As Capitol Hill backslides into dysfunction and bickering, the capital city is taking matters into its own hands to get work done: Washington, DC, might soon be the first US city to fully decriminalize sex work.
With a progressive bill to overhaul the current enforcement approach to sex work, DC is trying to lessen sex workers’ involvement with the criminal-justice system and respect their autonomy. The move comes on the heels of campaigns by community advocates who say that, to genuinely protect sex workers, authorities should start by simply keeping them out of jail.
The “Reducing Criminalization to Promote Public Safety and Health Amendment Act” would repeal criminal penalties for adults engaged in sex work, whether they are purchasing or selling sex, and for operating a sex work–related place of business—what the law deems a “place used for the purpose of lewdness, assignation, or prostitution.”
Sex trafficking would remain illegal, however, and the law covers only consenting adults. The legislation focuses on removing the city’s prohibition-based measures, and reorienting criminal-justice policy away from punishment and toward an approach that recognizes the realities of sex work.
In addition to striking the 1935 law originally outlawing sex work, the bill, introduced by City Council member David Grosso, would decriminalize “pandering,” or intentionally seeking solicitation of sex. So the law would essentially end the criminalization of those engaged in commercial sex in private or public spaces.
The legislation would not establish “legalized prostitution,” such as state-licensed brothels or “red-light districts,” in contrast to Nevada’s current system of a quasi-legal sex-work industry. The law also avoids an approach used in Europe, known as the “Swedish model,” which theoretically criminalizes the customer instead of the sex worker. By repealing the existing prostitution-related property rules, the law reflects the view that such economic restrictions and the regulation of “demand” actually undermine sex workers’ economic rights and drive them into less-safe working conditions.
Going forward, the proposal would establish a stakeholder’s task force to study the impacts of decriminalization, including input from communities and sex workers themselves. Though decriminalization won’t resolve all the social issues involved with the sex trade, advocates hope the bill will help reduce the stigma of sex work while upholding workers’ rights to health care and social protection, which in turn would reduce their vulnerability to violence.
According to a factsheet for the bill, “over 80 percent of street-based sex workers experience violence in the course of their work,” and disadvantaged and marginalized groups such as LGBT people, immigrants, and people of color are the hardest hit by harsh law-enforcement measures. Meanwhile, the local police do not appear to be significantly deterring the trade, since one-fifth of sex workers have reportedly been “approached by police asking them for sex,” including many sex workers who are homeless and desperately poor.
Addressing sex workers’ underlying social needs remains a challenge. Advocates hope the bill’s research component would provide comprehensive data to gauge what sex workers need to stabilize their lives and obtain needed social services and fairer working conditions. But we already know that, whether sex workers seek to remain in the trade or seek other work, their economic struggles have been exacerbated by policing and incarceration practices that force them underground and brand them with criminal records.
The measure is supported by health and harm-reduction advocates, rights organizations, LGBTQ-community activists, and social-service providers for victims of violence and abuse. Yvette Butler of the Amara Legal Center, which works on sex-trafficking issues in the DC area, says that while the bill’s champions have diverse policy aims, the coalition behind the bill recognizes that “criminalization hasn’t worked and can definitely be harmful…. The overall hope is that changing the criminalization scheme would then criminalize fewer of the people that we’re trying to help.”
Grosso’s bill marks a pivot in the city’s approach to sex work. In 2012, conservatives pushed for so-called “prostitution-free zones” in neighborhoods thought to be facing an influx of street sex workers. Although that measure ultimately failed, the idea of banishing suspected sex workers from public space sparked a public debate about social stigma and constitutional rights. Human-rights advocates warned that forcing sex work further “into the shadows” only worsens workers’ exposure to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, along with labor exploitation and HIV/AIDS risk.
Although the organizations supporting decriminalization take a wide range of approaches toward improving sex workers’ lives, a progressive consensus has emerged that the government’s responsibility is to reduce harm while promoting social and economic autonomy. DC’s approach may be considered radical in the United States, but it’s actually catching up with international human-rights authorities who view sex work as a labor system, not a social sin. (In response, conservative US policy-makers have sought to crush international aid for organizations that deal with sex workers, forcing them to agree to a so-called “anti-prostitution pledge” aimed at restricting reproductive-health services for sex workers.
But while the White House seeks to marginalize sex workers globally, the capital is working to recognize them as equal citizens. Grosso, who advocates decriminalization of lower-level crimes generally, including drug offenses, stated in his announcement of the legislation that the plan was to help the district target resources more effectively “to address coercion and trafficking.” He noted that, since “Sex workers themselves are often some of the best-positioned people to identify and help people in situations of exploitation,” the city could, rather than banishing or arresting them, better direct funds towards services like making public spaces cleaner and more accessible for all.
Yet, beyond decriminalization, there’s also a critical need among many in the sex trade for comprehensive social supports—particularly among people engaged in sex work for economic survival. But these struggles common to sex workers are also reflective of overarching patterns of precarity. Workers of all backgrounds struggle with a lack of affordable housing and decent job opportunities, and lawmakers acknowledge that an unsustainable cost of living reduces overall economic and social mobility. In every community, advocates say, sex workers need, and are entitled to, the same essential resources as the rest of us. So there’s no reason a jail cell should stand between them and their rights.