The DC Voice

Decriminalizing Sex Work Would Give Workers a Voice, Restore Dignity

Sex workers in Washington, D.C. will be safer on the streets if a bill to decriminalize the sex trade passes when it goes before the Council of the District of Columbia Tuesday.

The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, introduced by Council member David Grosso and in the works since 2017, is being considered to protect sex workers from arrest, which would not only help lessen one of the biggest risk factors they face, but also give them a better chance at getting out of the industry if they choose.

While fictionalized portrayals have led many people to believe that clients inflict the most violence on sex workers, sex workers contend that police officers who arrest them pose bigger threats. “Policing is harmful, very very harmful, to our communities,” says Jordan N. DeRoach of the DC chapter of the group Black Youth Project 100 DC (BYP100 DC), which focuses on political issues related to people of color who are members of the LGBTQ community, in a compelling video from the DC-based Sex Workers’ Advocates Coalition, an advocacy group that released the video as part of its campaign, DECRIMNOW. “A percentage of the policemen, or the people who are out there locking us up, use us,” says Pontianna, a D.C.-based sex worker and transgender woman who spoke in the video.

While no sex worker is safe from police brutality, according to a 2015 survey released by the National Center for Transgender Equality, violence from police causes the most harm to sex workers who are members of the transgender community. In that survey, 9 out of 10 trans people, either sex workers or those perceived to be sex workers – oftentimes trans women just walking down the street – said that they were harassed, sexually assaulted or harmed in some way by police. According to sex workers who have been arrested or harassed by police, either police blackmail workers into sex by saying they won’t arrest them if they perform a certain act, or they use that sex act as proof for making an arrest.

“Police officers argue that they have the right to have sex with sex workers as evidence of a crime,” says Jessica Raven of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, “so they sexually assault sex workers in order to arrest them.” Being arrested creates an even more dangerous situation for trans women, who are often put in jail with men and are at risk of increased violence.

But many are left with few choices.

According to statistics from the Office of Human Rights D.C., almost half of DC-based employers would hire a less-qualified cisgender worker than someone perceived as transgender, limiting options significantly for trans workers and making sex work the only viable employment option. In addition to members of the transgender community, sex workers in general are a community that includes disenfranchised people who have a more difficult time finding traditional employment despite their education or background, including those who are homeless and young people who are trafficked into sex work after leaving a dangerous situation at home, so there are few resources and in many cases, fewer rights for those people.

There are also people who simply enjoy sex work because it is something they are good at, although that does not erase the stigma associated with prostitution in general that makes speaking out difficult for those who are victimized. While the issue is convoluted – one that often involves a lack of housing, a lack of education, a lack of food, a lack of health care, and a lack of other resources – decriminalization is one way to make an employment option for people who have barriers to those things most of us take for granted safer.

The bill will not legalize prostitution – which would put a financial burden on many sex workers due to licensing and other measures, but will instead protect sex workers from arrest, erasing at least one of the major risk factors they face. Decriminalization would expunge the criminal arrest records of sex workers and those profiled as sex workers, so they have one less obstacle to eventually finding traditional employment. It would also give sex workers – the most likely people to be aware of victims of sex trafficking, who are not sex workers by choice – the option of going to the police to help that person, rather than risk arrest themselves, says Miya Walker of the BYP100 DC chapter. “Decriminalizing sex work would remove police from the situation,” Walker says, “creating a safer working environment for sex workers.”

“When you decriminalize, you need to take away the penalties that came because of sex work,” says Tamika Spellman, a peer advocate and a policy fellow at HIPS, a DC-based organization that promotes safety among those in the sex trade, among other at-risk communities. “It keeps people from transitioning from the sex industry to a traditional job.”

Many organizations have thrown their support behind the bill, including LGBTQ activists, civil rights activists and health care activists, especially because criminalization hasn’t stopped sex work and as noted, has created a riskier environment for sex workers.

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Brenda Neugent

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