Inside The Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence
Alexi Ashe Meyers chats “Lobby Baby” and the Equality Model
If you’ve seen Seth Meyers’ Netflix comedy special Lobby Baby, you already know that his wife Alexi Ashe Meyers had to endure the unthinkable: She gave birth to their baby in the lobby of their apartment complex. But beyond the sheer motherly heroics of that, here’s something you might not know about Alexi: She’s a human rights attorney with Sanctuary for Families, a group working to end gender-based violence.
We chatted with Alexi about her side of the “Lobby Baby” story — and we also spoke with the attorney and her colleague Ane Mathieson about the New Yorkers for Equality Model campaign that they’re helping to lead. (To learn more and attend an educational panel on November 25 hosted by Seth Meyers, please email equalitymodelNY@gmail.com.)
Katie Couric: Alexi, before we get into your remarkable work, I wanted to ask you about something that many of us have heard… via Netflix. Your husband took your experience giving birth in the lobby of your apartment building — and made it into his new comedy special. Was it really that funny? What’s the real story there?
Alexi Ashe Meyers: Hmm. Was it funny? I wasn’t laughing while it was happening. I’d say the gamut of emotions that I went through were: 1) Terrified. The pain was unbearable, and I thought it was still early labor, as contractions had just started. I didn’t know there was a head pushing its way out. So I was terrified that it would get worse from there and last a long time. 2) Strength. As soon as I made the decision that I would not walk out the door of our building and get in a car, I knew what I needed to do and that I would be able to do it. I guess that’s why they call it “maternal instincts.” I just laid down on the floor and delivered my baby. 3) Relief. I heard him cry, I held him against me, and just felt such relief that he was okay and I was okay. We had done this amazing thing together.
And then, maybe just then, I was able to find it funny. I was very much in shock and disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I had just done and where I had done it and how fast it happened. While I sat there in shock holding our baby, I looked at Seth who was hysterically crying. I had to take him out of that moment to yell at him to call our doctor or 911 or do something useful.
Wow… All right, now back to what we’re supposed to be talking about. Alexi, you’ve had such an incredible career advocating for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and gender violence in New York, but what motivated you to pursue human rights law?
Alexi: So if I go back, quite deep into my family makeup, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I grew up with human rights violations and human rights issues as a core topic in my family. One of the messages that my grandparents very deeply instilled in me is that you can never be a bystander — that the bystanders were almost equally as bad and as guilty those that perpetrated the crime itself.
So I grew up very activated and ready to take on giant issues. In law school, I interned for an organization that predominantly fought human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Doing that work, I started to learn how prevalent this issue was right here in New York. And I just couldn’t ignore that. So I sought a position at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office that had a very strong human trafficking unit.
What were some of the challenges in advocating for survivors in the public arena?
Alexi: When you’re working for a public office like that, you have to treat each case by doing the best that you can for the state, rather than for what’s best for the client. That was frustrating sometimes. Also when a case was over, my relationship and my story with that victim ended — whether they had been healed, whether they had go gotten justice, whether they had been connected with services. That was really frustrating for me.
I made the move to direct service so that I could work with victims and clients in a more holistic manner. I really get to do that at Sanctuary for Families. Now, at Sanctuary, I get to impact larger policy changes that are so much more important in the lives of these clients, than a case that ultimately ends up pleading out or doesn’t really go anywhere at the D.A.’s office.
Can you tell us how exactly the organization works for survivors?
Alexi: Sanctuary for Families’ mission is really to address the multitude of urgent needs that we recognize are unique to victims of gender-based violence. For example, we have shelters where we serve over 200 survivors and their children every night. We have a trauma-informed clinical and counseling programs for both children and adults. My colleague Ane Mathieson runs a clinical program for teens who are survivors of human trafficking.
