May 31, 2018 at 4:53 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Will D.C. decriminalize prostitution?
decriminalize prostitution, gay news, Washington Blade

Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) has introduced a bill to decriminalize prostitution involving consenting adults. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Six candidates running for seats on the D.C. Council and at least two candidates running for mayor in the city’s June 19 primary have said they support a bill introduced last year by Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) to decriminalize prostitution involving consenting adults.

Mayor Muriel Bowser and four members of the D.C. Council who are running for re-election said they are either undecided or did not state a definitive position on the Grosso bill, although each said they are sympathetic to the plight of sex workers and favor programs to offer them social services.

The four Council members in the undecided or uncommitted category include Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).

A total of 16 out of 26 candidates running in the June 19 primary stated their positions on the Grosso bill and the issue of decriminalization of sex work in their responses to a questionnaire on a wide range of issues sent to all candidates by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.

Ten of the 26 candidates running in the primary did not return the GLAA questionnaire and their position on decriminalization couldn’t immediately be determined. None of the 10 who didn’t return the questionnaire are incumbents and nearly all are lesser known candidates who political observers say are not expected to win their races for Council or mayor.

D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large), long-shot mayoral candidate James Butler (D), and Ward 1 Council candidate and former D.C. Superior Court Judge Lori Parker (D) were the only candidates responding to the questionnaire that unequivocally said that they oppose Grosso’s decriminalization bill.

Among the eight candidates expressing unequivocal support for the Grosso bill were Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) and Ward 1 Council candidate Kent Boese (D), who’s gay.

Gay Libertarian Party activist Martin Moulton, who’s running for mayor, stated in his questionnaire response that he favors the full legalization of adult sex work. He also called for expunging the arrest records of all non-violent adult sex workers and customers while committing to “vigorously and thoroughly” prosecuting all forms of child and adult sex trafficking.

“Only by legalizing sex work will private peaceful/non-violent/regulated business owners and entrepreneurs be free to create humane, safe and sanitary spaces for adult sex work,” Moulton stated in his questionnaire response.

Longtime community activist Ed Lazere (D), who’s running against Mendelson in the primary, also expressed support for the Grosso bill.

“We should not jail people who have turned to sex work, especially because discrimination and exclusion have prevented many from supporting themselves in the formal economy,” he said.

GLAA is among several local LGBT and progressive organizations that joined forces to create the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition to lobby for passage of the Grosso bill, called the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2017.

GLAA President Guillaume Bagal, who works as a health care advocate for D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health, said the current criminalization of sex work has had an adverse impact on some segments of the LGBT community.

“GLAA has opposed criminalization of sex work for many years now, with the understanding that these laws disproportionately impact groups that are already facing discrimination, especially people of color, gay and trans people, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions,” Bagal said at the time Grosso introduced his bill last October.

The Grosso bill would repeal all current D.C. laws that call for criminal penalties for commercial sex engaged in by consenting adults. It would cover sex workers and their customers. Grosso and the bill’s supporters say the legislation “absolutely” would leave in place all laws that make it illegal to engage in human trafficking or to force or coerce someone to engage in prostitution against their will.

In her response to the questionnaire, Bowser did not give a definitive answer to GLAA’s question to mayoral candidates on whether she would sign or veto the Grosso bill if it were approved by the Council.

“The issue of commercial sex, sex trafficking, and prostitution in general is highly complicated, generates a lot of emotional responses, and requires careful consideration,” Bowser stated in her response to the questionnaire.

“While the bill to decriminalize prostitution has not been scheduled for a Council hearing, I would support alternatives to incarceration for individuals arrested for soliciting or engaging in sex work,” she said. “Several other cities have created arrest diversion programs for sex workers that focus on their personal needs, such as housing, mental and behavioral health, treatments, addiction services, and stable employment,” Bowser said.

“These are options that merit consideration for the District,” she continued, adding, “But we must ensure a citywide conversation that engages sex workers, advocates, health experts, human trafficking experts, and our residents.”

She concluded by saying the city must continue to identify and prosecute anyone engaged in human trafficking or forcing individuals, especially minors, to engage in sex work without their consent.

