About 45 people turned out Tuesday night at National City Christian Church in Thomas Circle for an LGBT Town Hall on Sex Work to discuss a bill pending before the D.C. Council that would decriminalize sex work between consenting adults in the nation’s capital.
Organizers of the event, all of whom support the proposed legislation, said their aim was to open a dialogue and provide what they believe to be accurate information on the impact of sex work decriminalization on Ward 2 and the city’s Logan Circle neighborhood, where sex workers for years have congregated on certain streets.
The organizers said the LGBT community, especially the transgender community, is disproportionately impacted by issues of poverty and lack of access to formal employment, making sex work for many in the LGBT community a means of survival.
Among those who helped organize the town hall meeting and who spoke on a panel were Madeleine Stirling, a Logan Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner; Tyrone Hanley, an official with the D.C. Sex Worker Action Coalition, which is lobbying for passage of the decriminalization bill; and Tamika Spellman, an official with the D.C. sex worker advocacy and services organization HIPS, who said she is a former sex worker.
Other panelists included Benjamin Brooks, an official with Whitman-Walker Health; Kate D’Adamo, who advocates for sex worker rights; Randy Downs, a Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner; and Matt Nocella, a spokesperson for the D.C. Council, who discussed the contents and wording of the proposed decriminalization bill.
D’Adamo and Spellman gave presentations on the difference between and impacts in other states and countries between “full” decriminalization of sex work for both sex workers and their customers, “partial” decriminalization, in which sex workers themselves would be free from arrest and prosecution but buyers or clients would continue to be subject to arrest and prosecution; and full legalization.
The two said nearly all sex worker advocates oppose full legalization, citing the example of the state of Nevada, where they said there are draconian restrictions on how and where sex workers can operate. Under state law and regulation, sex workers in Nevada must become employees of just six brothels. If they engage in sex work outside those brothels they are subjected to some of the nation’s most severe anti-prostitution laws, according to D’Adamo.
The partial decriminalization structure, which is in effect in some foreign countries, continues the stigma and potential fear of arrest for sex workers because it subjects their customers to arrest and prosecution, forcing them to operate in the same clandestine way they did when sex work was illegal for them.
Several of the audience members, in a format that organizers arranged for questions to be submitted in writing, expressed concern that decriminalization would lead to more street prostitution in their neighborhood, which they thought would create problems.
In response to the written questions, the panelists said decriminalization has been shown in countries where it is in effect to reduce the practice of sex work on public streets and alleys, where it traditionally has created neighborhood disturbances. Decriminalization, the panelists said, usually results in sex workers advertising online and doing their work in the privacy of their homes.
Decriminalization, the panelists said, has also been shown not to increase or make it more difficult to crack down on sex trafficking. They said it has been shown to be a better tool to address trafficking because those forced into trafficking are free to cooperate with police without the fear of being arrested for prostitution.
Nocella said the proposed law pending before the D.C. Council leaves in place the city’s existing laws against sex trafficking. He said it also leaves in place the parts of the current law that prohibit forcing anyone to engage in sex work against their free will.
Also among those who attended the event were five of the six candidates challenging D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans for the Ward 2 Council seat, including openly gay candidate John Fanning. The other candidates attending the event were Patrick Kennedy, Daniel Hernandez, Jordan Grossman, and Yilin Zhang.
Most of the panelists and many of the attendees at the town hall said they plan to testify on Thursday, Oct. 17, at the D.C. Council hearing on the sex worker decriminalization bill, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019.
“I think today our conversation was really a great opportunity for people to learn more about the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act,” said Hanley in discussing how the town hall went. “I think it also it was a good opportunity to get a better understanding of the issue of sex work, trafficking, and particularly how it happens here in the District of Columbia.”