We Will Win: Bill to Decriminalize Sex Work in DC

We’ve been really busy over the last year.

We’ve been canvassing, going through neighborhoods in DC to talk with our community about the needs of people in the sex trades. We’ve been connecting with DC Councilmembers and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. We’ve hosted political educations about ending violence, harassment, and oppression against Black and Brown trans and cis women, trans men, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people, and others who are TLGBQIA+.

We’ve served as liaisons between sex workers and non-sex workers to mediate conversations and concerns. We’ve written extensively about police abuse against people in the sex trades in DC. We’ve conducted community needs assessments of sex workers, and have identified that housing is the primary need for the majority of street-based workers in the District.

We’ve held fundraisers and provided care packages to people in the sex trades. We’ve created art for resistance: art like sidewalk chalk, banners, zines, chants, and music. We’ve held vigils for our fallen sisters.

And today, hope greets us like a summer sunrise. DC Councilmember David Grosso, along with Councilmember Nadeau, Councilmember White, And Councilmember Bonds, have introduced to the DC Council a bill that would decriminalize sex work in DC.

DECRIMNOW organizers, advocates, allies, and Councilmember David Grosso at the press conference for the bill introduction. (June 3, 2019)

DECRIMNOW organizers, advocates, allies, and Councilmember David Grosso at the press conference for the bill introduction. (June 3, 2019)

The bill, titled “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019,” would remove criminal penalties from the buying and selling of sex in DC, while maintaining existing laws on sex trafficking. It’s clear that criminalizing sex work results in increased police violence and incarceration of Black and Brown trans and cis women, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, and also creates dangerous conditions for people in the sex trades through stigma that increases violence and makes it difficult to access safety. Decriminalizing sex work is the right thing to do.

At the press conference, several organizers and advocates spoke out about their support of the bill, the dangers of police brutality and mass incarceration, and about the need for true safety for all oppressed people. Many community members joined us as we spoke our truths in front of the steps of the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Ave NW.

This is a historic day, and this is still the beginning—the next step is getting the bill to a hearing in the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety! With a hearing, we’ll be able to have a conversation about the bill with councilmembers within the committee and community members, and we’ll have the opportunity to testify. This would bring us one step closer to getting the bill through the committee, and to a vote for the whole DC Council to try to get it passed!

Getting to this point is the result of years—decades—of organizing by Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, and other Brown people. Let's get DC to decriminalize sex work in DC. We will win.

—the DECRIMNOW squad

Will DC Police be Held Accountable for Sexually Assaulting Sex Workers?

In November 2018, a trans sex worker anonymously reported that an officer in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and an officer in Prince George’s County repeatedly used the threat of arrest to coerce them, and other sex workers, into sex.

Four months later, on March 27, 2019, DC Council held the MPD Budget Oversight Hearing. Community members called on Councilmembers to hold MPD accountable for the public funds they’ve used to target Black and Brown people in the sex trade.

Police abuse against people in the sex trade is somewhat of an open secret in the District. Many Black and Brown sex workers have long lists of harms committed against them at the hands of police officers. “I’ve been picked up by a police officer before, and I’ve been told that either you give me [sex] or you’re going to jail,” said Louraca, a Black trans sex worker in DC, during an interview with Media Matters in 2018.

In the same interview, Jessica Raven, who entered the sex trade as a youth after escaping an abusive home, described how police officers are enabled to perpetuate sexual abuse. “Police officers argue that they have the right to have sex with sex workers as evidence of a crime,” she said. “They sexually assault sex workers in order to arrest them.” Across the country, in many jurisdictions it is technically legal for police officers to engage in some form of sexual activity with sex workers in order to criminalize them.

Given the number of these experiences, it’s alarming how frequently police defend the criminalization of sex work by claiming that it keeps people in the sex trade, particularly trafficking victims, safe. More often than not, police are enacting violence against people in the sex trade while failing to decrease sex trafficking at all.

Police records show that strategies to criminalize sex work in order to address sex trafficking are ineffective and disproportionately harmful towards Black people. In DC, seven of the 2,582 prostitution-related arrests between 2013-2017 involved sex trafficking. Meanwhile, national FBI records show that Black youth comprise over 50 percent of people under 18 arrested for prostitution throughout the same timeframe. Police departments funnel public funds into criminalization efforts under the guise of ending trafficking when their own data show that they’re arresting and further marginalizing Black people who are just trying to survive, including Black youth who are being exploited.

In DC, where rent is too high and Black people are losing their homes and livelihoods to wealthier and whiter residents, sex work helps put food on people’s tables. Many sex workers in DC are Black and Brown trans and cis women, trans men, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people who have experienced discrimination or abuse and have been marginalized from accessing housing, employment, education, and healthcare.

Police officers target Black and Brown sex workers for actions they take to survive, and MPD’s notoriety for violence against sex workers has been well documented.

In 1999, Stephanie Mencimer wrote an article in the Washington City Paper about several sex workers who’d been sexually assaulted by DC officers who solicited them for sex.

In the 2008 Move Along report that surveyed sex workers in DC, of the sex workers surveyed who’d interacted with police, nearly 40% were verbally abused by a police officer and nearly 20% were asked for sex from an officer.

In 2011, an MPD officer who was with the department for eight years got indicted for sexually assaulting several sex workers while on duty.

In the 2015 DC Trans Needs Assessment Report, 15% of trans feminine respondents reported having been sexually assaulted by a police officer.

In 2017, an MPD officer was caught soliciting sex from teenage girls while he was working for the department.

DC police departments continue to get increased funding despite the laundry list of problems and harms caused by their officers. According to DC’s Office of Police Complaints, 1,332 MPD officers used force in 2018, and 90% of these uses of force were against Black people.

Who will hold MPD accountable for this repeated violence?

The MPD Budget Oversight Hearing was on March 27, and the Mayor has proposed increasing the MPD budget while officers continue to harm and exploit Black and Brown people in the sex trade. There are many community members who demand accountability from the MPD, the number one purveyor of violence against Black people in the District.

Dee Curry, a Black trans activist and former sex worker, was among the community members who testified at the hearing to demand an end to police violence and harassment against sex workers. “The interesting thing for me is we have so many unsolved cold cases involving LGBTQ individuals. We have this uptick in gun violence and murders in this city,” Curry said. “And to me, and this is my opinion but I’m almost certain it will be shown when we get the data, the most ‘successful’ crime fighting force in this city is the vice unit against prostitution.”

And as for the report that the anonymous trans sex worker made in November 2018 about being sexually abused by police officers? MPD said they would do an internal investigation, though the progress of the investigation has yet to be shown. Instead, in December 2018, less than a month after the trans sex workers bravely came forward to tell their stories—stories corroborated by video evidence—DC Council gave the MPD a raise.

We can’t let this happen again.

—Jordan N. DeLoach
Organizer with BYP100 DC

Gratitude to everyone who packed the MPD Budget Oversight Hearing— including youth activists from Black Swan Academy, organizers from Black Lives Matter DC, Keep DC 4 Me, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Stop Police Terror Project, and Occupation Free DC, advocates from the ACLU of DC, and so many more.

The Movement Is Growing: Decriminalization Will Win

The road to freedom is long, but we continue to see evidence of progress along the way.


There are signs that global attitudes towards the decriminalization of sex work are shifting. Slowly, more and more people are starting to understand that sex workers deserve justice and support.

More communities are starting to realize that criminalization pushes people in the sex trade underground and creates obstacles to safety, healthcare, housing, and more for both sex workers and sex trafficking victims; and that the decriminalization of sex work is a public health issue, a racial justice issue, a gender justice issue, and a LGBTQ+ justice issue.

Here are eight reasons why we think that desire for decriminalization and investment in resources is growing:

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  1. The first sex workers’ lobby day in the US in 2018. Sex workers and allies went to Capitol Hill to protest SESTA/FOSTA, laws formed under the guise of ending online sex trafficking that, in practice, shut down online avenues that sex workers used to keep safe, pushing sex workers back into the streets and the sex trades further underground.

  2. A coalition of over 20 organizations launched a campaign to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize sex work in New York this month. They launched with a huge rally and press conference, and several New York state senators and other elected officials announced that they would support legislation to decriminalize sex work in the state.

  3. A collective of nightlife workers and allies in New Orleans successfully shut down moralistic legislation that would have targeted Black and Brown trans and gender nonconforming people, sex workers, and the bars and clubs they frequent. In 2018, clubs and bars were frequently raided, and two New Orleans City Councilmembers brought forward an ordinance that would increase surveillance and close down bars and clubs in the city for things like "lewd conduct," "obscenity," "allowing a prostitute to enter," and other moralistic clauses that are typically used to discriminate. New Orleans sex workers’ rights organizers fought back and gathered petitions to ensure the ordinance would not pass through the council, and continue to build infrastructure to expand their fight for sex workers’ rights.

  4. Providence exotic dancers fought against the closure of Foxy Lady in 2018 and the criminalization of the dancers inside, who police raided for prostitution charges. Now in 2019, a Rhode Island elected official plans to bring forward legislation to study decriminalization of sex work.

  5. In the Fall of 2018, exotic dancers in San Diego won a settlement from the city for around $1.5 million after the dancers sued San Diego police for unlawful raids and demeaning searches.

  6. Organizations like Project SAFE in Philadelphia fight for decriminalization while educating the city on why decriminalization is essential for public health, like at the city’s Beyond the Walls: Reentry Summit and Prison Healthcare conference in October 2018.

  7. In 2018, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation team filed a lawsuit challenging FOSTA, a law passed last year that shut down many online avenues that sex workers use to keep safe. Despite obstacles, the legal team continues to push forward!

  8. As of 2019, there are 17 Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) chapters across the US actively fighting for justice and empowerment for sex workers, including in Tuscon, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver, Orlando, Tampa, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Asheville, Portland, Pittsburg, Seattle, and in Michigan, Hawaii, and Kentucky.

And all of that is just what’s happening in the US! New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003, and the United Kingdom, Uganda, South Africa, India, and more countries and places have people organizing to decriminalize sex work and provide people in the sex trade with resources.

We continue to build momentum. Let’s go win.

— the DECRIMNOW DC team


Sex Work and Survival in the District of Columbia

As 2019 rolls in, I sit and wonder about what’s in my immediate future. I wonder how other Sex Workers are surviving and whether they are safe, healthy, and have a place to stay as we near the height of winter. It’s typical of me to worry about my comrades, even as I’m hanging on the edge of homelessness, hunger, and not feeling so safe myself.

Most of all, I worry about my safety and wonder why police don’t respond to their call of duty when Sex Workers are the victims of harm. Why is there so little accountability for harms committed against Sex Workers? Why no outcries from the people of the city as violence against fellow residents go unchecked? Is it a lack of concern? Do Sex Workers experiencing violence not matter? Is it acceptable for Sex Workers to be victimized repeatedly?

A photo of Tamika (January 2019)

A photo of Tamika (January 2019)

Accountability to all community members, and safety for all community members, is a must have. Unfortunately, Sex Workers know all too well that our lives have less value to law enforcement. In DC, we have a police force with a long record of abuses, brutality, and harassment of Sex Workers, Black and brown people, trans and queer people, and more, while violent crime is up. As a longterm DC resident, I’m appalled by this behavior. If I lacked so much in accountability for my job, I would swiftly be fired. Yet, despite an increase in complaints against DC police, DC Council gave the police a raise. Does that make sense?

All the while, Sex Workers are still being raped, robbed, beaten, stabbed, and shot. Aren’t these crimes? So why aren’t they being addressed? Real simple: police don’t care, so we stopped going to police to help us.

Quotes from four sex workers in the DC area who Tamika interviewed to discuss safety and police brutality, originally published on  HIPS’ blog  (December 2018)

Quotes from four sex workers in the DC area who Tamika interviewed to discuss safety and police brutality, originally published on HIPS’ blog (December 2018)

Sex Workers have had so many negative experiences with police that we just take what is done to us and keep pushing through. Many of us suffer with PTSD and have been severely traumatized. We don’t like harassment from police or any violence we incur while doing Sex Work, but when Sex Work is all you have, you have no choice. You can crawl in a hole and die, or keep pushing to survive. I choose survival.

Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA — which creates new civil and criminal liability for internet platform owners for material that “promotes or facilitates” “prostitution” posted by others on their platform — online platforms Sex Workers had been using to vet clients and share bad date lists have shut down. Without these online venues, people are being pushed to street-based Sex Work and are reporting less ability to negotiate with clients and to take safety precautions with clients. Street-based Sex Work is way more dangerous, and there's also the issue of police not protecting us or answering the call of duty when crimes against us happen. Not to mention when police themselves use the threat of arrest to make Sex Workers have sex with them.

Red umbrellas are an international symbol for sex workers’ rights, justice, and safety.

Red umbrellas are an international symbol for sex workers’ rights, justice, and safety.

These truths are hitting home for me. I am again facing homelessness in 2019. I don’t have a place of my own: I’m living from motel to motel, which is incredibly expensive. With the increased targeting of Sex Workers, Sex Work has slowed to a crawl and many of us are having trouble making ends meet. Our income has taken a huge plunge since FOSTA closed online venues we had been using to advertise erotic massage services. I’m almost to the point of having to choose which bills to pay — a situation that will ruin my credit, which I have been working so hard to improve. It’s making me choose between food, gas, car insurance, and housing. That’s not to mention medical bills, clothing, toiletries, and other miscellaneous needs. I just had a heart attack. Being homeless isn’t an option.

Laws should never do harm, but FOSTA is doing just that for consensual Sex Workers. We know the horrors of street-based Sex Work — the violence that happens, the loss of income as a result of robberies, and the police harassment. But I have to face the hard truth: I may have to return to full time, street-based Sex Work again. My bills must be paid. I must have a roof over my head.  My car not only needs repairs, but it also requires gas and insurance to keep it usable.

With such a huge drop in income, what else am I supposed to do? Go back to work at McDonalds and suffer with starvation wages at my age? Or do I fight back against the oppression of a law that is overly broad and has conflated Consensual Sex Work with sex trafficking?

Do we put ourselves in more harms way? Face the criminalization that we know street-based Sex Work entails? Or do we work to change the narrative around both situations? I’m fighting back, and I’m calling on you to fight back, too.

Tamika and members of the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition with Councilmember David Grosso as he presented a resolution recognizing International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at DC Council (December 18, 2018)

Tamika and members of the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition with Councilmember David Grosso as he presented a resolution recognizing International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers at DC Council (December 18, 2018)

Join me and my comrades by signing the petition to support the full decriminalization of sex work in DC. Join our canvassing efforts with advocates, educate yourself, educate yourself some more, and talk to your friends about the need to decriminalize sex work and invest in resources, like access to housing. We implore you to think outside of the traditional box and try to understand why we see decriminalization as not only beneficial to Sex Workers, but also to the rest of the community in the District.

— Tamika Spellman
HIPS Peer Advocate and Policy Fellow
Twitter: @tamikahs66

Sex Trafficking Laws Aren’t Doing What You Think They Are

Criminalization and content bans, from Backpage to Tumblr, aren't keeping people in the sex trade safe.

Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that Cyntoia Brown — a survivor of violence and a former teen in the sex trade — must serve 51 years before she is eligible for release after she was convicted for murder for taking the steps she needed to defend her life against a violent client.

In the mainstream media, Cyntoia has been portrayed as a “child sex slave” and a “sex trafficking victim,” although she has never personally identified as either. As Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte wrote last year in The Appeal, “Such language is reductionist and obscures the complexities inherent in the experiences of young people in the sex trade and street economies.” It is important to remember that Cyntoia’s experience is not unique; it is shared by the majority of Black and brown youth in the sex trade who have been criminalized for the strategies they’ve used to survive.

Recently, there have been numerous high profile examples of the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work, from the way Cyntoia is treated in the media and in the legal system, to the shut down of adult content on Tumblr. Ultimately, when false narratives about sex trafficking are spread, everyone in the sex trade is harmed.

What is sex trafficking? Why are anti-trafficking advocates calling for laws to shutdown websites? How do these laws impact youth in the sex trade?

In early 2018, federal legislation aimed at holding websites liable for sex trafficking was signed into law. Websites that sex workers have used to safely screen clients are steadily disappearing, most recently demonstrated through Tumblr’s ban on adult content going into effect on December 17, which is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

This follows a steady trend of websites shutting down partially or completely in response to this legislation. Craigslist’s personals section, which was popular among sex workers looking to advertise their services and screen clients, shut down in March. A month later,  the US Department of Justice seized Backpage, a website popular for sex work, and the founders were indicted on charges that include facilitation of prostitution and money laundering.

Sex workers and their allies have been rapidly organizing in response to these federal policies that impact their livelihood and their safety, while many large anti-trafficking organizations and their supporters have applauded the shutdowns of websites as a “major victory and milestone in the fight against sex trafficking.” The disparate responses would lead outsiders to believe that the safety of sex trafficking victims is diametrically opposed to the safety of sex workers.

But the real policies that are needed to keep sex trafficking victims safe will build safety for everyone in the sex trade.

A little history on the anti-trafficking movement.