We also have an entire legal team, and we address the complex needs of survivors. We recognize that our clients are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of their circumstances. So we have a really pioneering economic empowerment programs that helps our clients to develop an array of skills that they need to obtain jobs and to keep those jobs. We recognize that advocacy work is critically important to changing the social and institutional frameworks that perpetuate gender-based violence.
There’s a push in New York to decriminalize the sex trade, but you’ve noted that the the legislation would legalize sex buying and pimping, which could potentially help predators. Can you explain what’s going on here?
Alexi: I’m actually going to pass the phone now to [my colleague] Ane.
Ane Mathieson: The proposed bill would fully decriminalize the commercial sex industry in New York state. It would fully decriminalize sex buying promoting, which is colloquially known as pimping. It would decriminalize people who sell sexual acts. It would decriminalize sex tourism. It would decriminalize brothels. So the bill would thwart prosecution of sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, and the pimping of children, and it would require victims to testify against their exploiters to prove these crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.
Alexi: One of the things that’s so frustrating and misleading about this legislation that would fully decriminalize the sex trade is that they say that this wouldn’t impact human trafficking laws. But it’s like taking away Involuntary Manslaughter and Murder in the Second Degree but saying, “Hey, we still have Murder in the First Degree.” It’s the highest bar to prove, and it’s something that prosecutors are rarely able to get a conviction for. Prosecutors don’t always have a victim who they feel comfortable putting on the stand to testify against their trafficker about their most traumatic experiences. So what happens is prosecutors end up using a statute called Promoting Prostitution to plea out that case in order to hold that exploiter accountable with something.
But Sanctuary for Families and many sex trade survivors support adopting the Equality Model instead. Can you tell us what exactly this model is?
Alexi: First, it’s important to note that countries who implement the Equality Model have a different philosophical view about what prostitution and the sex trade is, from those who don’t implement the equality model. So we recognize that prostitution is a form of gender-based violence, that it causes severe longterm harm — both physical and mental — and that it should never be decriminalized or deregulated, and it’s not a job like any other. So that’s the big philosophical difference between those who advocate for the Equality model and those to advocate for full decriminalization.
So in short, the Equality Model is decriminalizing those who directly sell sex — while keeping legal prohibitions in place against sex buying, pimping and brothel-owning.
Ane: I spent a year in Sweden on a Fulbright fellowship researching the Equality Model, and I traveled to a few other countries who have implemented the alternative models of full decriminalization or legalization. The Equality Model was pioneered in Sweden. The country had initially had a full decriminalization regime in place, but what they were seeing was that there was violence in the industry and that it was controlled primarily by organized crime. And so, Swedes began to ask: Maybe we should actually be looking into this issue a little differently.
The Equality Model, as we now call it, has three very important components. The first component that was implemented is the social service component. So they recognize that we really need to prioritize providing social services to people who have been exploited in this commercial sex industry. The second prong was the legislation change. They recognize that we need to hold the exploiters accountable — the exploiters being the sex buyers, the pimps, the traffickers — and we need to pass laws that criminalize that exploitative behavior. But simultaneously they said, “We can’t be criminalizing people for their own exploitation.”
Then the third prong, which is also very important, is the community education campaign that was employed. This campaign recognizes that in order to shift the stigma from the people who are being bought and sold to the people who are causing harm, we need to educate the public that prostitution is a form of gender-based violence and that it is actually really harmful for the people who are caught up in it.
And lastly, what can we all do to help support survivors of sex trafficking, domestic violence and other forms of gender violence?
Alexi: Combating violence against women and girls requires a massive cultural shift. We need to have hard conversations about why violence against women exist and how it’s a form of discrimination, and we need to bring this information into our schools, into our community-based organizations, and into our media. It’s also about being aware of the resources in our community. Educate yourself about the issues and resources that exist. Volunteer in those local organizations — the ones that foster girls empowerment or healthy development of children — and donate to those places. Be able to recognize what gender based violence and domestic violence and sex fasting are, so that when it’s happening in your backyard, you can assist and recognize it. And hold our elected officials accountable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.