Prostitution in Flushing, frequently tied to sex trafficking, is notorious.
The issue there — which came up in a recent New York Post story about an alleged brothel in Brooklyn — is still a problem despite the efforts made by nonprofit groups, the NYPD and others trying to stop it.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said that the issue can be solved by increased enforcement.
“It’s the type of situation that you need a comprehensive approach to by a task force or a collection of city agencies,” he said. “You need Buildings, you need Fire, you need the Police, Health.”
Last summer, four businesses on 162nd Street between Northern Boulevard and 46th Avenue were found to be “adult physical cultural establishments” after Avella reached out to the Office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, Department of Buildings and the NYPD about them. Three of them received vacate orders.
On websites such as Postfastr, advertisements for sexually tinged massage in Flushing are not hard to find.
Councilmen Peter Koo (D-Flushing) and Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) did not immediately return requests for comment.
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) says that a nuanced approach needs to be taken when it comes to attacking the issue.
“I think for a long time, we’ve taken this punitive approach in trying to identify and crack down on many of these illegal establishments,” he told the Chronicle, adding that an “educational approach” should also be taken.
“The NYPD has shifted a little bit, in my understanding, having officers trying to go into as many communities as possible to let the victims of sex trafficking know that there are services available to them that they can step forward for help,” he added.
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) said that the Post’s calling Flushing “the national epicenter of the Asian sex trade” was wrong.
“I think that calling Flushing the epicenter is just demeaning; it’s inaccurate, it’s wrong,” she said. “Flushing obviously has a number of questionable enterprises; however, so does Jackson Heights and Corona and Maspeth and many of the communities in Queens.”
According to Flushing resident Paul Graziano, the problem existed on a much smaller scale until about 15 or 20 years ago.
“In my opinion, I think we need federal law enforcement involved in this,” he said.
At least one officer from the 109th Precinct has accepted money to protect brothels in Flushing before. The precinct has dealt with a separate scandal involving bribes from karaoke bar owners in the neighborhood this year.
“Massage parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution remain a serious problem that we and law enforcement must continue to combat, and I thank the NYPD for its work in doing so,” Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) said in an emailed statement.
As a member of Congress, Meng co-sponsored legislation to make governmental agencies fighting human trafficking report to Congress about their activities to combat it, ban the advertising of commercial sex acts involving minors and victims of fraud, coercion and force, and keep people from benefiting from the advertisements, in addition to other methods of enhancing the work being done to fight human trafficking. She also sponsored legislation on the issue as an assemblywoman.
But despite the tough measures supported by her and other lawmakers, the problem continues.
Year-to-date, 129 “top charge” prostitution arrests — meaning incidents in which arrests were made for prostitution along with bigger crimes like robbery are not counted — in the 109th Precinct as of Dec. 4, and 167 were made last year during the same period.
Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore NYC — a nonprofit that helps victims of trafficking and deals with many East Asians — says that most of the trafficking victims that his group helps have a connection to Queens, and most of that group has a connection to Flushing.
As far as policy solutions to the issue goes, Lee advocates “the Nordic model”: the pimps, traffickers and johns are punished but the prostitutes aren’t.
“I think the best way to do it is to not criminalize the woman who is prostituted but to go after those who are selling them or going after the johns,” he said, adding that the legalization and regulation of prostitution would not solve the problem. “When you’re decriminalizing everything it gives those who are exploiting and trafficking them a cover of legitimacy.”
Queens County’s Prostitution Diversion Court takes an approach resembling the kind advocated by Lee. Instead of doling out harsh sentences, the court directs women to groups such as Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention and the New York Asian Women’s Center to steer the prostitutes away from their work.
Similarly, the Queens County Human Trafficking Intervention Court will mandate treatment for victims rather than give them jail time.
The pimps and traffickers, however, are treated as regular wrongdoers by the District Attorney’s Office. The Human Trafficking Unit of its Special Proceedings Bureau has found that a central obstacle to getting victims to speak out is fear of the consequences of doing so.
“Victims in generally Asian massage parlors are often reluctant to give info to law enforcement because of fear of their trafficker,” Assistant District Attorney Jessica Melton, the chief of the unit, said.
“We’ve done some interviews where a lot of them are brought here, they may not be being beaten, they have to repay transportation and then are made to work off this debt,” Assistant District Attorney Anthony Communiello, chief of the Special Proceedings Bureau, said.
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