In 2017, the D.C. police made 216 prostitution-related arrests, which includes solicitation and pandering. In 2018, prostitution-related arrests more than doubled, reaching 519. Year-to-date in 2019, there have been 718 such arrests.
Those numbers will likely plummet if a bill reintroduced in June by D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) is enacted into law.
Under their legislation, designated as the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, engaging in sexual activity in exchange for money in our nation’s capital will no longer be considered a crime.
A statement put out by Grosso, the bill’s lead sponsor, asserted: “Removing criminal penalties for engaging in sexual exchange reduces public violence and protects sex workers.”
Eliminating criminal penalties will, Grosso said, “bring people out of the shadows.” Decriminalization, he contended, will help connect people who sell their bodies to “services they need to live safer and healthier lives.” An added benefit, Grosso claimed, is that decriminalizing prostitution makes it easier to “tackle the complaints we hear from communities about trash and noise.”
The decriminalization bill, while supported by a number of social-action organizations, is not, however, universally acclaimed among decriminalization advocates.
The Post recently published a critique of the bill by Tina Frundt, a sex-trafficking survivor and founder of a survivor-led organization providing recovery services for sex-trafficking survivors, and Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls in the District.
Frundt and Vafa said that while they favor decriminalizing individuals in the sex trade who represent some of the most marginalized members of the District, they objected to offering “legal protection to those who exploit them.” They denounced the legislative measure as “a misguided and dangerous policy that threatens to turn the District into a sex tourist destination and harm the very communities the bill aims to protect.”
Decriminalizing the purchase of sex, they maintain, will invite even more men into the market, “not just from surrounding areas but from all over the country via sex tourism.” The sex industry, they say, “will never have as many willing participants as unchecked demand requires”; thus, “traffickers will target the most vulnerable women and youths in our communities to meet that demand.”
I have written columns about sex-trafficking problems in the District, including the exploitation of young girls. I agree that decriminalizing paying for sex, which the Grosso-Bonds-White-Nadeau bill would allow, will make an already odious sex-trade business worse.
I recognize that important human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the ACLU, and local groups cited by Grosso, such as Whitman-Walker Health, D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Bread for the City, support the removal of criminal penalties for the voluntary sale and purchase of sex. The argument that prostitution is a voluntary occupation in which the government has no business may have strong appeal to both the civil libertarian and the taxpayer who feels law enforcement should make better use of its time.
But there’s more to address than the concerns of folks such as clergy, parents, employers and others who regard selling sex for money to be immoral.
Former president Jimmy Carter, in a 2016 Post op-ed headlined “To curb prostitution, punish those who buy sex rather than those who sell it,” argued against arresting or prosecuting people who sell sex. He suggested, instead, that the prostituted should be offered a way out of the business, via housing, job training and other services. He also proposed public education about the “inherent harms of prostitution for those whose bodies are sold.”
Carter said a power imbalance defines most sex-for-cash transactions. There is no mutuality; no experiencing of sex for shared enjoyment, he said. Rather, it is an expression of domination. Once money has exchanged hands, women (here I add men and transgender people, as well) must deliver whatever services the customer demands, Carter wrote.
Normalize the act of buying sex, Carter said, and “every young boy will learn that women and girls” — I would say “people” — “are commodities to be bought and sold.”
Think of the demand for bodies that decriminalization of buyers will create. Think of the supply: demeaned women and men.
Is that what the District wants?
I reached out to White and Nadeau for comment. White said via email that he is “concerned” about decriminalization for sex buyers and will address that issue as the bill moves forward.
Nadeau, in an emailed statement, said, “Decriminalizing sex workers while maintaining criminal penalties for buyers . . . puts sex workers in a position where they’re still complicit in criminal activity which does not improve their safety.” She favors “full decriminalization” of consensual commercial sex between adults, which she believes would free law enforcement to better fight trafficking and coercion of minors and others.
Thus, “the sex industry,” seeking to ply its trade in or around parks, playgrounds, schools, shopping areas, residential neighborhood and dog parks, would have full protection of D.C. laws?
What say you, D.C. residents?
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