A Business Doing Pleasure: Combating Sex Trafficking by Decriminalizing Sex Work


(Excerpt) On the night police officers pounded on Yang Song’s door, she ran to the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment, which overlooks 40th Road in Flushing, Queens. Four years earlier, she had arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport with a dream of opening a restaurant. After a waitressing job failed, as well as a short-lived Chinese fast-food venture, she took a massage therapy course. There, she learned about a “lucrative opportunity” on 40th Road. Flushing’s underground sex economy has been notorious for years. In fact, massage parlor arrests across the United States consistently lead back to addresses in Flushing. Because massage parlors in Flushing disappear and reappear regularly, and there is confusion about which ones are licensed, the NYPD’s attempts to crack down on these businesses have been largely unsuccessful. But that does not stop them from trying. On the night that police officers pounded on her door, Yang Song had already circled through New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) multiple times. The HTICs seek to provide sex workers and trafficking victims with a way out of the sex trade by mandating services such as therapy in lieu of jail time. In fact, Yang Song’s fifth court-mandated session with Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization that helps foreign-born victims of sex trafficking, was just four days away. Months earlier, Yang Song disclosed to her lawyer that a police officer had put a gun to her head and forced her to perform oral sex. Whether any of this went through Yang Song’s mind on the night the police pounded on her door is unknown. And whether Yang Song jumped, fell, or was pushed from the balcony when her body plunged four stories down to 40th Road is also unknown. She died the next morning. Was Yang Song “trafficked” into her massage parlor position, or was she there voluntarily? This is also a question without a clear answer. The concept of sex trafficking captures the imaginations of Americans, but questions of who qualifies as a victim and who does not have many answers—and the answers depend upon a number of circumstances, including whom you ask

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This paper was published in St. John's University School of Law.

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