D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At-Large) issued a statement on Monday calling on District Police Chief Peter Newsham and U.S. Attorney for D.C. Jessie Liu to temporarily suspend arrests and prosecutions of sex workers involved in commercial sex between consenting adults.
Grosso said his request was based on concerns raised by sex worker advocacy groups that the recent forced shutdown of websites that allowed sex workers to operate with a “greater degree of safety than on the streets” has placed them in danger of violence and arrest.
“The latest government attacks on online platforms used by sex workers are directly undermining the safety, health, and human rights of these individuals,” said Grosso, who told the Washington Blade that advocacy groups believe LGBT sex workers along with their straight counterparts were being placed in danger.
“I am deeply concerned as I read the reactions of D.C. residents who will be pushed into less safe situations on the streets where they will be subjected to more violence, have decreased ability to negotiate condom use, and encounter greater risk of arrest, making them less likely to contact authorities if they are attacked,” Grosso said.
His call for a temporary suspension of arrests and prosecution of sex workers comes six months after he introduced legislation calling for the city to decriminalize prostitution for consenting adults. Following release of his statement on Monday, Grosso told the Blade that the latest developments resulting in the forced shutdown of sites such as Backpage reinforce the need for his decriminalization bill.
The FBI, which seized the Backpage website operations last week, said it did so as part of an ongoing investigation into sex trafficking of minors that authorities have said placed ads on the Backpage site to facilitate sex trafficking. Backpage officials have said they cooperated with authorities to prevent traffickers from using the site. Sex worker advocacy groups have said the overwhelming majority of sex workers advertising on the site involved interactions between consenting adults.
Congress last month passed an anti-sex trafficking bill that would subject websites to criminal prosecution and civil litigation if they accept advertising, knowingly or unknowingly, linked to both coerced sex-trafficking as well as sex work engaged in by consenting adults.
The White House this week said President Trump would sign the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, on Wednesday. In response to lopsided Senate passage of the measure, Craigslist immediately dropped its personal ads, including its widely read “men seeking men” personals. It cited potentially harmful legal fallout from the FOSTA bill as its reason for doing so.
Fears by sex worker advocates that more websites used by sex workers would be shut down were heightened on Monday when news surfaced that seven top Backpage officials were indicted by a grand jury in Phoenix, Ariz., on charges that they conspired to facilitate prostitution and money laundering.
Police data show few sex trafficking cases in D.C.
In response to a request from the Washington Blade, D.C. police released data of prostitution related arrests made in the District of Columbia between 2013 and August 2017, the latest time period for which arrest numbers were available.
The data show that out of a total of 2,582 prostitution related arrests during that four-and-a-half-year period, just seven involved sex trafficking involving minors. One involved a charge of “introducing female into prostitution,” but a chart on which the data was made available didn’t say whether the female was an adult or minor.
The data released show this breakdown by year for prostitution related arrests in D.C.: 2013: 890; 1 case of “introducing female into prostitution;” 2014: 596; one case of “sex trafficking of children;” 2015: 714; two cases of “transportation of minors for sexual activity (assisting or promoting prostitution);” 2016: 216; one case of “pandering of a minor;” 2017 (Jan.-Aug.): 166; three cases of “sex trafficking of children.”
Grosso, who had not seen these figures when he released his statement calling for a suspension in prostitution arrests involving consenting adults, told the Blade he was not aware of a significant number of sex trafficking cases in D.C. He said his concern was the shutdown of websites that had in the past enabled adult sex workers to ply their trade safely and who had nothing to do with sex trafficking would now be subjected to danger.
“Due to the great risk of violence faced by street-based sex workers, our government needs to take bold and urgent action,” Grosso said in his statement. “I call on Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham and U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu to temporarily suspend arrests and prosecutions of those involved in commercial sex unless the individual has caused violence or coercion,” he said.
“Instead, the Chief and U.S. Attorney, along with front-line officers and commanders, should meet with individuals trading sex with the goal of understanding the risks they face and what steps are necessary to build trust in order to prevent and respond to violence and coercion. I am happy to work with both MPD and the USAO to facilitate such a meeting,” Grosso said.
William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the office has no comment on Grosso’s request at this time.
“This is a challenging issue that merits a robust discussion between the Council and the community,” said D.C. police spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck in response to a Blade request for the department’s reaction to Grosso’s request.
“MPD recognizes that complex individual and economic factors are related to sex work,” Sternbeck said in an email. “While some prostitution may be voluntary, it may also be a result of exploitation, victimization, and the lack of other options. “MPD is engaged with community organizations that serve and advocate on behalf of sex workers and human trafficking victims,” he said.
Sternbeck’s written comment did not address Grosso’s request that arrests of sex workers involved in consensual activity with adults be temporarily suspended.
“Ultimately, the Council enacts the laws of the District, and should look at this important issue,” he said.