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D.C. leaders hear from public over proposal to decriminalize sex work

D.C. Council members hear testimony during a hearing Thursday for a proposal that would decriminalize sex work in the District. (Marissa J. Lang/The Washington Post)

Five hours into a Thursday hearing on a controversial bill that would decriminalize the sex trade in the nation’s capital, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) implored the crowd to settle down. He hammered his gavel. He called for a recess.

But it was no use. Tensions and disagreements that had been simmering since the morning exploded on the floor before the council’s Public Safety Committee.

Sex workers and their supporters broke into chants of “decrim now!” as those opposed to the bill rose from their seats. Each side shook their heads at the other.

The bill at the center of the hearing would amend existing city laws to eliminate criminal penalties for selling or buying sex in the District. If passed, the District would become the only U.S. jurisdiction to allow prostitution, outside of some counties in Nevada where about 20 legal brothels exist.

Prostitution involving minors and coercing others to engage in sex work against their will would remain illegal.

Thursday’s hearing was the first time the community could comment on the legislation, introduced in June by council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). Public comments are open online through Nov. 1.

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Proponents of the legislation — sex workers, LGBTQ rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and public health organizations among them — said the bill would empower sex workers and would make it easier for them to find housing and, eventually, to leave the industry, as they would not have prostitution-related arrests on their records.

“The decriminalization of sex work would make sex workers safer by allowing them to report violence without fear of arrest,” said Tyrone Hanley, senior policy counsel with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Those who oppose it — a coalition of anti-trafficking advocates, sex-trafficking survivors, religious leaders and several District neighborhood commissioners — argued that decriminalizing the act of paying for sex would embolden pimps, traffickers and others who coerce and force people to sell their bodies. They told legislators it would turn the nation’s capital into a red-light district and send the message that residents are for sale.

“Residents of the District of Columbia should not be subjected to a social science experiment that we already know the consequences of,” said LaRuby May, an attorney and a former D.C. Council member. “This legislation will create more victims and subject our residents to more trauma.”

Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, said if the District were to legalize sex work, some people who stay away from prostitution because it is illegal would choose to buy sex. She estimated the city would see a 20 percent jump in the number of people willing pay for sex.

It was a statistic repeated multiple times throughout the day.

While sex workers said the increased demand would allow them to negotiate higher rates and make more money, opponents said it would lead to increased trafficking as unwilling women and girls would be used to satisfy paying customers.

“Because this demand cannot be met locally, traffickers will bring prostituted women and girls from other jurisdictions,” said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, which opposes the bill. “D.C., the capital of our nation, would undoubtedly become a sex tourism destination.”

The proposal exposed nuanced rifts among the city’s deeply progressive residents. Nearly everyone who addressed members of the council Thursday said they believed in eliminating penalties for sex workers and continuing to aggressively prosecute human traffickers.

“There is not a soul in this room who is in favor of trafficking,” Allen said. “Every single person here wants to do what we can to make sure individuals are not trafficked.”

Few in the crowd believed the existing law should stay as is.

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Many of those opposed to the legislation noted that they would support an effort to partially decriminalize sex work by making it legal to sell — but not buy — sex. Doing so, they said, would ensure the safety of sex workers, allow them to leave the trade and secure homes and jobs without the scourge of prostitution-related arrest records. It would also, advocates said, continue to discourage buyers from seeking it out.

Advocates of the legislation said partial decriminalization, known as the Nordic model, does not work.

“Under the Nordic model . . . people still feel unsafe, and when people feel unsafe, they take less time to negotiate for safety, or for their health,” said Cyndee Clay, executive director of D.C. sex-worker advocacy group HIPS.

“Sex workers came together and said, ‘This is what we need,’ knowing there is a partial-decrim model,” added Tamika Spellman, policy and advocacy associate at HIPS. “I am for total decriminalization and total decrim only.”

Emmelia Talarico — a sex worker and founder of a safe-house that provides transgender women of color, many of whom are sex workers, a place to live — said aspects of the bill that drew the most criticism were included to help sex workers feel safe.

A provision critics said would allow for pimps to work unfettered, she said enables sex workers to help each other by “managing” their clients and “dates.” Decriminalizing brothels, she said, would mean that organizations like hers provide housing to working prostitutes without fear of being raided by police.

“We are the only organization in this city providing dedicated housing support to black and brown trans women over the age of 24, and we ain’t doing it with a penny of y’all’s money,” Talarico told lawmakers. “You know how we’re doing it? When we’re not able to get grants, I’m tricking. I’m working. I’m going to the beats to make sure these girls have housing.”

For nearly 14 hours, women sat before lawmakers and recounted their experiences as sex workers.

For some, it was a way out of poverty, a means to take care of their families and children, a job they felt they took by choice. For others, it was a nightmarish life of fear and abuse.

The bill would create a task force to study the effects of decriminalization and make additional recommendations, which could include regulations for health and safety. More than 170 people signed up to testify at the hearing, which continued past midnight into Friday.

Grosso’s decriminalization effort failed in 2017, but he said he is more optimistic now, with three of his fellow council members signing on as co-sponsors. Committee members will vote on the legislation — and whether to pass it to the full council — at a later date.

Some speakers Thursday criticized the bill for not having more robust solutions for helping people leave the sex trade.

“To separate prostitution from human trafficking is impossible,” said Janet Rodriguez, a human-trafficking survivor who said she was forced to sell sex in Mexico and in the District. “If you pass this law . . . you will all have blood on your hands.”

Tina Frundt, a survivor of sex trafficking who founded Courtney’s House, an organization in the District that helps young people escape their traffickers, berated Grosso for not including the perspectives of sex-trafficking survivors in the crafting of the bill.

During her testimony, she played audio recordings of sex-trafficking survivors and teenage girls who said such a law would make them feel less safe in the city.

On one side, rows of people wore orange stickers that read, “Protect survivors, not buyers.” On the other side, activists wore white shirts that said, “Sex workers deserve housing, not handcuffs.” As the voices of children filled the meeting room, people on both sides listened in silence, eyes downcast, taking in the girls’ message word by word.

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