Photo: craigCloutier via flickr/Creative Commons

Cross-posted from In These Times

Two quintessential cliches of New York City street life are heading into more trouble with the law: yellow cabs and prostitutes. To combat the sex trade, the city is pursuing pimps via taxi. But some civil rights advocates fear the measure targets the wrong kind of traffic.

The newly signed legislation aims to punish cab drivers who abet prostitution, with a focus on those who “knowingly engage in a business of transporting individuals to patrons for purposes of prostitution, procuring and/or soliciting patrons for the prostitution, and receiving proceeds from such business in collaboration with traffickers and pimps.” The law imposes new criminal penalties, including fines or the loss of a license, for various forms of “promoting prostitution” while using the taxi.  It also mandates trainings to inform drivers about the legal consequences of “facilitating sex trafficking” and about social services available to trafficking victims. The evidence of cabbies’ involvement in the sex trade is anecdotal at best—there was recently a high-profile trafficking case in which livery cab drivers were nabbed in connection with “brothel on wheels.” But the ubiquity of taxis, popularity of paid sex services, and lack of parking space in the city has apparently led lawmakers to focus on yellow cabs as a critical link in the crusade against trafficking.

The reality of sex work in the city involves far more than dramatic stereotypes of pimps, johns and their drivers. First, advocates for sex workers point out that prostitutes are not necessarily trafficking victims, and that the language of the legislation threatens to blur the line between voluntary prostitution and trafficking, which generally involves coercion and economic exploitation.

Kate D’Adamo, an organizer with Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), said in a correspondence with In These Times that the legislation “inappropriately conflates all prostitution with human trafficking” by focusing on the vaguely defined “promotion of prostitution” by drivers, rather than drawing a clear distinction between coerced and non-coerced commercial sex. “Criminalization of the people around sex workers and trafficked persons alike will do nothing to support trafficked persons,” she added, “and will only further marginalize those populations.”

The legislation has generated a flurry of controversy. WNYC reported that even Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially worried that cab drivers would be pressured to profile women based on the way they dressed, steering clear of anyone resembling the “hooker” typology or, as the Mayor delicately put it, a lady “dressed in a ‘sporty way.’”

To D’Adamo, the zero-tolerance mentality shames and alienates women suspected of sexual deviance. Law enforcement-based tactics make it harder to help people who truly are trafficked, whose exploitation reflects underlying social problems, including socioeconomic and gender inequities:

Beyond the much talked about issues of profiling and discrimination along lines of dress, sexual identity, gender identity, class and race, this bill will simply not support the identification or support of trafficked persons. Coercion and exploitation within the sex trade, like other industries, are effects of marginalization and a lack of access to resources, and this bill does nothing to address either of those root causes.

Besides, cabs, rather than being agents of sin, could in fact be lifesavers for trafficking victims. Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, a legal advocacy group, testified before the City Council last December, “Without taxi cabs or for-hire vehicles, these sex workers could face considerably greater dangers in going to and from their workplace. Additionally, a driver who knows that their passenger is engaging in prostitution can help or report information to the police should the sex worker disappear or if she is the victim of a crime.” So, the legislation purports to crack down on victimizers, but by making cabbies reluctant to intervene in a crisis, it might actually expose women to more danger.

The backdrop to the anti-trafficking taxi law is a groundswell of militant campaigns against advertising services like Village Voice’s Backpage, which anti-prostitution activists say are accessories to sexual slavery because they run advertisements for sexual services. While there is always a risk of commercial websites becoming a channel for trafficking, advocates for sex workers argue that criminalizing internet outlets could actually drive victims away from resources for help, while further stigmatizing sex workers who choose to engage in the trade. Sex-worker activists nationwide call for a more holistic societal response to sex trafficking that decriminalizes consensual commercial sex, while connecting trafficking victims to social services and positive interventions outside the criminal justice system.

The City’s new anti-prostitution strategy turns away from the harm-reduction approach and instead heaps another layer of liability onto cabbies. Fear of being unfairly implicated in sex trafficking will likely add to the many other burdens they face on the job. As we’ve reported previously, taxi drivers are vulnerable to violent attacks, punishing work schedules, and a labor structure that forces drivers into virtual vehicular serfdom.

The city’s anti-prostitution crackdown ironically does place prostitutes and cabbies on the same side of the law, but for reasons probably not anticipated by the City Council: both sex workers and taxi drivers have seen their labor devalued and tarred with stereotypes of criminality, when in reality they’re just, like most other New Yorkers, trying to make an honest living.