The DC Voice

Decriminalization of Sex Work Draws National Attention

On Thursday, October 17, 2019, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6), convened a public hearing on Bill 23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 20”. The committee heard from nearly 150 public witnesses advocating for and against the decriminalization of sex work in the District. Participants from as far as Seattle, Washington, weighed-in during this nearly 15-hour hearing. New York, Illinois, California, and Alabama were among the states represented. The widespread attention is based on the anticipated influence D.C.’s acceptance or rejection of this Act will have on other cities.

The video below of the hearing is at times emotional, antagonistic, confrontational, and riveting. There are graphic stories of sexual assault, and life-threatening confrontations as numerous survivors of the sex trade share their stories. Testimony fell into three basic camps; full decriminalization, partial decriminalization, and no decriminalization. Although the predominant camp for full decriminalization was represented by transgender workers, even that testimony was divided. Regardless of which camp the testimony fell into, there were three areas they all agreed on; police abuse is common, sex trafficking must be stopped, and sex worker discrimination is prevalent.

Police abuse was the most common complaint. There was a parade of testimony on how the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) abuses, humiliates and demands sexual favors from sex workers. The repeated tales of alleged police misconduct drew the attention of the Councilman. His concern was expressed more fully near the conclusion of the hearing as he voiced his disappointment that MPD had not shown up for the hearing.

This was closely followed by discrimination (job, housing, and access to medical services) sex workers face. Being a sex worker is compounded by being a transgender sex worker when it comes to trying to exit “the life” as it is commonly referred to. This is one of the main thrusts of their argument to decriminalize the sex trade.

The third topic of concern was sex trafficking. The District was reported to have one of the highest sex trafficking rates in the country. It is believed that the epidemic of missing girls in D.C. is a result of trafficking. Opponents of the Act are concerned that trafficking will increase to provide the supply to meet the demand for sex. They cited studies that showed more men would pay for sex if it were legalized. Increased trafficking is cited as one of the unintended consequences of decriminalization. 

No matter what side of the argument you are on, there are some troubling issues facing the city. Police misconduct, if true, is unacceptable. Every citizen deserves the right not to be mistreated by the police. When police resort to excessive misconduct on one part of the citizenry, all citizens are at risk. Discrimination should also not be tolerated. Access to jobs, housing, and medical services are basics that everyone is entitled to. We cannot accept anyone being denied these most basic life-sustaining services. Finally, if D.C. is indeed a leading sex trafficking haven this too must be addressed.

Testimony on the” Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019″ will be accepted until November 1st. Testimonies can be submitted to judiciary@dccouncil.us. We encourage you to set aside some time to view the proceedings and adding your testimony to the record. Viewing just the first opening and closing hours, where representatives from the Mayor’s office, Office of the Attorney General, and U.S. Attorney General offices voice their opposition to the Act will be enlightening. 

The DC Voice will follow this issue over the weeks and months to come. There was a lot of information imparted in Thursday’s hearing. We will shed as much light as we can on the reports of police abuse, and proposed solutions such as the Nordic Model that came up during the hearing. One participant may have summed up the proceedings and the Act when he called it a “simplistic, naive view of a very complex issue.” This is truly a complex issue.

Also read: Decriminalizing Sex Work Would Give Workers a Voice, Restore Dignity (The DC Voice, June 3, 2019) 

 Public Hearing: Bill 23-0318 (meeting starts at 13:07)

 Bill 23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019”

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