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Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City
Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center

Street-based sex workers, one of New York City's most vulnerable populations, find themselves targeted for arrest by police, and they experience high levels of violence that go unpunished. Current City and law enforcement policies towards prostitutes create a cycle of arrests that does not result in appropriate or long-term solutions for the community or for sex workers. The Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center (UJC) challenges the City to mount an aggressive campaign to ensure that all violence against sex workers is taken seriously by law enforcement authorities. Further, the SWP challenges the City to offer stable housing and in-depth and appropriate services that lead to long-term solutions.

The SWP interviewed 30 street-based sex workers in six locations across New York City for this report, Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City. The SWP also interviewed fifteen service providers and advocates from organizations working with this marginalized population, and seven City officials and administrators. Key findings include:

Violence Against Prostitutes: Eighty percent of street-based prostitutes interviewed had experienced or been threatened with violence while working. When asked about reporting violence to the police, they reported that police did not take their complaints seriously and often told them that they should expect violence. "Carol" told researchers "If I call them, they don't come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. 'Nobody told you to be in the street.' After a girl was gang raped, they said 'Forget it, she works in the street.'" She continued, "I hope that never happens to your daughters. I'm human."

Police Violence Against Prostitutes: Thirty percent of sex workers interviewed told researchers that they had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police. Reported incidents included officers physically grabbing and kicking prostitutes, as well as beating them; one incident of rape; one woman was stalked by a police officer; and throwing food at one subject. Sexual harassment included fondling of body parts; giving women cigarettes in exchange for sex; and police offering not to arrest a prostitute in exchange for sexual services.

Housing Crisis and Need for Intensive Services: Eighty-seven percent of sex workers interviewed were homeless or in unstable housing situations and could become homeless at any time. In addition, 83% were substance dependent. The City claims that mandating services like drug treatment through police sweeps and arrests is the most effective way to address prostitution. However, UJC found 50% of subjects had never been offered any services as a result of an arrest. Of the 50% who had been offered services, only one was offered anything more than a two-hour health class. "Jamie" told researchers, "I wish they did [offer services.]"

Police Harassment of Public Health Outreach Projects: Service providers and advocates described police interference with public health projects that distribute condoms and other tools of harm reduction, sometimes including food. Reported interference included threats of arrest, false arrests, repeated pulling over of outreach vehicles, and harassment of project staff. One advocate observed that "one of the most extreme results of police harassment is the false arrests of these outreach workers," while another expressed her concern, saying, "[p]olice stopping and questioning of outreach clients discourages people from taking advantage of these services."

The full report can be found at http://www.sexworkersproject.org/.

For more information, please contact Juhu Thukral, SWP Director, at 646/602.5690 or jthukral@urbanjustice.org.