The controversy generated by the proposal — D.C. Council members were inundated with messages from District residents and spectators across the country — convinced some lawmakers that the city was not ready for a vote on the issue.
“We always knew this would be an uphill battle,” said council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who wrote the bill in collaboration with a coalition of D.C. sex workers. “I think it could happen in the future. . . . I think we should bring it to the ballot box.”
The debate put the District at the center of a national campaign to draw sex work out of the shadows. Similar proposals in New York and Massachusetts, among other states, have also failed to gain ground.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee that heard nearly 14 hours of testimony from advocates, activists and people who have been part of the sex trade, said the proposal probably lacked the support needed to survive a committee vote.
“There seems to be a lot of contention. There’s not a consensus on what that path forward looks like,” Allen told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi. “But it was a very important conversation to have, and to give a lot of voice to a community that is already very marginalized.”
Grosso said he blames council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) for undermining the decriminalization effort long before the bill was allowed a hearing.
Grosso said he thinks Mendelson, who is responsible for the council’s committee assignments, stacked certain committees with more conservative members to scuttle progressive legislation such as the decriminalization bill.
“He thought we were too left-leaning in our committee,” said Grosso, who served on the Judiciary Committee last year but was replaced by council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). “We need a new makeup of the entire council to really get bills like this through.”
Mendelson bristled at the accusation. For months, he said, his office has received primarily negative feedback on the bill. Mendelson said Grosso was using him as a scapegoat to explain his bill’s unpopularity.
“I’m quite surprised that he would look to that as an explanation, given the unusually large controversy around this. I mean, rarely do we have hearings that are 14 hours with so many witnesses who are against a bill,” Mendelson said. “We will continue to look for ways to best serve the interest of victims . . . [but] addressing the issue of prostitution again in this form seems unlikely.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue seemed to agree that the District’s prostitution laws don’t adequately protect vulnerable residents and root out incidents of sex trafficking, but no alternatives were discussed.
Supporters of the legislation — LGBTQ rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and public health organizations among them — said the bill would allow sex workers to safely report incidents of violence without fearing arrest and would better assist those who need housing or want to leave the industry.
Four of the council’s 13 members — including Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who serves on the Judiciary Committee — signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
But it wasn’t enough.
Those who spoke out against the bill — a coalition of anti-trafficking advocates, sex-trafficking survivors, religious leaders and District neighborhood commissioners — warned that the city would become a de facto red-light district. They said it would drive up demand while emboldening pimps and traffickers.
“To separate prostitution from human trafficking is impossible,” said Janet Rodriguez, a human-trafficking survivor who said at last month’s hearing that 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 sex-trafficking survivor who founded Courtney’s House, a District organization that helps young people escape their traffickers, played audio recordings at the hearing of sex-trafficking survivors who said such a law would make them feel less safe. She did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Grosso has rejected the notion that the bill, which does not alter the District’s sex-trafficking laws, would legalize pimps or any kind of coercion. Human trafficking would remain illegal under the law, as would forcing people into sex work.
Sex workers who collaborated with Grosso to rally support for the bill said the effort felt like a lifeline.
Over the summer, fear ripped through the District’s community of sex workers after Zoe Spears, a black transgender woman, was found dead near Eastern Avenue just outside the District — less than three months after another black transgender woman, Ashanti Carmon, was fatally shot blocks away.
The deaths were a reminder of the dangers faced by transgender women of color across the country. Spears and Carmon had also, at some point in their lives, turned to sex work, a dangerous profession that had become even riskier.
“Just because it’s not going to happen this year, that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop pushing for what we need,” said Tamika Spellman, a former sex worker who serves as the policy and advocacy associate at Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), a nonprofit that advocates for D.C. sex workers. “We just have some more convincing that we need to do.”
Spellman, who testified in favor of the bill in October, said District sex workers also have met with members of Congress as part of a push to take the decriminalization of sex work more mainstream.
It's not the first time a bill aimed at decriminalizing sex work in the District has failed.
In 2017, Grosso introduced a similar measure. At the time, he had only the support of council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). The bill was never granted a hearing.
Grosso and his supporters said the public getting a chance to speak on the proposal was a step forward.
“Truth be told, a year ago, [our opponents] did not think we would get this bill reintroduced with the amount of support we had. They definitely didn’t think we would get a hearing,” Spellman said. “Now, they’re thinking it’s over, and no, it is not. Baby, if anything, you made us dig our heels in.”