Most of the times Laya Monarez sold sex in the District, she said things went smoothly: She got money to pay her rent, and her customers got what they wanted.
It is the times that turned violent, though, that stick with Monarez, 35, who is now a LGBT activist and artist.
Once, a man in the District picked her up in his car and refused to pay her. When she tried to leave the car, he stabbed her. When she jumped out of the car, he tried to run her over. She escaped but didn’t report the attack to police, fearing they would arrest her for prostitution.
The bill, introduced by D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), would make the District the only U.S. jurisdiction to decriminalize prostitution outside some areas in Nevada, where legal brothels exist.
Activists say the bill would also make it easier for sex workers to find other jobs and housing because they would not have prostitution-related arrests on their records.
"This is about protecting the human rights of our residents," said Grosso, a progressive council member who also led the push to decriminalize marijuana in the District. "Arresting our way through this has never worked."
Monarez, who grew up in Fairfax County, said that if sex work is decriminalized, workers will also feel more comfortable reporting minors and other victims of trafficking to police.
“When the women build trust with the police, they keep your neighborhood safe, because there are eyes watching,” Monarez said. “They know the neighborhoods.”
Coercing people to engage in sex work against their will would remain illegal, as would any prostitution involving minors. The bill, introduced last week, is supported by the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition, a broad group that includes HIPS (formerly known as Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), Whitman-Walker Health and the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C.
But not all advocates support Grosso’s approach.
Tina Frundt, a victim of sex trafficking who now runs a program that helps young people escape their traffickers, said decriminalizing sex work will make it easier for pimps to open brothels without fearing intervention from police.
“It is a criminal enterprise, and by decriminalizing it, we are making it easier for bad people to commit crimes,” said Frundt, whose pimp broke her arm with a baseball bat when she was a teenager.
She said too few people realize the scale of sex trafficking in the District and its suburbs. This year, Frundt has received about eight to 10 referrals a week about possible victims of trafficking from sources including police, parents and the foster-care system.
“If it’s decriminalized, how are they going to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys?” she said. “How is this going to be regulated?”
Unlike in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal and regulated, sex work would be decriminalized but not legalized, meaning that it would not “bring with it a burdensome regulatory scheme that would criminalize those who do not comply,” Grosso’s office said.
Sex workers also generally prefer decriminalization because they would not have to pay for licensing and other costs of regulation, Monarez said on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
The bill would create a task force to study the effects of decriminalization and make any additional recommendations, which could include regulations for health and safety developed in consultation with those affected, Grosso’s office said.
Americans are split on whether they believe prostitution between consenting adults should be legalized, with 49 percent saying it should be and 44 percent saying it should remain illegal, according to a 2016 survey by WGBH's Point Taken/Marist College.
Grosso said the District did not opt for the “Nordic model” — selling sex is legal but buying sex is illegal in many countries in Northern Europe — because it still means that sex workers are operating in “the shadows.”
“We have to get it out of the shadows and to change the way we talk about it,” Grosso said.
But D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson opposes the bill, which is also likely to face resistance from the GOP-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has legislative jurisdiction over the District
“We have amended the current law over the years to recognize that sex workers are often the victims of trafficking,” Mendelson said in a statement. “Moreover, the penalties for first-time offenders are minor. But there is a great deal of collateral crime associated with prostitution, and it often presents a public nuisance. Accordingly, the District should not legalize this activity.”
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has focused on strategies to combat prostitution since taking office in 1991, said he worried that decriminalization would turn the nation’s capital into “a mecca for prostitution.”
Much of the street prostitution is concentrated downtown, where residents’ complaints pick up every summer, said Kevin Deeley, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Logan Circle neighborhood.
The complaints typically come from residents heading to work or walking their dogs early in the morning, when they see sex workers still on the streets, Deeley said.
Deeley's district includes the corner of 12th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, where police have repeatedly arrested prostitutes and their customers over the years. But those sting operations are only temporarily successful at curbing sex work, Deeley said.
“New approaches are certainly warranted,” he said. “I’m not sure if this is the right one. But I think fresh ideas and not being resigned, not thinking the problem is endemic, is helpful.”
The number of sex workers on the streets in the District has decreased in recent years, due to a combination of police enforcement and sex workers using the Internet to advertise.
Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS, said the organization’s mobile outreach van, which provides safe-sex material and syringe exchanges, served upward of 100 people a night during the 1990s. Today, she said, the van serves between 30 and 50 sex workers a night.
The number of prostitution-related arrests in recent years have also decreased, from 714 in 2015 to 216 in 2016, according to data from the police department. In 2016, 158 of the arrests were for sexual solicitation and 37 were for prostitution, according to police data.
Sgt. Jacob Lipscomb, a member of the human-trafficking unit, said that police target buyers and sellers for arrest but that because there are more buyers, more of them tend to be arrested.
Lipscomb said sex workers should feel comfortable going to the police if they have been victims of a crime, regardless of whether sex work is decriminalized.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a prostitute or if you’re not a prostitute — if a crime has been committed, then we will investigate it,” Lipscomb said, adding he had no opinion on decriminalization.