Almost a decade ago, GLAA came out in forceful opposition to the criminalization of sex work in the District of Columbia with a statement declaring that, “our society’s addiction to legislating morality is the chief obstacle to eliminating the harm caused by anti-prostitution and anti-solicitation laws.” Over the years, we have continued to learn from HIPS and other organizations advocating for sex work decriminalization including the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), UN Women, World Health Organization, and Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women.
As a member of D.C.’s Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), GLAA supports Council member David Grosso’s Reducing Criminalization to Promote Public Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2017. We urge D.C. Council members to abandon sanctimonious platitudes and instead acknowledge the extensively documented harms of criminalizing sex work. Data shows that the enforcement of sex work laws disproportionately impacts communities of color, gay and transgender people, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions. Furthermore, a growing body of research indicates that the criminalization of sex work leads to sex workers facing extreme stigma, systematic exclusion, violence and discrimination. These challenges create an environment in which individuals trading sex have difficulty accessing health services and information, experience various human rights abuses, and decline to seek protection from the police even when in grave danger.
Dismantling these systems of oppression and discrimination will require our elected officials to lead by example — they must be willing to learn and demonstrate political courage and compassion toward some of our city’s most marginalized and vulnerable residents. GLAA believes that our elected officials are here to serve the people — all the people — not just those with power and influence, and not only when it is politically convenient.
In 2016, Council member Jack Evans responded to GLAA’s questionnaire for D.C. Council candidates, and we celebrated him (and many others) for being willing to provide alternatives to incarceration for marginalized and at-risk populations like homeless youth and transgender people who resort to sex work for survival. He wrote: “I do not support arresting or criminalizing individuals who have turned or been forced into sex work for survival.” We appreciated that response, as it was consistent with policy recommendations from reputable studies and helped us visualize a District that did not falsely conflate sex work with sex trafficking.
Given Council member Evans’ stated position last year, we were saddened to hear him reverse himself and come out in opposition to sex work law reform earlier this month on WMAL. We were further saddened to hear him cite “The Deuce,” an HBO TV show, to justify his opposition to sex work law reform instead of relying upon years of research and the lived experiences of people who trade sex for survival.
In 2014, when GLAA asked Chairman Phil Mendelson a similar question, he responded, “For the many people who turn to prostitution to survive, incarceration offers no help in improving their lives or providing alternatives to survival sex.” But in recent interviews, Mendelson has opposed Council member Grosso’s bill, expressing concerns on collateral crime associated with sex work and the “public nuisance” it presents. As SWAC has pointed out, research and the experiences of people trading sex all show that these collateral crimes arise from criminalizing sex work rather than sex work itself, and that the best way to address these public health and safety issues around sex work is to eliminate the related criminal penalties. Furthermore, this bill does not “legalize prostitution,” nor does it affect existing laws pertaining to trafficking or crimes related to sex work.
It is time for the District to stop harming people who trade sex work for survival with these outdated prohibitions, and instead focus our resources on major crimes. We believe that many concerns expressed by opponents would be alleviated during a public hearing, and hope that our elected officials seize this opportunity to address an ongoing injustice in our criminal system.
Guillaume Bagal is president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance.