New York City’s New Sex Work Policy Isn’t Only About Changing Morals

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Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s decision to stop prosecuting people for taking money in exchange for sex marks a turning point in the long and fascinating history of sex work in New York City. The city once considered “the prostitution capitol of the United States” and “the Gomorrah of the New World” has now followed the lead of a few other major American cities in adopting what’s sometimes called the “Nordic model” — continuing to outlaw paying for sex but not punishing the sex workers themselves.

This change largely stems from two factors: changing moral beliefs about who the victims of sex work are, and the new realities of Manhattan real estate.

Start with morality. Without a transformation in public perceptions of what is wrong with sex work and who is to blame for its social costs, it would have been impossible for an elected official like a district attorney to announce a policy of no longer enforcing anti-prostitution laws that have, in some cases, been on the books for centuries.

Sexual morality from the early modern period into recent decades tended to condemn the people — especially women — who accepted money in exchange for sexual services, depicting them as morally corrupt. Those who paid for sex — especially men — were often let off the hook by the same (hypocritical) standard. In this now out-moded worldview, taking money for sex transformed a woman’s social status, while paying for sex had little or no effect on a man’s.

Today, we are increasingly willing to acknowledge that people who accept money for sex may often have had little or no choice in the decision. We recognize the realities of trafficking and substance dependence. We’re more aware of power disparities based on sex, race, gender identity and income. It has come to seem primitive to blame those who sell sex rather than those who purchase it.

To be sure, Manhattan — like Baltimore and Philadelphia, which have adopted similar policies — has not adopted the view promoted by some activists, namely that we should take morality out of the equation altogether and simply legalize and regulate all forms of sex work. The association between sex and morals remains as strong as ever in the new policy. But the moral calculus has changed.

On its own, however, this change in beliefs probably would not have sufficed to bring about a policy change. For that, what was required was a major reduction in the geographical prominence of sex work in Manhattan. Long-time residents of the island know this story well. As late as the 1980s, sex work, including prostitution, played a major role in the economy of the extended Times Square area. (The short-lived HBO series The Deuce sought to capture the atmosphere of this urban phenomenon in its late heyday.)

Over time, aggressive policing coupled with rezoning and extensive development moved sex work out of midtown. As Manhattan grew ever wealthier in the 1980s, and property values rose, sex work was also pushed out of other neighborhoods, like the Meatpacking District. Eventually, sex work in Manhattan reached the point where it is today: peripheral and relatively invisible rather than openly flourishing in particular neighborhoods.

If sex workers were congregating in neighborhoods where their presence pushed down property values, no elected official would be likely to stop prosecuting them. New Yorkers’ economic self-interest — in particular their interest in keeping property values high — would surely have been more than sufficient to outweigh their changing views on sex work itself.

But in a world where political and social forces had already combined to render sex work less visible, there was room for new moral beliefs to shape legal policy.

The combination of economic self-interest and morality is hardly unknown. During the antebellum period, slavery in the U.S. flourished where it was economically advantageous to slaveholders — namely, where cotton grew. Elsewhere, to the north and to the west, antislavery sentiment grew among White people whose economic interests were less tied to slavery, or even opposed to it.

It’s impossible to say for sure how geographic patterns of sex work will change in the aftermath of the new policy. But you can predict with confidence that the new dispensation will remain in place only so long as it is consistent with maintaining property holders’ economic interests. There is reason to applaud the updating of moral views. We shouldn’t lose sight of the cold, hard economic reality that lets those updated views become legal policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.”

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