A bill to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C., and improve public health standards and safety through a “human rights approach” to the industry is awaiting committee review following Councilmember David Grosso’s (I-At Large) introduction of the bill Oct. 5.
The Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health & Safety Amendment Act of 2017, introduced by Grosso who partnered with the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition to craft the bill, and cosponsored by Councilmember Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large, laid out clear objectives to counter the stigma associated with sex work.
The proposed bill repeals a number of laws and parts of laws that criminalize adults for exchanging sex for money or other items of value, Grosso said.
“The reason I want to do it, in a nutshell, is I do not think the criminalization of sex workers has worked for the District of Columbia,” Grosso said in an interview with DCist Oct. 5. “Arresting our way out of the problem is not the solution.”
The Sex Workers Advocates Coalition is made up of different organizations including HIPS, a group designated to promote the health of and advocate for those impacted by sexual work or drug use.
Johanna Margeson, legal and advocacy fellow at HIPS, said the group takes a holistic approach to communities where sexual work is prevalent.
“The coalition began in October 2016 and is rooted in a fact-based, harm reduction framework that takes a holistic, intersectional view in its activities and centers marginalized communities,” Margeson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia was also a member of the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition that supported the bill.
ACLU of D.C. Executive Director Monica Hopkins-Maxwell said criminalization of sex work exploits the most vulnerable D.C. residents.
“Criminalization has placed vulnerable D.C. residents at greater risk of violence, police harassment, and exposure to exploitation,” Hopkins-Maxwell wrote in a statement on the ACLU of DC website. “It has led to a cycle of violence, poverty, and incarceration that only creates additional barriers to more traditional employment for those engaging in survival sex work.”
Supporters claim this bill will help sex workers who experience violence resulting from their work, and especially those who are also members of underrepresented populations.
“Research shows that over 80 percent of street-based sex workers experience violence in the course of their work,” Margeson said. “Criminalization of sex work has a greater negative impact on groups already facing discrimination, including communities of color, gay and trans people, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions.
Margeson said the bill will alleviate some of the factors affecting underrepresented groups.
“This bill is a step in the right direction because it alleviates some of the barriers people face, however, there is still a need for housing, job opportunities and basic needs,” Margeson said.
The bill is also intended to help combat sexual exploitation and will not affect the restrictions on minors involved in sex trade.
“The bill does not change any of our laws regarding coercion or exploitation, which will continue to be prohibited,” Grosso wrote in his statement. “Sex workers themselves are often some of the best-positioned people to identify and help people in situations of exploitation, and by removing the criminal sanctions on them, we can improve our efforts on that front.”
However, the bill faces opposition from conservative groups. Washington Times senior correspondent Deborah Simmons cautioned against the legalization of sex work in an editorial published by the Times on Monday.
“There must be sturdy longitudinal evidence that legal prostitution will fix or enhance problems already on the front burner, and be inclusive across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum before councilmembers propose and vote on such a bill,” Simmons said.
Pushback is expected, according to Margeson.
“Some people have expressed their concerns with the bill or have proposed different models,” Margeson said. “Ideally, we would love for a hearing in the spring so that the bill can go to a vote. A hearing will also allow those who have questions about the bill to ask them.”
Decriminalizing sex work would help sex workers access resources like healthcare and law enforcement when needed, H*yas For Choice Co-President Annie Mason (COL ’18) said.
Mason said the organization will be introducing more advocacy efforts on behalf of sex workers.
“And it’s something that we’re actually very conscious of, especially this year, and now, with the introduction of this bill, we will be ramping up our advocacy towards sex workers’ rights,” Mason said.