Prostitution in New York: Then and Now - Taboo Week


By Emma Nolan

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Times Square, brightly lit even in the night time by advertisements and grandeur, is largely considered one of the most prolific symbols of western commercial consumerism. But less than half a century ago in the ‘70s, the five-block radius represented entirely different conventions and vastly different commodities: darkness, drugs, and prostitution.

Photographer Leland Bobbé’s thought-provoking photos are testament to this, revealing a dirty town with a seedy undercurrent, ravaged by poverty and drug use. In many of the photographs, we see destitute homeless lying in the streets, strip clubs on what seems like every street corner and women soliciting sex in broad daylight. Seeing sex workers petitioning sex during the day (and night) was not at all uncommon in ’70s New York when pimps and streetwalkers haunted Times Square.

Though New York City has changed beyond comparison since those days, the sex industry is still ubiquitous with taboo. According to Business Insider, more than 2,000 arrests for prostitution were made city-wide in 1976, more than half of which were of underage women. This poignant statistic underpins the state that the city was in at the time. Financial decline and a rise in popularity of crack cocaine solidified New York’s status as a intimidating place to exist. The drug and the need for it forced people into poverty and encouraged so many women had to support themselves or their families by prostitution.

Thankfully, the city’s efforts to clean the place up have been, for the most part, effective. Times Square is now filled with shopping, big brands, and tourists, not adult cinemas and peep shows. Places like Chelsea and Bowery are now more likely to be associated with yuppies than daytime hookers. However, to suggest that Rudi Giuliani’s zero-tolerance policy, the falling crime rates, and the gentrification of various “problem” neighborhoods has entirely erased the sex trade in the city would be foolish.

In fact, prostitution is still one of the most prevalent crimes in the city.

In an article on a new program on the free distribution of condoms, the New York Times reported 2,000 people a year being arrested on prostitution charges.

Is the sex trade that much of a problem though? Much like the War on Drugs there is a growing debate both nationally and internationally on how the sex trade should be policed, if at all. Because prostitution has been categorized as a victimless crime, the legal crime is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, and offenders receive relatively lenient sentences. The mild amount of jurisdiction toward prostitutes can be seen to have another side to it, some believe that the prostitutes themselves are the victims.

So instead of solely aggressively policing the sex trade, many outreach programs have been created to support prostitutes and sex workers. Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) is a national network dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers. SWOP-NYC is the New York City branch of the organization. Their organization, according to their webite, is “dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy.”

Another outreach program operating to improve the lives’ of sex workers in New York City is SWANK, Sex Workers Action New York. SWANK is a smaller, more community-based program open to people who work or who have worked in the sex industry, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion. SWANK meets once a month for support group-style meetings where members provide peer-support and mutual aid for one and other.

Sex Workers Project and the Red Umbrella Project are also organizations set up to provide support to those working in the sex industry in some capacity and those affected by human trafficking.

One of the major problems outside of any moral judgements regarding the sex trade is the issue of sexually transmitted diseases. Much harsher penalties are bestowed upon prostitutes who are aware of the fact that they are carrying AIDS, as this offense is a felony. Therefore, condoms are essential to keeping both the prostitutes and the clients safe.

In 2011, New York City health workers gave away a staggering 37.2 million condoms, reports The New York Times. However, condoms have been used as evidence against alleged prostitutes acts as a deterrent to their use.

The large-scale distribution of condoms is intended to protect citizens, both those in the sex industry and those who are just practicing safe sex, not to be used as evidence against them in cases of suspected prostitution crimes. The city of New York recognised the contradiction that this imposes and acted accordingly in June of this year.

“The New York State Assembly enacted a bill to end the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses on the final day of the 2013 legislative session,” reports Human Rights Watch. “Assembly bill 2736 was approved by a vote of 80 to 48 on June 21, 2013, and was delivered to the New York State Senate.”

This move has been applauded by many social justice groups. “Distributing millions of condoms and then taking them out of the hands of the people who need them the most undermines public health campaigns to prevent HIV and sexually transmitted infections,” said Rebecca Schleifer, the health and human rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch on their site. “Comprehensive state legislation is the only way to protect the health and safety of sex workers, victims of trafficking, and the general public.”

Judge Richard M. Weinberg of Manhattan Criminal Court told The New York Times that he finds no value in using condoms as evidence. “In the age of AIDS and H.I.V., if people are sexually active at a certain age, and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.”

New York City is not what it was like in the ’70s. Increased opportunity and options in the city have lessened the need for so many to turn to the oldest profession. Though prostitution is not entirely a thing of the past and is certainly still a taboo, there at least exists more support for those in the industry, starting with condoms and endorsement of using protection.