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Noah Feldman

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

As prostitution takes up fewer street corners, it becomes politically possible for district attorneys to lighten up.

Times Square in ye olden days of 1980.

Times Square in ye olden days of 1980.

Photographer: David Herman/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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.