The City Council tucked $4.1 million in the 2021 pandemic-influenced budget to “support people involved in the sex trade.” 

But sex workers say they aren’t directly seeing any of the funds. They also note that none of the groups and agencies charged with using the money to provide services are run by sex workers. And they’re rankled that some of the groups don’t recognize sex work as legitimate employment. 

“Sex workers don’t have the same rights that people with so-called regular jobs. Our work is not seen as work and it makes it harder for us to secure housing when you can’t prove that your job is a real job like everybody else’s,” said Gizelle Marie, a sex worker and organizer of NYC’s Stripper Strike in 2017. 

“When we can’t secure housing, we are at higher risk of being homeless, which increases violence against our bodies,” she added. “It is all connected for us.”

The sex industry has often been referred to as recession proof, which is debatable. But New Yorkers in the trade say it is far from pandemic proof. 

As COVID-19 disrupted the industry and forced would-be customers to stay home and social distance, sex workers were left without a steady stream of income and ineligible for government unemployment relief.

Some $3.8 million of the Council’s discretionary funds were allocated to nine organizations that offer “wrap-around comprehensive services,” including medical, legal assistance, housing, emergency shelter and case management for people involved in the sex trade.

An additional $365,000 will support outreach workers charged with connecting sex trade workers to such services.

The organizations that got funding, ranging from $85,000 to $650,000, include the Community Health Project, Destination Tomorrow, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, NYC Health + Hospitals, HIAS, New York City Anti-Violence Project, Safe Horizon, Sanctuary for Families and VOCAL-NY.

Some of those organizations focus on providing survivors of sex trafficking with a wide array of resources to escape and maintain a life away from the sex trade. 

“Last year, I gave a speech on criminal justice reform in which I focused on moving away from an overly punitive system and toward a justice system based on compassion,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in an email to THE CITY. “As part of these efforts, it is critical that we fight for justice for persons involved in the sex trade.”

What Is Sex Work?

When it comes to seeing sex work as labor, the organizations that received funding hold disparate opinions, including on how it should be policed. Some don’t believe the phrase “sex work” should exist.

The EMPOWER Center, a partnership between NYC Health + Hospitals and the domestic-violence related nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, which provides care to people with experiences in the commercial sex trade, views prostitution as a form of gender-based violence, according to co-director Ane Mathison.

“I don’t believe that prostitution is sex. Sex, I believe, is something that occurs when there is no power differential and there’s no exchange of money,” Mathison said. “And I don’t believe that it’s labor.”

Safe Horizon, a victim-services nonprofit that received $456,697 in funding, is less focused on the semantics of sex work than providing services — like housing, health care and employment opportunities — to survivors of the sex trade in an empowering way, said Joean Villarin, who runs the organization’s Streetwork Project.

The Black Sex Worker Liberation March and Vigil in Times Square, Aug. 1, 2020. Credit: Carson Kessler/THE CITY

But sex workers like Maya Morena, 26, fear the services these organizations provide are given in a “coercive” manner — an attempt to rescue rather than give legitimacy to their trade.

“When you start funding anti-trafficking initiatives, and they start conflating sex work with trafficking, it typically leads to more increases in carceral solutions, and it doesn’t actually fund survivors,” Morena said.

‘Nowhere to Turn’

State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan) echoed this sentiment Aug. 1 as they took the stage in Times Square at the Black Sex Worker Liberation March and Vigil, organized by sex workers SX Noir and Gizelle Marie, to condemn the NYPD Vice Squad and support decriminalization of sex work. 

 “We don’t know where our economy is going to take us,” said Ramos, who is chair of the Committee on Labor. “But we have to get there together. And we need to make sure that our sex workers are protected.”

Morena and others wish aid could go directly the people the various funds vie to help. “I want the money going toward sex workers or sex worker-led organizations,” she said. 

‘Sex workers do not have paid days off, and many exist without savings or social nets of any kind.’

Sex-worker led organizations like Brooklyn’s Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) have started crowdfunding to provide monetary aid to local sex workers. 

“Sex workers do not have paid days off, and many exist without savings or social nets of any kind,” wrote the women of SWOP on a GoFundMe page, which has raised $160,000 since mid-March. “The most marginalized of us are the most at risk, and have nowhere to turn when clients stop coming to see us.”

 “I do think they [the Council] have good intentions,” said Morena, “but it comes at the expense of not listening to the people that they’re trying to protect.”