“New York is Dying”: Policing Outdoor Sex Workers in the Era of AIDS and Urban Renewal, 1981-88

  • David Helps


While the history of scapegoating sex workers in times of heightened moral anxiety is well-studied, work remains to be done on how the co-occurring crises of AIDS and “urban decline” in New York City inspired a renewed crackdown on street-based sex work. Though after 1978 New York State’s prostitution statute prohibited purchasing and selling sex, arrests continued to disproportionately affect women performing sex work, especially those based on the street. Three forces interacted to put “streetwalkers” at the centre of fears about the city’s moral and physical health. First, New Yorkers seized on an image of their city since the mid-1970s as a dangerous and vice-ridden metropolis to denigrate sex workers. Metaphors of disease—including the language used to describe AIDS—were readily deployed against sex work to “explain” New York’s state of sickness. Second, medical studies, which were decontextualized and disseminated in newspapers, posited sex workers as an epidemiological missing link between the gay and straight populations. Third, as part of a larger campaign to “clean up” blighted areas marked for “urban renewal,” the NYPD became increasingly aggressive towards outdoor sex workers. Sex workers met an array of popular assumptions about them by organizing conference meetings, educating each other on HIV/AIDS, and attempting to forge a counter-narrative to scapegoating. Their pursuit of self-representation was not always successful, but they used the resources available to them to mount moments of resistance and share strategies for survival within their ranks.