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.