In his questionnaire response opposing the Grosso bill’s provision calling for decriminalization of sex work, Mendelson points out that under his leadership the Council previously has significantly decreased the penalty for the first-time arrest of sex workers. Mendelson said, “there is a great deal of collateral crime associated with commercial sex work,” adding, “Now is not the time” for full decriminalization.

He said he does support a provision in the Grosso bill that would create a task force to study ways to address the city’s response to commercial sex work with the aim of improving the lives of sex workers.

Ward 1 Council member Nadeau, who’s being challenged by Boese, said that while she supports decriminalization for sex workers she wants it to remain illegal to be a sex worker’s customer, a position that raised concern among sex worker advocates.

“I support decriminalizing sex work, and I believe I will support this bill,” she said in her response to the GLAA questionnaire. “I just need to ensure that it does not inadvertently make it harder to identify and prosecute the actual criminals – the Johns and Pimps,” she said. “There must be a mechanism to gather information about them through the testimony of sex workers themselves,” she added.

“I’ll work with my colleagues to ensure this legislation moves forward with all those things in consideration so we can prioritize the support of this vulnerable population while also creating a mechanism for targeting actual criminals,” she concluded.

Cyndee Clay, executive director of the local sex worker advocacy group HIPS, said HIPS and other groups advocating for the Grosso bill would not support an effort to change the bill to retain criminalization for the customers of sex workers.

Clay said HIPS and other members of the Sex worker Advocates Coalition who helped Grosso draft his bill specifically did not “suggest that we decriminalize the selling side of prostitution and still criminalize the buying side.” Doing that would harm rather than help sex workers, she said.

“It doesn’t increase safety for them. It doesn’t reduce stigma. It creates very problematic relationships between them and their clients who are not violent or abusive.”

Added Clay, “We still firmly believe there are laws that are on the books that can help stop exploitation, that can help stop coercion, and we should use those laws as opposed to going after a consensual sexual exchange among adults.”

In addition to Bonds, two other candidates competing for her at-large Council seat expressed support on the GLAA questionnaire for the Grosso bill. They are Democrat Jeremiah Lowery and Statehood-Green Party candidate David Schwartzman.

Also expressing support for the bill is Democratic mayoral contender Earnest Johnson and Ward 6 Democratic candidate Lisa Hunter, who is challenging Allen for the Ward 6 Council seat in the primary.

“Unlike my opponent, I fully support the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health and Safety Amendment Act of 2017,” Hunter said in her questionnaire response. “It is long past time that we remove criminal penalties for engaging in commercial sex, and let sex workers control their own financial regulations and choices,” she said.

Allen chairs the Council committee that must approve the Grosso bill before it can come before the full Council.

“I support the decriminalization of commercial sex work and I believe that the District should begin community conversations about the impact of the criminalization of commercial sex work on District residents, and particularly LGBTQ residents and residents of color,” Allen said in his questionnaire response.

Allen said he has concerns about some of the provisions in the Grosso bill, including concerns he said have been raised “within the sex work and anti-trafficking communities about some of its provisions having unintended and negative consequences.” He did not elaborate on what those consequences would be.

But he added, “I think there should be further conversations around the bill’s proposals to decriminalize the solicitation of sex, pandering, and brothel operations, and the effect decriminalization might have on survivors of sex trafficking and on sex workers.”

Bagal, the GLAA president, said he had mixed reactions to the candidates’ responses to the group’s questionnaire pertaining to the Grosso bill.

“I was pleased to see that many were open to sex work law reforms, but still disappointed at the conflation of sex work and trafficking displayed in many responses, and the lack of urgency in addressing the criminalization of individuals doing what they can to survive,” Bagal told the Blade.

D.C. police statistics related to prostitution related arrests in the city show that sex trafficking associated with minors or adults is rare. The police data show that out of a total of 2,685 prostitution related arrests made in a five-year period in D.C. between 2013 and 2017, only eight were linked to sex trafficking of any kind.

The full responses of all the candidates that returned the GLAA questionnaire on the issue of decriminalization of sex work can be viewed on the group’s election project page at glaa.org.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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