A few nights before Thanksgiving, Maya Morena—one of the aliases she uses as a sex worker, porn actress, and human-rights activist—picketed an anti-sex-trafficking event hosted by Sanctuary for Families staff attorney Alexi Ashe Meyers and her husband, Seth, the NBC late-night television star.
The ensuing fusillade of accusations and insults between Maya Morena and Alexi Meyers is just one indication of the rising passions over the prostitution issue as New York’s state legislature in Albany prepares to consider competing bills in January that address how cops and courts should deal with the so-called world’s oldest profession.
Both women want new laws that will inflict the least harm and minimize coercion, violence, and abuse. Meyers—who calls herself an “abolitionist” and hopes some day that the sex industry will wither and die—favors legislation that would decriminalize prostitutes but maintain criminal penalties for customers, pimps, and other facilitators of such transactions. Morena, meanwhile, wants simply to decriminalize everyone involved in the act of paid sex between consenting adults.
Joined by a few sex-worker friends on the sidewalk outside a WeWork facility in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood—where the Meyers-hosted invitation-only confab was taking place—the 26-year-old Morena passed out leaflets and brandished a crudely hand-lettered sign under the watchful eye of a security guard who barred their entry and repeatedly shooed them away.
The sign blamed Alexi and Seth Meyers for the Rikers Island death of a transgender sex worker and well-known figure in the city’s underground ballroom scene. “It’s good to go after Seth Meyers, because he’s very famous,” she later admitted. Seth Meyers, whom NBC declined to make available to be interviewed for this report, is an active supporter of his wife’s organization and emceed Sanctuary for Families’ 2018 and 2019 fundraising galas.
“THE MEYERS MURDERED LAYLEEN POLANCO,” claimed Morena’s sign—a reference to the 27-year-old Bronx woman’s June 2019 death in solitary confinement, after multiple epileptic seizures, two months after she was ultimately jailed for her lack of $500 in bail money—the end result of a 2017 arrest on misdemeanor prostitution and drug-possession charges as part of a police sting in which she allegedly agreed to give an undercover cop oral sex.
On one of the websites Morena operates, she justified her tendentious claim against Seth and Alexi Meyers—which she concedes was “a little bit hyperbolic”—because the tax-supported nonprofit that employs Alexi helped create New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts that supposedly treat prostitutes as victims instead of criminals and require them to undergo counseling instead of incarceration. Yet Polanco was arrested and jailed after she didn’t respond to several summonses and didn’t show up for court-ordered counseling sessions.
“They claimed that creating this would result in sex workers not being arrested (they were), and sex workers being free (they were imprisoned, stuck with fines, and death),” Morena wrote on her website. “They don’t blame the order of arrest that was sent for her [Polanco] when she couldn’t pay the $500 fine or mandatory counseling… They don’t blame or mention the police doing a prostitution sting on her (possibly raping her). They don’t blame medical neglect on the staff, or solitary confinement.”
Getting pugnaciously personal, Morena added: “The total amount of funding Sanctuary for Families got as one of the biggest service providers in the country… is the amount of money (7.5 million) that the Meyers bought a Co-op for. This isn’t charity work. Alexi doesn’t deserve all news outlets praising her for ‘saving’ Trafficking victims, when there are struggling underpaid immigration lawyers filing Trafficking and U visas [for migrant crime victims who aid prosecutors] without the obsession with fame, white savior complex, and praise that she clearly has.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Alexi Meyers shot back: “I’m not going to comment on something that’s obviously cyberbullying and targeting me. I’m a scapegoat for this. It’s not worth commenting on, and I hope you don’t link to that webpage and get them more clicks.”
As for her husband’s turn in the barrel, “celebrities are easy to villainize,” said Meyers, who served as a prosecutor for five years in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, specializing in human-trafficking and sex crimes. She couldn’t resist adding: “The one who created the website about me—look at her eyes in those videos of her getting anally raped [a reference to Morena’s moviemaking oeuvre collected on Pornhub.com]. She does not look empowered. She does not look happy. I’m not here to tell her anything about her life choices. I don’t ever want to engage with her.”