The anti-trafficking movement is fairly young. In 2000, the term “sex trafficking” was first defined in federal law under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to criminalize the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to engage in a commercial sex act; the definition also includes all youth under 18 engaging in commercial sex, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is used.

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While TVPA establishes sex trafficking as a federal offense, it did not protect youth from sex work-related arrests or charges. TVPA has therefore been followed up in many states with Safe Harbor laws, which primarily seek to protect youth defined as “child sex trafficking victims” from entering the legal system.

Safe Harbor laws, like the one established in DC in 2014, have worked to close the gap and ensure that “child sex trafficking victims” aren’t punished for what they do to survive—at least until they turn 18. 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws that protect youth in the sex trade from arrest, and 25 states have laws that redirect youth to services.

What are the root causes of child sex trafficking?

The vast majority of youth in the sex trade don’t have a trafficker. One federally funded study showed that 15 percent of youth in the sex trade had been exploited by a third party, while 85 percent were working on their own.

Homeless youth are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. National data shows that at least 500,000 youth — and as many as 2.8 million — between the ages of 12 to 17 are experiencing homelessness in the US. More than 50 percent were asked to leave by a caregiver, and thousands more ran away because they were experiencing neglect, physical or sexual abuse at home, family rejection because of their queer or trans identity, or in many cases, a combination of these factors.

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“Survival sex and involvement in the sex trade are often the only means for young people to provide for themselves when they leave home. This is especially true for youth of color, queer and trans youth, who have less access to resources and opportunities,” says Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte. ”The realities faced by most teenagers engaged in survival sex are shaped by unsafe homes and housing, lack of access to employment, affordable housing, health care, including gender affirming health care, mental health resources, poverty, racism, queerphobia and misogyny.”

How does this relate to Backpage, Craigslist, Tumblr, and more?

While the larger anti-trafficking narrative may lead us to believe that youth are being held captive by traffickers and sold online against their will, the data paints a more complicated picture.

People in the sex trade used websites like Backpage and Craigslist to screen clients, allowing them to work more safely. The shutdown of these websites has immediately impacted the lives and livelihood of marginalized sex workers, including those who are trafficked. For youth, there are limited alternatives: there are only 4,000 shelter beds available for more than 500,000 homeless youth. Among adult sex workers, trans people in the sex trade similarly have few options. The 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that 26 percent of trans people lost a job due to bias. Anti-trans employment discrimination disproportionately impacts trans people of color who experience an unemployment rate up to four times the national unemployment rate and therefore frequently rely on the underground economy to survive.

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With limited alternatives, the closures of Backpage, Craigslist personals, Tumblr adult content, and more leave sex workers and sex trafficking victims out on the street.

So what can we do to support people in the sex trade?

There are two main things that adult and youth in the sex trade need most: the ability to work safely without being arrested for what they do to survive, and safe housing.

Decriminalizing sex work for everyone eliminates the need for Safe Harbor laws in the remaining 36 states where youth in the sex trade, or child sex trafficking victims, can still be arrested on sex work-related charges. It allows us to move away from the narrative that pits the safety of sex trafficking victims against the safety of sex workers, and it ensures that youth in the sex trade don’t immediately become labeled as criminals once they turn 18.

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Further, people in the sex trade need housing. Homelessness is the primary problem that leads youth to trade sex, and this problem is also rampant among marginalized adult sex workers, with 48 percent of trans sex workers in the US having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Shutting down websites and criminalizing sex work doesn’t address the reasons that youth and adults enter the sex trade; these strategies simply push sex trafficking victims and sex workers further underground.

If we’re all coming to this problem with the goal of keeping kids safe, then we need to pay attention to the reasons that youth are engaging in survival sex. We must listen, and we must work to address the root causes.

—by Jessica Raven
Former Youth Survival Sex Worker
Organizer for Sex Work Decriminalization in DC & NYC
Former Executive Director at Collective Action for Safe Spaces

Supporting Black Trans Sex Workers Means Providing Resources, Not Criminalization

Sex workers need housing, resources, and safety from police violence, not increased profiling and harassment.

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance—a day to honor all trans lives, especially those lost and harmed by violence. It’s significant that just last week, an anonymous trans sex worker in the DC metro area made a report about the rampant sexual abuse that people in the sex trade experience at the hands of the police.

Many survival sex workers in the DC area are Black and brown trans women who have been denied access to employment, housing, health care, and more. As members of the  Sex Workers' Advocates Coalition who are working on the DECRIMNOW campaign to decriminalize the buying and selling of sex in DC, we believe and are in solidarity with the survivor and others as they bravely come forward with their stories.

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Police officers often use the threat of arrest and other punishments to coerce people in the sex trade into doing sexual acts without payment, and arrest people who they perceive to be sex workers for offenses like carrying condoms. Vicious stories of entrapment, sexual coercion, harassment and fear-mongering by police towards people doing survival sex work can only happen because sex workers are seen as criminals before they are seen as people making the best decisions in front of them to provide for themselves and their families. Criminalizing sex workers allows—and potentially emboldens—law enforcement to hide behind the blue wall of silence while policing those at the margins and abusing them with impunity.

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Police sexual abuse and brutality is a widespread problem for people in the sex trade, especially Black, Latinx, trans, poor, and/or undocumented sex workers. Sexual violence is the second most common form of police misconduct, after excessive force. When the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted the 2015 US Transgender Survey, they found that almost nine out of ten trans sex workers who interacted with the police either while doing sex work, or while the police mistakenly thought they were doing sex work, reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted, or mistreated in some other way by police.

In a 2015 survey, up to 15% of trans feminine people in DC reported having been sexually assaulted by police. In another survey, nearly 20% of sex workers in DC who had been approached by police reported having been asked for sex by the officer. For trans people doing sex work, police and law enforcement are often threats, not protectors, of their safety.

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Black and Latinx trans people in the sex trade have spoken out about police abuse for decades. Now, news and media outlets must expand on coverage of stories like these by humanizing people with lived experience in the sex trade and their allies to uncover the truth about police abuse against sex workers.

Police officers that sexually assault people work for police departments that cover up their brutality and abuse then investigate themselves without civilian oversight and send assailants back into communities with little more than a slap on the wrist.  Elected officials must decriminalize sex work to mitigate police abuse against people in the sex trade. DC could be a model for decriminalization across the country, and there is no better time than now to push DC elected officials, community members, and advocates to decriminalize sex work and invest in resources like housing, jobs, healthcare, and education to benefit the safety of everyone in our communities.

Signed,
A coalition of DC residents, sex workers, advocates, lawyers, and allies


Will you join the fight to decriminalize sex work and to support people in the sex trade?

Help us bring the bill to a hearing in the DC City Council by signing the petition, donate to our work, help us canvass to gain community support for decriminalization, or subscribe to the DECRIMNOW Newsletter!


Featured image was created by Maura Dwyer and Evan Mahone, from Collective Action for Safe Spaces, in solidarity with the #FreeGiGi campaign

The Voices of Sex Workers Need to be Heard

I am Tamika. I’m a peer advocate and policy fellow at HIPS, a service and advocacy organization for people in the sex trade and for drug users. DC has been a home for me since the late eighties.

I am a fighter. I am a survivor. I am a Black trans woman, and I do sex work.

Tamika Spellman (2018)

Tamika Spellman (2018)

When I think about my safety being further compromised because of laws that criminalize sex workers, like SESTA/FOSTA, it makes me wonder what these laws are trying to accomplish. They certainly don’t help anyone.

I know a lot of people in the sex trade in DC, especially trans women who sell sex to survive and have worked along K, 9th, 10th, and 11th Street. We don’t feel safe or protected. We talk a lot about how these laws have increased harassment and violence from the police and from others.

Tamika Spellman testifying at a public hearing at the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety at the DC Council (2018)

Tamika Spellman testifying at a public hearing at the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety at the DC Council (2018)

I’m overburdened as a DC resident because I do survival sex work. I’m often a victim of harms that go unreported because police would rather arrest me than protect me. I need laws that liberate me and give me equal protection from being raped, beaten, robbed, or murdered.

Tamika Spellman (far right) and other freedom fighters from Casa Ruby and No Justice, No Pride at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety rally (2018)

Tamika Spellman (far right) and other freedom fighters from Casa Ruby and No Justice, No Pride at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety rally (2018)

The voices of sex workers need to be heard. Sex workers need to stop being criminalized. Our lives, and the health of our communities, depend on it.



— Tamika Spellman
HIPS Peer Advocate and Policy Fellow

#SEXWORKISWORK #StopCriminalizingPOC #DECRIMNOW

Why We Must Unlearn the Stigma Around Sex Work

We live in a society where we're forced to sell our talents and labor in order to gain resources like money, housing, and health care. Due to the constraints of living in a capitalist society, leveraging money is an expected compromise for us to meet our basic needs.

We have more or less come to accept this arrangement: many of us try to gain employment, do odd jobs, and hustle in order to gain resources. Sex work is one of the ways that people sell talents and labor to gain access to resources.

Sex work has been around for a long time, but many people are often unable to imagine that the same arrangement they have been socialized to see as okay—the trade of labor for money to gain access to resources—is also what brings many people to sex work. Instead of seeing sex workers as the workers they are, society often deems them victims of sex trafficking (sex work and sex trafficking are not the same!) or labels them criminals undeserving of our care. These stereotypes are especially harmful for people who turn to sex work to survive after being exed out of “traditional” pathways to employment due to discrimination.

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This happens in our city, the District of Columbia. The majority of people who engage in sex work in DC are Black and brown trans and queer people who are unable to access the resources they need due to structural barriers, like employment and housing discrimination that prevents people from getting housing and traditional jobs.

And since our society takes away the rights of people who have been incarcerated or have otherwise come into contact with the criminal legal system, when survival sex workers are arrested for doing what they need to do to live, they face even more obstacles to housing and employment and are pushed even further into sex work.

We see this especially with sex workers who find clients by waiting on street corners or walking along the street (called “street-based sex work,” described in our list of the different kinds of sex work below). Street-based sex workers are most likely to be arrested by police, and they are also most likely to already be experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The criminalization of sex work increases the chances that street-based sex workers will have interactions with police and these interactions further exacerbate their housing instability and job instability, in addition to exposing sex workers to police brutality and harassment. It’s easy to see how the criminalization of sex work disempowers people in the sex trade.

In order to better address the needs of people who engage in sex work, we must collectively unlearn the stigma our society has taught us to believe about it. In this blog post, we’ll explore some different types of sex work. This list is not exhaustive, as sex work takes many forms, but these are some of the most common.  If we all work to better understand sex work, we can come up with better solutions for how to keep people in the sex trade and our communities safe and empowered.

Street-based sex work

This form of work is one of the first that people think of when they hear the words “sex work.” Street-based sex workers sell sex for money, shelter, or other goods, and find clients on street corners or by walking on different streets, referred to as strolls. This form of sex work is the most visible, and sex workers who do street-based work are more vulnerable to police harassment and violence, as well as harassment or abuse by the public.

The recent passing of FOSTA and SESTA, two bills intended to stop sex trafficking by making it illegal for websites to facilitate sex trafficking, has been pushing more sex workers into street-based work since they can no longer use websites to facilitate the work and screen clients. This is harmful for the worker and is one of the reasons why communities may be seeing more street-based sex work today.


Erotic dancer

This is another common form of sex work and one of the few legal forms. Erotic dancers often work in clubs where they dance with little or no clothing. While some exotic dancers are able to make a good amount of money, many face exploitation from their places of employment. As recently as 2011, dancers in a DC club had to go to court to make the owner of the club pay them wages. The owner believed that because the workers received tips, they were not entitled to proper compensation from the establishment for which they worked. These workers were also expected to pay a fee to the club, the bar and possibly other fees, without receiving wages.


Online workers

Sex workers who do most of their business online find and screen clients through different websites, and arrange meet ups at homes, hotels, or other spaces. This form of sex work has been diminishing due to FOSTA and SESTA, and many sex workers who would conduct most of their business online are being forced to move to street-based sex work.

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Escort

An escort, like the other types of sex workers, is someone who offers companionship for a fee, and this companionship can include sex. These workers usually work with agencies (although some choose to remain independent workers) that may take a significant cut of their profits, as they may charge a fee per client or a percentage of the rate for particular services. If these workers are with an agency, they are able to better screen their clients.


Camming

“Camming,” or sex work using webcams,  is a relatively new form of sex work that doesn’t have many laws, except that it cannot be done in public. Individuals that engage in webcam work can work remotely from their homes as they  film themselves either talking about life or engaging in sexual acts. These workers will charge people for exclusive access to their channel or ask for money or other goods to perform certain acts.


Phone Sex Operators

Many can recall seeing ads for this type of work on late night television. Phone sex operators take calls from clients and talk about different sexual acts with the client for a fee. Most of these workers work from home and are paid based on the length of time clients are on the phone. Phone sex operators can be anonymous, which allows them the ability to worry less about screening clients or other dangerous situations. But they are still vulnerable to exploitation. Last year, phone sex operators brought a class-action lawsuit against a national phone sex company because it was allegedly paying them less than the minimum wage in their states and stealing their wages.


