DECRIMINALING PROSTITUTION has become a priority for the progressive movement, and the movement is slowly picking up steam across the country. That it seems to have found a receptive audience with the D.C. Council is not a big surprise, given how lawmakers pride themselves on boldly being at the forefront of liberal causes. But council members would do well to look beyond the progressive label that has been attached to decriminalization. They instead need to heed the warnings from those who actually work with women in the sex trade that a proposal to fully decriminalize prostitution in the District will end up hurting the very people it aims to help.

A bill before the council would eliminate criminal penalties for those who engage in sexual activity in exchange for money. First introduced in 2017 by at-large members David Grosso (I) and Robert C. White Jr. (D), the bill has now been backed by two other council members and will be the subject of a public hearing in the fall before the council’s judiciary committee. With only a few counties in Nevada having legalized prostitution in some form, the District has emerged as somewhat of a test case, with advocates hopeful of making a statement in the nation’s capital.

Proponents frame the issue along feminist and labor lines — that sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime and that bringing people out of the shadows will mean better protections. “We have to be making sure we’re looking after our constituents,” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1). “Those who engage in sex work are our constituents.”

What’s wrong with that view is that it buys into the myth of prostitution as a victimless crime, glossing over the harsh realities — abuse from clients and pimps, commonplace drug use, psychological and physical trauma — of sex work. Most women don’t choose prostitution as a profession, and many would quit if given the chance. Indeed, the fact that many prostitutes were lured or forced into the sex industry as children is one reason many advocates for sex-trafficked and abused women have come out against the proposed legislation.

Giving legal immunity to the men who buy sex or profit from it will, they fear, create a demand that will lead to more young girls and women forced into the sex trade. They point to the experience of countries, such as Germany, in which prostitution was legalized but the problems and abuses have worsened. A better option that the council should consider is partial decriminalization, the so-called Nordic model, in which it is legal to sell sex but paying for sex, brothel-owning and pimping would remain crimes. In short, those who are exploiting — not those who are being exploited — would be punished.

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