Tina Frundt is a sex trafficking survivor and the founder and executive director of Courtney’s House, a survivor-led organization providing recovery services for male, female and LGBTQ survivors of sex trafficking in the District. Yasmin Vafa is co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls in the District.
Several D.C. Council members have introduced legislation that would fully decriminalize the commercial sex trade in the District, including acts of pimping, sex buying and operating brothels. It’s necessary and long overdue to decriminalize individuals in the sex trade who represent some of the most marginalized members of our community. But offering legal protection to those who exploit them is 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.
“I first learned about this bill from my pimp; he was excited about it,” one survivor shared at a recent listening session about the proposed legislation between survivors — ages 15 to 23 — and D.C. Council staff. “If pimps and traffickers are excited about it, don’t you think there’s something wrong?”
Today, even with laws prohibiting child sex trafficking and the exploitation of minors, organizations supporting trafficked youths receive between five and eight referrals per week. Those numbers are sure to increase with the decriminalization of purchasing sex and pimping. Despite what its proponents argue, it is a mistake to think children will be protected under the proposed legislation.
Recently, a 12-year-old girl was found in a makeshift brothel, where she was bought and sold over a four-day period. Under full decriminalization, investigators would not have been able to find this missing child because they would have lacked probable cause to enter that property.
The sex trade is dependent on children. Exploiters know that once they lure a child into the sex industry, the child is likely to remain trapped there well into adulthood. Similar to how the tobacco industry targets children to secure lifelong customers, the sex trade relies on children’s bodies as a steady supply stream for buyers.
In the District, sex buyers — an overwhelmingly wealthy, white and male population — come from all over the area to Wards 7 and 8, looking to exploit women and girls. At our meeting, survivors said they can’t walk down the streets in their neighborhoods without being harassed or chased down by buyers in their cars propositioning them for sex.
By decriminalizing the purchase of sex, the District would be inviting even more men into the market, not just from surrounding areas but from all over the country via sex tourism. And because the sex industry will never have as many willing participants as an unchecked demand requires, traffickers will target the most vulnerable women and youths in our communities to meet that demand.
We know, because we work with children and young adults in the sex trade, and one of us is a survivor who was trafficked starting at age 13. A majority of the survivors we work with are young women and boys, including LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming youths, foster youths and runaways — and almost all of them are black or Latino.
The truth is the sex trade cannot be fixed no matter what “protections” are put in place; it virtually always causes physical and psychological trauma. In fact, field research from nine countries, including the United States, found about 75 percent of women in prostitution were raped, 68 percent suffered post-traumatic stress disorder at levels similar to combat veterans and as many as 95 percent experienced physical assault. The true progressive solution is to work toward eliminating this harm and reducing the number of people involved by offering them services, housing and other exit strategies.
The best path toward this goal is partial decriminalization, or the Equality Model. As the prevailing policy approach globally, the Equality Model has been implemented successfully in a variety of countries, including Norway, Iceland, Sweden and France. Under this approach, the act of selling sex is decriminalized — an important and necessary shift because most individuals enter the sex trade as children and are often trapped because of criminalization — but acts of pimping, paying for sex and brothel-owning remain prohibited.
This move would achieve the council’s goal of protecting those engaged in prostitution from criminalization while working to shrink the overall industry. By contrast, full decriminalization expands the sex industry by unleashing market forces that attract organized crime, drawing in even more vulnerable people and disproportionately harming our black and brown communities.
We urge the D.C. Council to reconsider this legislation and center the voices of survivors — especially those who cannot safely share their experiences publicly for fear of retaliation.
We hope council members will take their words to heart and enact partial decriminalization, preventing more trauma and prioritizing the safety of our District’s most marginalized women and youths.