Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced his Women's Equality Act legislation today, a 10-point agenda intended to protect and legally mandate the fair and equal treatment of women in New York state. Among those points are laws that would legally mandate equal pay, prohibit pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, strengthen protection of domestic violence victims, and stop sexual harassment.
The most controversial of Cuomo's proposals would expand state laws regarding abortion access, bringing their scope up to that of federal law. Cuomo has maintained that this proposal does nothing more than augment state law to confirm with the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade, and consistent with what doctors across the state already practice.
But one young woman present at the announcement told a story that highlighted the importance of a part of the legislation that has been largely lost in the cacophonous criticism of abortion access: beefing up the penalties for sex traffickers, and enhancing the protection—even putting in place protections that have long been missing—of their victims.
The woman was identified by only her first name, Brianna, in accordance with privacy protections afforded to victims of sexual violence.
When she was nine years old, Brianna was kidnapped in New York City by her school janitor. He raped her and sold her to a pimp.
"From then on, my life was not my own," Brianna said.
Brianna recounted a life controlled by a series of brutal pimps who sold her "to men who knew my age and bought sex because of it."
She was locked in a room with no bathroom, in a house with no electricity or running water, she said. Eventually she escaped, only to end up in the hands of another pimp, who coaxed her under his control by promising her the life she dreamed of: school, a loving home, a family.
"He told me that I only needed to do one small thing for him in return," Brianna recalled.
And then she was back in the life she had only just escaped.
"I was beaten, I was raped, and there was no one there to save me," she said in a clear, steady voice, as the woman to her left wiped tears from her eyes.
Brianna described the day she saw her mother out the window of the room in which she was trapped. Her mother was hanging "missing" posters with her face on them, and Brianna screamed to her, trying to get her attention, but her pimp came up behind her and yanked her away from the window by her hair.
He told her, "you will never leave, good luck trying," she said.
When she was 13 years old, the police finally came—but not to rescue her.
"I was arrested and placed in handcuffs as a prostitute," she said. "I was called a prostitute even though I was a child, even though I was a trafficking victim."
She was made to testify against her pimp in court, a traumatic, confusing experience for a child who knew this man as her "protector." She described him as the person "who decided whether I'd be raped, whether I'd be beaten, or whether I'd be fed."
"He told me that I couldn't exist without him, and I couldn't understand a world in which anything else was true," she said.
He was eventually convicted of kidnapping—a charge for which he will serve about four years, Brianna said.
"This man who owned me as a slave, who sold me to child rapists, who profited off of my body deserves to be punished more harshly," she said, her voice raising slightly.
Under Cuomo's proposed Women's Equality Act, the requirement that "coercion" be proven in a sex trafficking prosecution would be eliminated in cases where the victims are minors. The bill would also increase the penalties for trafficking and establish an affirmative defense in prostitution trials when the defendant is a sex trafficking victim. An affirmative defense would protect victims from being sentenced harshly or at all, even if the prostitution allegations against them are proven.
The Women's Equality Act now needs sponsors in the state Senate and the Assembly to be introduced for a vote.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat