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Wall art from the ancient city of Pompeii depicts prostitution. (Photo: Ancient Artist)
Wall art from the ancient city of Pompeii depicts prostitution. (Artist unknown)

Prostitutes and “happy-ending” massage workers will no longer face criminal prosecution in New York City, but the men who solicit them and sex traffickers could still face arrest and jail if convicted.

Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced today (Apr. 21) that his office would no longer prosecute prostitution and unlicensed massage as part of a growing nationwide trend to decriminalize sex work.

Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez and Queens district attorney Melinda Katz, took similar steps earlier this year.

Prostitution, of course, is as old as history, and ample evidence can be found in antiquity. In fact, New York’s nickname, “The Big Apple,” stems from its reputation for prostituion.

In the 18th and 19th century, prostitutes were called “apples.” New York City became noted for prostitution after the French Revolution, when royalists and nobles fled France and arrived here penniless.

While the latest change in policy is designed to remove the stigma from sex workers, men, or women who patronize prostitutes or “happy ending” massage workers will still face charges.

Men who hire sex trafficked women, who are forced into prostitution against their will, and the pimps who manage them could face even stiffer penalties (no pun intended, well maybe).

The latest proposed law cements the fate of those who solicit sex. It’s known as the “Sex Trade Survivors Justice & Equality Act,” introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

It, would formally decriminalize prostitution in New York while holding pimps, sex traffickers and buyers accountable, according to the Albany Times Herald newspaper.

Prostitution and loitering charges of sex trade workers who have been convicted would be expunged from criminal records under the measure.

The idea is to remove obstacles to employment or other opportunities, making it easier to give sex workers a fresh start.

As many as 80,000 people are arrested for prostitution nationwide every year, costing taxpayers as much as $200 million to prosecute in court.

Of those arrested, an estimated 70 per cent are females and madams, 20 per cent males and pimps and about 10 percent are “Johns.”

“The true criminals are the pimps who exploit them and the Johns who demand their services,” a local lawmaker told the newspaper. Sex workers are victims.

Art Stine, a long-time New York anti-sex-trafficking activist said treating sex workers as victims and going after pimps, traffickers and customers, is the right approach.

“While I am glad that the one’s being prostituted are being released, the legalization doesn’t prevent the men who create 95 percent of the ‘need’ for buying sex/enslaving women, girls, men, and boys from treating women, girls, men, and boys as property,” he said.

Vance is already putting his new policy to work. He has ask a judge to dismiss 914 open cases involving prostitution and unlicensed massage, along with 5,080 cases in which the charge was loitering for the purposes of prostitution, according to The New York Times.

Many of those cases he is moving to dismiss are decades old and go back to a time when the city launched a major crackdown on prostitution.

“Over the last decade we’ve learned from those with lived experience, and from our own experience on the ground: Criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” Vance said in a statement.

Vance is also dropping a policy that required sex workers to attend mandatory counseling in lieu of prosecution. Those sessions will now be voluntary.

Until now, prostitution was considered class B misdemeanor in New York, punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $500.  A person commits the crime by offering or agreeing to engage in any sex act in return for a fee, according to legal references.

So-called “Johns” can still be charged with Third Degree Patronizing a Prostitute, under NY Penal Law 230.04, according to Crotty Saland, a New York criminal defense law firm.

In fact, it is fairly common for the NYPD or other police agency to set up a sting where a female detective approaches a man in a Manhattan or Brooklyn street or a Queens or Bronx bar, according to the firm.

“Beyond these stings, law enforcement, such as investigators with a District Attorney’s Office or New York State Attorney General’s Office, pursue ‘Johns’ and arrest people offering to pay for sex in hotel rooms, luxury apartments and other discrete locations from White Plains in Westchester County to every New York City borough.”

To establish guilt, a John merely has to solicits another to engage in sexual conduct for money. The sex act does not need to take place or money change hands for a guilty verdict.

Patronizing a Prostitute in the Third Degree is a class “A” misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.

If the sex worker is under age of 14 or 11, a John could face up to four to seven years in state prison.