The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s bill to decriminalize prostitution has a big blind spot

D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) in May 2017.
D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) in May 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Is it acceptable to residents of the District that their government might decriminalize the sale of the bodies of women and men, many of them transgender, to satisfy male desires? If D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) get their way, the Reducing Criminalization of Commercial Sex Amendment Act of 2019 will accomplish just that. It will also boost the sex-trade industry here, fueling demand for more prostitutes from the customers who descend on the District because it is the place where it is safe to buy sex.

If that bill is enacted, the District will be the only jurisdiction in the United States other than some areas of Nevada, which has about 20 legal brothels, to decriminalize prostitution.

Under the D.C. law, prostitutes (or sex workers) would not be prosecuted for their sale of sex. The law would also give a pass to men out to buy sex from people lured into “the life” — a term I heard during a Tuesday meeting with a survivor who described the sex trade she engaged in years ago along the main drag of 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights. She and other survivors and their supporters insist that “the life” is pure exploitation of human beings for the customer’s profit and pleasure — or, as one lawyer investigating decriminalization put it, “legal sexual entertainment for men.”

That view, however, runs counter to the stance of sex-trade promoters, who look upon prostitution as a progressive value. To them, selling the body is just a job like any other. They portray prostitutes as independent contractors dealing in an alternative commodity.

The proposed bill propagates that view. I support decriminalization measures that include providing the means for sex workers to get out of that business. But this bill merely seeks to make business conditions better, not produce resources and methods for people who are in “the life” to leave it.

Nadeau, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, reflected the spirit of that approach when she said, “We have to be making sure we’re looking after our constituents. Those who engage in sex work are our constituents. Let’s make sure that people engaged in sex work are being fully supported.”

The bill decriminalizes brothels where no one benefits economically for the use of home, apartment or dwelling place. And that means that Nadeau’s “constituents” and their johns, or buyers, can openly operate a retail sex business in homes, hotels, health clubs and hangouts. (The bill leaves untouched the criminal prohibition against “selling” space to operate a house of prostitution.)

Thus, an alert to families and patrons of parks, playgrounds and houses of worship: If the measure becomes law, an informal brothel might be coming your way, to your neighborhood, to your block or next door.

The council might hold hearings on the bill when it returns from recess in September. Should it resort to its usual pattern, the hearings will be one-sided, and stacked with witnesses who will tout the sex trade as a desirable and respectable industry, claim that prostitution offers viable employment for entrepreneurs, and implore the District to leave that business alone.

Little is likely to be heard from experts who think the city should help sex workers escape and stay out of the business.

If the council holds true to form, people lured or forced into “the life,” and who have real-life experiences to share, will be in short supply.

Vednita Carter, a prostitution survivor and founder of a service organization that helps people escape prostitution and sexual exploitation, said during a recent interview: “I would say to those student activists who want to perpetuate the sex trade, prostitution is not work, it is sexual abuse at its worst. Imagine having sex with your boyfriend 15 times a day, maybe more on some days, every day. Nothing can turn this into a good sexual experience even if it is with someone you love. I would say ‘try it for yourself,’ however, I wouldn’t put anyone through this kind of torture, not even my enemies.”

The council won’t want to hear testimony like that.

City lawmakers most likely will be satisfied to hear johns, pimps and promoters praise the quartet of Grosso, Nadeau, White and Bonds for producing measures to keep prostitution alive and well in our nation’s capital.

Unless District voters make it clear they feel otherwise.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Are D.C. residents really ready to live in a ‘sex tourist destination’?

Tina Frundt and Yasmin Vafa: There’s a way to decriminalize prostitution without putting women at risk

Colbert I. King: Washington D.C.’s serious sex-trafficking problem

Jimmy Carter: To curb prostitution, punish those who buy sex rather than those who sell it

The Post’s View: The Trump administration’s crocodile tears on human trafficking

Letters: Ending penalties for sex work isn’t the solution