

Trafficking rings out of East Asia and Eastern Europe are a little different, made up of associates who formed business partnerships over the years. In some cases, larger scale organized-crime syndicates out of Russia or China are funding operations in the U.S., though more often it’s a smaller network of actors, the source said.

At the brothels, the person running the day-to-day operations and overseeing the girls typically are older women with a record of past prostitution arrests themselves. In some cases women who entered the business voluntarily and saved money to branch out on their own, or partner with someone else, the source said.

The businesses prey on undocumented, financially-destitute young women from China, Korea or elsewhere who don’t have the support of family or friends in the U.S. The women’s passports sometimes are taken so they’re unable to return home out of desperation, and the money they earn is split several ways to “pay for their travel” and line the pockets of pimps and traffickers, the source said.

‘PUBLIC NUISANCE’

Prior to the shut-down orders for Zen Zen Spa earlier this month, the city and NYPD sued the business, alleging it is a public nuisance. The business is located at a busy intersection, next to a large apartment building and across the street from an FDNY stationhouse. A company listed as the owner of the spa is based out of Brooklyn.

But prostitution isn’t limited to massage parlors and motels.

At an apartment building on Staten Island, one resident described recently what he suspected to be clients of a sex worker who lived in the building coming and going throughout the night. A search online by the Advance/SILive.com found a woman advertising those services with the address of the building listed.

“N.Y. made public urination legal, burglary a non-bailable offense and now they’re focused on legalizing prostitution,” he said. “We are making this state a place where people don’t want to go.”

In 2015, a vice sting launched after the April 4 murder of a sex worker on Staten Island led to the arrest of several alleged teenage prostitutes at a borough motel.

The arrests — and a series of massage parlor busts across the Island earlier that same year — represented a renewed police focus on the sex trade in a borough that typically has disproportionately few prostitution-related arrests compared to the rest of the city.

PUSH TO DECRIMINALIZE

A bill introduced recently by state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) would decriminalize prostitution for the person performing the work, while still holding clients, traffickers and pimps accountable.

The fact prostitution is a deportable offense in New York is one of the ways pimps keep women from telling law enforcement they’re being victimized, said Leigh Latimer, supervising attorney of Legal Aid Society’s exploitation intervention project.

“The pimp tells them, ‘you’ll be arrested, I won’t be,’” Latimer said.

If the defendant already is a citizen, or escapes deportation, the arrest can erase any hope of someday escaping the circumstances.

“I’ve had clients in tears, telling me they got a job and then the background check came back, and the human resources person just looked at them like they were dirt. And the job is gone.”

Another large coalition of lawmakers, legal experts and advocates want to decriminalize completely, which would apply to the customers as well. A 2019 bill sponsored by state Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) would do just that. The two lawmakers have argued previously it would make for a safer environment for sex workers and their clients by eliminating the fear of arrest.

In 2017, a sex worker in Queens died after dropping from a four-story window of a brothel while police were raiding the building. A female colleague broke her back after making the same jump, rather than risk arrest.

Latimer said she’s fallen into the camp of complete decriminalization, based in part on research that’s suggested disproportionate arrests of “johns” in low-income, minority sections of the city.

“Most purchasers of sex in New York City are white men, middle class and above, while virtually all policing of people purchasing sex is targeting poor, people of color.”

CALLS FROM LAWMAKERS TO DISBAND VICE

In a joint-letter to top government officials across New York, members of the Assembly, state Senate and City Council called for an end to all undercover operations targeting prostitution, stating the city’s Vice unit is notorious for civil rights violations including sexual misconduct, false arrests based on gender presentation and racial discrimination when determining neighborhoods where they investigate.

Over the past five years, the city reportedly has paid more than $1 million in taxpayer funds to settle false arrest lawsuits, the letter reads.

“Undercover police have consistently engaged in unethical and deceptive practices, including sexual violence and obfuscating police recordings in order to earn overtime pay for ‘making these low-level arrests,’” the letter alleges.

One former officer told Pro Publica recently that she participated in false arrests herself; while other cops who spoke with the non-profit news organization reportedly acknowledged that false arrests had in the past slipped through the court system.

When asked in September about arresting sex workers, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the NYPD should focus more on investigating those organizing and profiting from the work, according to multiple reports.

“If sex workers are not charged by law enforcement, it will embolden the traffickers to continue their operations,” said Assemblyman Michael Tannousis, a former prosecutor on Staten Island. “This bill would tie the hands for our law enforcement and will diminish our quality of life.”(Staten Island Advance/ Alexandra Salmieri)Alexandra Salmieri

S.I. OFFICIALS WEIGH-IN

All of that being said, some local and federal authorities say the basic premise of Krueger’s bill already is in intention, citing the city’s special Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where most sex workers arrested are redirected and offered services — with the possibility of having the charges dismissed.

“Any legislation to decriminalize prostitution must be done in a comprehensive and thoughtful manner, with a focus on providing more resources to survivors while still permitting law enforcement to do its job and hold accountable those who exploit others for profit,” said Staten Island District Attorney Michael E. McMahon.

“My office and the NYPD have long held a policy of offering diversion programs when appropriate in prostitution cases, connecting survivors of sex trafficking and other victims with social services to help meet their specific needs and avoid a criminal record.”

Should the current proposal to decriminalize move past the Senate, Staten Island Assemblyman Michael Tannousis (R-East Shore) said he would vote it down.

“If sex workers are not charged by law enforcement, it will embolden the traffickers to continue their operations,” said Tannousis, a former prosecutor on Staten Island. “This bill would tie the hands for our law enforcement and will diminish our quality of life.”



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