Commentary Human Rights

How New York City’s Treatment of Sex Workers Continues to Harm Us

Jenna Torres

In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution. But I know firsthand that using this model can still cause violence to sex workers, because we don’t need treatment.

I am a native New Yorker and a product of its foster system. I’m currently a community organizer at the Red Umbrella Project, which works to build power with cis and trans women who are impacted by the criminalization of sex work in New York City.

In fall of 2013, the State of New York established the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to change the way courts handled those arrested for prostitution and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Rather than jail time, judges offer defendants guilty pleas where, in exchange for attending multiple sessions at a “prostitution diversion program,” the defendant is granted an Adjournment in Contemplation for Dismissal, or ACD. After a probationary period, the charges are dropped, though local law enforcement retains a record of the arrest.

This system was modeled after the drug treatment courts, and it is spreading to states such as Illinois and Michigan. It aims to treat defendants as victims rather than criminals. But I know firsthand that using this model can still cause sex workers harm, because we don’t need treatment. Instead, we need meaningful engagement to give us the tools to create a better environment for ourselves on our own terms.

As a child, I was in foster care, trying to transition out on my own. I had the first of my three babies when I was 13. My foster mother would provide for my children with the money she got from the state, but not for me. I appealed to the foster agency to provide stipends for me to pay for clothing, but I was denied: The social worker that visited us felt that I had enough clothing, though most of it no longer fit me. So I began to take care of myself.

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Starting at the age of 15, whenever I needed clothes, school uniforms, or school supplies, I engaged in sex work. I engaged in sex work to keep my phone on, to have a way to reach my child-care provider. I engaged in sex work to pay for basic things, like bus fare for when school was out, and for my personal care items.

In addition to being a teen mother, I was going to an alternative high school where they accept teens 16 and older who are deemed at risk or failing at “normal” high school. Passing or excelling was never actually a problem for me, but I didn’t get the grades I deserved because of my unexplained absences. No one could believe that a 16-year-old with two kids and pregnant with her third was capable of handling such a workload, so I was able to enroll in this school. There, they had a learning-to-work program. I was allowed to work 15 hours a week, making $7.25 an hour—still nothing compared to what I needed.

When I graduated from high school, things became even harder. I didn’t have the basic essentials I needed to be done with foster care and live on my own and I wasn’t able to get a job during the summer. Still, I was able to enroll in college in the fall. Meanwhile, I continued turning to the only thing I knew would make ends meet, which was sex work.

In August 2013, the day I was supposed to pick up my college schedule, I was arrested for prostitution. I never did the things the police accused me of, like agreeing to sexual acts or taking money for sexual services, but they arrested me anyway. After 23 hours in jail, I finally saw a public defender. She prompted me to take a plea, so that I could get my six sessions of “treatment” and an ACD. I was 17 years old at the time. While in holdings, I was unable to use the bathroom because of the unsanitary conditions. Shortly after being released, I was admitted to the hospital for five days because of resulting health problems.

Later, my mandate was changed to ten sessions and an immediate ACD, instead of having to wait six months after completing the sessions to have my charge cleared. The whole process almost ended my journey to college before it even began.

I had missed my final opportunity to register for classes. I went to the school—I begged and pleaded to start on time. But to get back into school, I was forced to disclose my hospital record stay, as well as my arrest papers. The students working in the administration department, which was in charge of making decisions about how flexible to be about latecomers and scheduling them, now knew I had been arrested for prostitution. I also received a very long and uncomfortable “talk” from the school board about how I got to this place, in which they asked how I could manage what I had going on while I attended school. I had to divulge very personal, embarrassing, and sensitive information in order to save my semester.

And the court-mandated sessions didn’t help me. They entailed showing up to the “diversion program” and speaking to a woman who I believed really did want to help me but just didn’t understand the situation I was facing. Oftentimes I had to lie and say that everything was fine when it really wasn’t, just so I could return as quickly as possible to sorting things out on my own, as I usually did. If I didn’t lie, it could’ve extended my sessions—more time I didn’t need to waste.  

As a teen mother, we are expected to fail and I wasn’t going to be that. I was going to be educated and financially responsible for my children. But it was impossible to do that trying to be everywhere at once.

It took me a couple of months to finish the court-mandated sessions at all, because I was trying to balance the program along with school, studies, and the life that comes with being in foster care like meetings and visits from social workers. I lived in Brooklyn, my college was in Staten Island, and my program was in Harlem. From my house, it usually took around two hours to get to school, and that travel included a bus, a train, a ferry, and a campus bus that only operated during the week. So on weekends, I could be subjected to the unreliable Staten Island MTA bus services as I tried to get to my Saturday classes. If I went to college and failed to do the programs, the police would arrest me. They would put a warrant out for me and then arrest me possibly with my kids watching or with my college peers watching. But it was physically impossible for me to get to school and try to go to my programs too. Eventually, I just had to drop out of college—the one thing could have helped me in the long run.  

The treatment program the courts provided was not a good fit for me. I didn’t need to be treated for sex work. That isn’t an illness. All the sessions did were occupy my time in ways that weren’t at all useful. I really needed that time for more important tasks. The sessions hampered my ability to create a better environment for myself and my children so I wouldn’t have to rely on sex work.   

They didn’t give me what I needed, either. They gave me options that didn’t fit my situation, suggesting that I just stop sex work and my life would be magically improved. Stopping sex work for me means not being able to make money. All the odds were stacked against me. Nobody was hiring a 18-year-old parent of three young children with a full college schedule.

It wasn’t until after I was finished with the programs and the court that the damage was really done. I had dropped out of school. I had to postpone my journey out of foster care. I was living off part-time work at Payless, still barely meeting the needs of my children and myself.

However, thanks to the Legal Aid Society, I was referred to the Red Umbrella Project for voluntary job assistance and training. The Red Umbrella Project and similar groups center people like me and our needs in a way that most programs ignore. They offer the things that we really need, like real job assistance that includes comprehensive resume writing and networking, housing resources, leadership opportunities, and health resources. My colleagues and I at the Red Umbrella Project pay attention to each member and also understand that one size doesn’t fit all models. But most importantly, we take care of each other as a community, not just as clients.

All I ever wanted to do is show everyone that teen mothers can be successful. Without an alternative, I made choices that I needed to do in order to take care of myself. It shouldn’t have taken me getting arrested and violated by the police and courts to hear my needs. There are bigger problems that needs to be addressed that aren’t, because this whole system was created without the input of the people filtering through it. Without our voices, it will continue to inflict harm and violence to us, the people that are supposedly “victims.”

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