Perhaps someday, the New York Assembly will legalize sex work (several political candidates have recently promised to take steps toward legalization). For now, however, it is still a Class B misdemeanor in New York to “engage or agree or offer to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee.” Penal Law § 230.00. Similarly, it is illegal to patronize a prostitute, meaning that it is a misdemeanor to “pay a fee to another person as compensation for such person or a third person having engaged in sexual conduct with him or her, or to pay or agree to pay a fee to another person pursuant to an understanding that in return therefor such person or a third person shall engage in sexual conduct with him or her.” Penal Law §§ 230.02 and 230.04. Of course, it is also illegal to promote prostitution (i.e. be a pimp or madam), which means to “knowingly cause or aid a person to commit or engage in prostitution, procure or solicit patrons for prostitution, provide persons or premises for prostitution purposes, or operate or assist in the operation of a house of prostitution or a prostitution enterprise, or engage in any other conduct designed to institute, aid or facilitate an act or enterprise of prostitution.” Penal Law §§ 230.15 and 230.20.
Law enforcement has long sought, with mixed results, to combat prostitution offenses in New York City. Back when prostitutes used to walk the streets of notorious neighborhoods in Manhattan, police would arrest prostitutes for just “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” (basically, walking on the sidewalk dressed like a prostitute talking to potential customers about tricks). Police would also go undercover and pose as johns to get prostitutes to make illegal offers of sexual conduct for fees. Police officers continue to pose as prostitutes to entice johns to make illegal offers, though nowadays they are more likely to find a target inside of a nice establishment in the city instead of on the sidewalk. Indeed, undercover police officers dressed as attractive prostitutes often target middle aged men alone at hotel bars and proposition them to see if they will “take the bait,” so to speak. These sting victims oftentimes have legitimate entrapment defenses, but not after already having been humiliated and having had their livelihoods placed in danger as a result of the arrests.
With the advent of the internet, much of the prostitution business moved online to websites like Craigslist and Backpage. Prostitutes and escorts would post ads on these sites and johns would simply call them to make appointments. The postings were so numerous that despite some law enforcement efforts to make undercover arrests of these prostitutes – and perhaps more effectively, arrests of johns via false prostitution ads – the sheer volume of ads on these sites made it impossible to realistically stop the trade via undercover operations. Ultimately, the “escort” sections of these sites were shut down by law enforcement threats to hold the managers of these sites criminally and civilly liable.