NEW YORK — When a 41-year-old escort who goes by the name Lana Marciano went from apartment to apartment in Brooklyn as part of a push for sex workers’ rights, she seemed pleased that no one slammed a door in her face.
Marciano was among 35 sex workers and their allies who recently campaigned for a legislative candidate seeking to decriminalize prostitution, the latest example of activism in a community that includes escorts, adult film stars, strippers and phone sex operators.
“People will say that this is radical,” said Julia Salazar, who met with the volunteers as part of her Democratic primary campaign for New York State Senate. “But we all know that it needs to be the norm. And by talking to our communities, by speaking openly about this, we’re getting closer to this becoming the norm.”
Public acceptance is an uphill battle, as evinced by comments from Republican President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani that he doesn’t respect a porn star the way he respects a career woman who “isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.”
Marciano said most of the residents she visited in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood were at least cordial and largely sympathetic to sex workers’ issues — even the two men who answered the door in their underwear.
“Only the yesses matter,” Kaytlin Bailey, a comedian, writer and former escort who helped lead the canvassing efforts, told volunteers. “Try to let the nos roll off your back.”
Salazar, a 27-year-old political newcomer, is a Democratic Socialists of America leader who has often been compared to rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, who pulled a stunning Democratic primary upset over a 10-term congressional incumbent earlier this year.
As part of Salazar’s criminal justice platform, she wants to collaborate with district attorneys to stop processing prostitution-related arrests, repeal New York’s loitering for prostitution law, end vice raids on massage parlors and repeal a prostitution exception in New York’s rape shield law, which keeps most sexual assault victims’ sexual pasts from being used as evidence against their credibility in court.
Salazar’s Democratic opponent, eight-term incumbent Martin Malave Dilan, said he was not familiar with Salazar’s policies on sex work but was open to discussion.
“I don’t think that we should be criminalizing activities when people need more help” than being thrown in jail, Dilan said.
Bailey said sex work is a temporary job but as soon as there’s an arrest record for prostitution that identity sticks. Decriminalization could change that.
Volunteers were given scripts outlining talking points, including statistics on the races and gender identities most affected by the prostitution-related policies Salazar hopes to end. They knocked on more than 600 doors.
“I was a little taken aback because it’s such a taboo issue,” resident Ileana Lopez said after Bailey’s visit. “I feel like no one really goes out and says, ‘We’re working towards sex workers’ rights.'”
It’s happening more and more. When Congress passed a law meant to hold internet platforms facilitating sex trafficking accountable, it took away sex workers’ primary means of advertising and sparked a new wave of activism, including record-breaking protests and first-ever town halls with major party candidates.
That doesn’t mean everyone’s onboard. Brooklyn resident Andrea Karshan, who does not live in Salazar’s Brooklyn-based District 18, has tweeted criticism of Salazar’s focus on decriminalization, questioning it is an attainable goal.
“I feel like when you decriminalize something, it kind of like opens up the floodgates in a way,” Karshan said. “I don’t want to encourage this behavior because I think it’s very dehumanizing.”
Lopez was more encouraging.
“I think it should be legalized,” she countered. “I think there are many problems with it being illegal. And I think it’s just detrimental to women to not be able to choose whatever line of work they’re in.”