Less than one week after about 160 witnesses testified for and against a controversial bill to decriminalize sex work between consenting adults in D.C., the chair of a D.C. Council Committee in charge of the bill said the committee has no immediate plans to take further action on the bill.
Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee that presided over a contentious 14-hour hearing on the bill on Oct. 17, told the Washington Blade this week he could not say when or if the committee will schedule a vote on whether to bring the bill before the full Council for final approval.
Many of the witnesses and spectators at the hearing gave highly emotional testimony for or against the bill, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. Some of the witnesses and spectators shouted and jeered at those who expressed views opposing their own.
The committee has yet to release an official count of how many testified for and against the bill, but an informal count conducted by the Blade shows a slight majority appear to have supported the proposed legislation.
“No way around it,” Allen told the Blade on Monday. “I think that there were incredibly sharp divisions on display in very raw, hurtful ways that we need to think about, because I did not see consensus,” he said. “And now our job will be trying to dig through and listen to all that we heard.”
Councilmember David Grosso (I-At-Large), the lead author and sponsor of the bill, praised Allen for agreeing to hold the hearing and for doing what Grosso called an excellent job in overseeing testimony by dozens of witnesses. At least a dozen witnesses representing LGBT rights organizations expressed strong support for the bill.
“I don’t think necessarily that there is an appetite to move it forward now,” Grosso told the Blade in discussing what may happen next with the bill. “I think right now we still have some work to do to garner support to get it moved through the full Council,” he said.
“But I don’t think that diminishes the value we got,” he said referring to the marathon Oct. 17 hearing.
He noted that many of the witnesses were members of or those who provide services to the transgender community. Several trans witnesses testified that longstanding bias and discrimination faced by trans people, especially trans women of color, have forced them to engage in sex work for economic survival.
Among those testifying in support of the bill was Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“You know, this might be the first time that the trans community has felt safe enough to come forward and talk about their reality and their experience in the city in an open public meeting like that,” Grosso said. “I think that moves us forward in a tremendous way and begins to further open up the conversation for us to be able to move toward the space where we can decriminalize what they needed to do to survive all these years, which is to engage in commercial sex work,” he said.
On the day before the hearing the committee released a list of the names of 172 public witnesses that signed up to testify. Erik Salmi, a spokesperson for Allen, said he believes about 165 public witnesses showed up to testify.
Government witnesses representing the Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Office of the D.C. Attorney General and the Office of the United States Attorney for D.C. testified at the end of the hearing. Officials with each of the three offices expressed opposition to the bill on grounds, among other things, that it would make it more difficult for police and prosecutors to investigate sex trafficking of adults and minors.
Nearly all of the public witnesses opposing the bill also claimed decriminalization of the buyers or “Johns” involved in sex work would result in an increase in sex trafficking.
Grosso and others supporting the bill disputed those claims, saying decriminalization would free sex workers from the fear of arrest and motivate them to cooperate with police in efforts to fight trafficking.
Tyrone Hanley, an organizer with the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition, which has advocated for the decriminalization bill, released a statement on behalf of the coalition urging the Council to pass the legislation.
“The D.C. Council should move to fully decriminalize sex work,” the statement says. “The voices of people who are most impacted by criminalization — current sex workers — are critical to making policy decisions on this issue,” the statement continues. “The hearing highlighted the many ways in which our current system is failing to protect sex workers experiencing exploitation, as well as being trafficked,” it says.
“SWAC will continue to build on the historic hearing by deepening community support to ensure the bill becomes law,” the statement concludes.
Grosso introduced an earlier version of the sex worker decriminalization bill in 2017. That measure died in committee. Earlier this year, Grosso and three other co-introducers resubmitted a revised version of the bill.
The co-introducers include Councilmembers Robert White (D-At-Large), Anita Bonds (D-At-Large), and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1). Allen signed on as a co-sponsor for the revised bill.