The same, however, cannot be said for Morena, who is more than happy to engage with Meyers (and, indeed, this past summer published an op-ed in the local journal City Limits, headlined “A Sex Worker Says Decriminalization Means a Safer Workplace,” responding to Meyers’ op-ed in the same publication, headlined “Legalizing Prostitution in NYS Would Ignore its True Costs”).
“In my defense, Alexi did accuse my co-worker of being a rapist—I was kind of like enraged,” Morena told The Daily Beast, half in jest but wholly in earnest about Meyers’ film review. “I’m assuming they both watched it,” she said, referring to Seth. “I think if she watched it alone, that would be kind of creepy. But she’s a prosecutor, and this suggests she’s saying this based on feelings not evidence. ‘You didn’t look happy enough or empowered enough, so I’m just going to dehumanize you.’ It is hurtful, obviously.”
As for Meyers’ complaint about cyberbullying, “If you give valid criticism for justified reasons, they regard that as bullying,” Morena retorted. “Maybe they’re going to go on a bullying awareness campaign, but it’s not like real bullying when you’re in high school and you live in terror. It’s more like ‘Don’t criticize my good policy work… I don’t answer to you.’
“I think Alexi should join Melania Trump’s Be Best initiative and just ignore the haters. Women like Alexi are not downtrodden people. They’re refusing to let go of this power that they’re not aware that they’re taking from people by refusing to let them into things that are affecting their lives.”
Meyers, for her, part, spoke to The Daily Beast recently at Hunter College’s Public Policy Institute—housed in the Upper East Side mansion that was Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s pre-White House residence—where she was attending a panel discussion titled “Women of Color Against the Sex Trade.”
The panelists included women who are African-American, Latina, South African, and Indonesian, and even an Ojibway woman from Canada, who had been trafficked into prostitution in their youth or, worse, childhood, and emerged from “the life” to become anti-trafficking and human-rights activists. They were all impressively eloquent.
“This has been around forever… It is an extension of slavery,” said Vednita Carter, who briefly worked as a prostitute and years later founded St. Paul, Minnesota’s Breaking Free, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women leave the sex trade and providing them with housing and post-traumatic stress therapy.
She noted that in the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal for the past two decades, 97 percent of the workforce—largely migrants from Asia and Africa—had experienced violence on the job. The sex trade disproportionately victimizes marginalized minorities, she said. In Carter’s home state of Minnesota, where 10 percent of the population is black, 70 percent of prostitutes are black, she added.
“People get confused about what prostitution is,” Carter said, recounting to the mostly female audience audience her warning to young girls against their glamorization of the trade, likening it instead to rape. “Prostitution is a sex act. It’s not about running around in a car or wearing fancy clothes or going to expensive hotels. It’s about a sex act… How did you feel when he said ‘get down on your knees and open up your mouth’? How did you feel when he said ‘lay down on your stomach’? It’s not like having sex with a person you love… And when she gets home, she’s taking them showers and them baths trying to ‘clean this crap off me.’”
Carter also inveighed against pornography, calling it legal “prostitution on paper.”
“If you buy porn, you are mentally sick,” agreed the Indonesia-born Shandra Woworuntu, a trafficking and domestic-violence survivor who works with sex-trafficking victims.
Toward the end of the evening, Alexi Meyers, in the audience, raised her hand to ask a question.
“I notice none of you use the term ‘sex work.’ Can you say why?” she prompted.
“That’s my favorite question ever,” said Melanie Thompson, a young black American woman and Hunter College undergrad who was kidnapped and trafficked into prostitution at age 12 and escaped to become an activist by age 15. “The term ‘sex work’ is used to sanitize the trade. Using the term ‘sex work’ legitimizes sex as a form of work, which would imply that the purchase of sexual access to my body is a job like any other.”
Bridget Perrier, the Ojibway activist from Canada, quipped that she preferred the term “testicle engineer.”
Afterward, Meyers’ colleague Ane Mathieson, who runs therapeutic programs for trafficking survivors, said that she, too, has been the target of cyberbullying: “I’m a nobody, and I get tweeted out by sex buyers all the time. I get harassed. People have found this way to silence those who challenge the sex industry. It’s a multibillion-dollar, powerful industry.”
