D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) released a statement to the Washington Blade on Tuesday announcing his opposition to a bill introduced last week by Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) calling for decriminalizing prostitution in the District.
Mendelson’s statement came five days after a newly formed coalition of local civil rights organizations, including LGBT groups, accompanied Grosso at a news conference to express their support for the bill, which they said would remove criminal penalties for “consensual sexual exchange” in D.C.
“It is time for D.C. to reconsider the framework in which we handle commercial sex – and move from one of criminalization to a focus on human rights, health, and safety,” Grosso told the news conference, which was held at the offices of the sex worker advocacy group HIPS.
“By removing criminal penalties for those in the sex trade, we can bring people out of the shadows, help them live safer and healthier lives, and more easily tackle the complaints we hear from the community about trash and noise,” Grosso said.
In his statement to the Blade, Mendelson raised the issue of community concerns over “collateral crime” that he said was associated with prostitution.
“I do not support legalization of prostitution in the District,” Mendelson said. “We have amended the current law over the years to recognize that sex workers are often the victims of trafficking,” he continued.
“Moreover, the penalties for first-time offenders are minor,” he said. “But there is a great deal of collateral crime associated with prostitution and it often presents a public nuisance. Accordingly, the District should not legalize this activity.”
At the Oct. 5 news conference HIPS Executive Director Cyndee Clay said many of the collateral issues raised by Mendelson are caused or made worse by the current system of criminalization of sex work.
“What we’re trying to do with this bill is give community members a more effective tool to address those situations,” Clay told the Blade after the news conference. “And we can’t just continue to incarcerate this problem away,” she said.
“We’ve been doing that for a hundred years. It’s not working. And so through this bill we’re actually trying to make a difference and to give the city a new tool to deal with this,” she said.
Among the groups that have joined the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition to back the Grosso bill are the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of D.C. and the D.C. Anti-Violence Project, which is an arm of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community.
“The ACLU has long opposed the criminalization of consensual sex work,” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of D.C. “Here in the District, decades of punitive laws and policies have guided a failed approach to ending prostitution and have made our communities less safe through discredited initiatives such as ‘Prostitution-Free Zones,” she said.
Laya Monarez, a Latina transgender woman and LGBT rights advocate, gave a first- hand account at the news conference of a time in the past when she said economic necessity forced her to engage in sex work. With a degree from D.C.’s Corcoran College of Art and Design and prior work experience, Monarez said those credentials were unable to get her past the discrimination she faced in the workplace as a transgender woman and the rejection she faced from her family.
“I thought I would find another job quickly but that was not how it worked out,” she said. “During the years when I struggled the most I had to do sex work and was homeless for several months until I found steady work again.”
She said her lack of financial resources while she engaged in sex work often placed her danger. Unable to afford to rent hotel rooms to ply her trade she had to seek out customers on the streets.
“I have been robbed, raped, stabbed and had to jump out of a moving car once to make sure I wasn’t murdered,” Monarez said. “In most cases I was too afraid to go to the police to report what happened because it seemed impossible to explain why I was in a situation or in a strange car,” she told the news conference.
“Most of the time transactions are safe and there is no violence,” she said. “But in my worst situations I barely survived,” she said.
Monarez and others supporting the Grosso bill, including longtime LGBT rights attorney Alison Gill, said decriminalization of sex work would enable sex workers facing violence like Monarez to safely go to the police for help without the fear of arrest.
As of early this week, D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At-Large) became the only Council member so far to sign on to the bill as a co-introducer or co-sponsor. White joined Grosso as a co-introducer of the bill.
In the event that Grosso and White were able to line up enough support to pass the bill and if Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has expressed opposition in the past to decriminalization of prostitution, agreed to sign the measure, it would then face certain opposition in Congress, according to congressional observers.
One aide to a prominent Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said the conservative Republicans that dominant Congress would “go ballistic” over a D.C. bill calling for decriminalizing prostitution in the nation’s capital.
“Most every Democrat believes D.C. should be left to do what it wants,” said the congressional source. “But we’re not in the majority,” the source said, adding that to many Republicans who have never been supportive of D.C. home rule, “this is red meat.”
D.C. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss, who has no congressional powers other than to advocate for D.C.’s interests on Capitol Hill, said the Grosso bill would “attack attention” among members of Congress, some of whom would undoubtedly take steps to invoke Congress’s authority to overturn or block the bill from becoming law.
“If the Council passes it we will do what we need to do to defend it,” said Strauss. “The Council should vote to do what they think is right. But we would be in for a big fight,” he said in referring to bill’s reception in Congress.