“And those people they’re silencing are survivors of trafficking and rape,” Alexi Meyers added. “It’s really tragic and a bad thing.”
“Money is not consent,” said fellow attorney Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “You’ve heard from survivors. Money is coercion. Do you think they would have had sex with these guys if money had not been exchanged? Why do we think that because a guy gives you 50 bucks to penetrate every orifice of your body, and to defecate on you, and to use every instrument he finds, hey, that’s very empowering?”
“We’re not here to tell someone, ‘Hey, you think you’re choosing this but you’re not,’” Alexi Meyers said. “It’s not our job, it’s not our desire to tell anyone that the things that they want to be doing are wrong or that they’re not thinking for themselves. We’re speaking from our experience and our survivors and from an anti-trafficking perspective.”
The law favored by Meyers, Sanctuary for Families, and a host of feminist and trafficking-survivor organizations, variously dubbed “the Equality Model” or “the Nordic Model” (Norway and Sweden boast similar statutes), decriminalizes sex workers but leaves the people on the other side of the transaction—customers, pimps and other facilitators—open to prosecution.
Their goal is to shrink and ultimately abolish a multibillion-dollar global industry that began thousands of years ago—“from the minute we had men and women and some transactional currency,” as Democratic State Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, one of the sponsors of a Nordic Model bill, puts it.
She added: “I don’t believe my bill or anything I individually do will end prostitution. But I want to do everything I can to decrease the likelihood of people being exploited, dehumanized, and forced into sexual activity against their will.”
Morena and a coalition of sex workers’ rights and various libertarian groups, as well as Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, support across-the-board decriminalization, believing that this is the best way to protect both the buyers and sellers of sexual services—and to encourage sex workers, who’d otherwise hesitate to report violence and other abuse to the police without risking arrest themselves.
“I see decriminalization as the most viable way to actually achieve what we want to achieve—minimal harm, and people no longer being criminalized for doing something that a lot of people feel they need to do in order to survive,”said one of the sponsors of the decriminalization bill, State Sen. Julia Salazar, who represents Bushwick and East New York, two Brooklyn neighborhoods with a robust sex trade. “The people who oppose decriminalization, and defend the Nordic model,” Salazar added, “tend to conflate trafficking with consensual sex work between adults.”
She added: “I really believe that in the healthiest, most democratic New York we would have policy on any given issue directly informed by the people who are actually directly impacted by it. My qualm with the advocacy of people like Alexi and Seth Meyers is that they’re not in any way directly impacted by this… We see this coalition of white feminists and Seth Meyers and people who haven’t been impacted by this issue, and I’m thinking what is your interest in pushing for a Nordic Model?
“On the other hand, the legislation that I introduced was completely informed by, and drafted in close partnership with, this coalition that includes current and former sex workers as well as trafficking survivors.”
Salazar theorized that opposition to full decriminalization “ultimately is driven by this fundamental belief that it’s unethical for sex to be sold and commodified. But wait a minute, it’s already criminalized and it isn’t working. It might appease some constituents who want to moralize, but it is actually not going to achieve the outcome we want to see—which is lower crime, and less violence in the sex industry, especially against women and trans women and women of color.”
Meanwhile,“there are some who choose to enter the sex industry, but many others who end up in the sex industry because society has failed them in other ways,” Salazar said. “It’s why there are so many trans women in the sex industry and people who face discrimination when they’re trying to get a job, also lot of undocumented workers.”
One of those undocumented workers is Maya Morena, who was born in Honduras and smuggled across the Arizona border at age 6, and even now, after growing up in the small Suffolk County town of Mastic Beach, Long Island, and graduating from William Floyd High School there, is not a U.S. citizen. She can’t be sure she will be safe from deportation should her DACA status lapse during Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant presidency.
“Alexi Meyers shouldn’t feel she has to answer to me,” Morena said. “I’m not entitled to anything. I’m a nobody. What I’m saying, though, is that she should be answerable to somebody in the sex-worker community—because there’s thousands of us.”