Adult Film Actors

Almost everyone watches porn, and this is where people probably encounter these workers the most (if you’re watching it for free, you should consider paying for people’s labor). They are typically paid per film, just like other actors.

Though this list only contains a sample of what forms sex work can take, it is easy to see how vulnerable sex workers are to criminalization and wage theft because of how our society views them. It is not okay that we cannot ensure them job safety. It is not okay for workers to be arrested, harassed, imprisoned or otherwise criminalized for providing services that allow them to access the resources they need to survive. In the District of Columbia, where housing and job instability thrives, where income is stagnant and those who are considered disposable because of their race, gender identity, immigration status or other identity are unable to support themselves because of structural barriers, it is clear that criminalization and police involvement is not the solution.

Join us in supporting a solution that is a first step in keeping sex workers and our communities safe. Sign our petition and find out how you can support the campaign to decriminalize sex work in the District.

— Kendra Allen
Organizer with BYP100 DC


DC Police Must Stop Arresting for Solicitation of Prostitution

On behalf of the Sex Workers’ Advocates Coalition, the DECRIMNOW campaign is deeply concerned about the Solicitation of Prostitution arrests conducted by the Human Trafficking Unit on August 2, 2018 in the 3500 – 3600 block of 14th Street NW. We are grateful to see a few comments from the community promoting an end to criminalization as a strategy for building safety.

Since the passage of two harmful federal laws this spring, SESTA and FOSTA, there has been an increase in street-based sex work. These laws shut down major websites that helped people in the sex trades work more safely, and as a result, more and more sex workers are being pushed into the street, targeted, and criminalized. We recognize that this impacts communities and, more so, it impacts the people in the sex trade who have been pushed into the street where they are at greater risk of experiencing violence.

An organizer holds a sign at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety action (June 2, 2018)

An organizer holds a sign at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety action (June 2, 2018)

In the wake of the new federal legislation, Councilmember Grosso called for the Metropolitan Police Department to suspend “prostitution” arrests. Instead, MPD has increased its policing and arrests of sex workers and people profiled as sex workers throughout the District, punishing people for the work they do to survive.

While sex workers choose to work in the sex trades for a variety of reasons, the majority of street-based sex workers are women, and especially trans women of color, who face high rates of employment discrimination, homelessness, and violence and turn to sex work to survive. Increased policing leads to increased violence and leaves people with criminal records that create further barriers to alternative forms of employment, thereby trapping people in the sex work. People need more housing and job opportunities, and arresting them solves neither of these problems.

DECRIMNOW organizers chant at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety action (June 2, 2018)

DECRIMNOW organizers chant at the Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety action (June 2, 2018)

If we want to build a safer community for everyone, then we need a new approach. Please sign the petition to urge Councilmember Allen to set a date for a public hearing on the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health and Public Safety Amendment Act of 2017 to bring all perspectives to the table toward the end of achieving community safety: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/push-dc-council-to-hold-sex-work-decriminalization-public-hearing

— Jessica Raven
Executive Director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces

—Nnenna Amuchie
Co-chair at BYP100 DC

Organizers with DECRIMNOW

Decriminalizing Sex Work Helps Trafficking Survivors Too

Last year, DC City Councilmembers David Grosso and Robert White introduced the “Promoting Public Safety and Health by Reducing Criminalization Amendment Act of 2017.” In short, the bill removes criminal penalties associated with consensual sexual exchange, maintains existing laws on sex trafficking, and establishes a task force to evaluate the impact.

With the passage of this law, our nation’s capital would be the first U.S. city to decriminalize sex work. While this legislation would neither “legalize prostitution,” nor change current sex trafficking laws, its progress is being stalled by Councilmember Charles Allen —  head of the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. This petition urges him to take action.

Around the world, criminal laws on sex work prevent sex workers from accessing health and legal systems that should serve them. Criminalization has a profound and costly impact on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all sex workers, particularly black and Latino workers. Research shows, for example, that because of criminal laws and policies, female sex workers bear a disproportionate burden of HIV and also experience significant unmet needs related to family planning, safe pregnancy, safe abortion, and gender-based violence.

 

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The bill Councilmember Allen is stalling demonstrates that there are several benefits to decriminalizing sex work. Removing criminal laws would allow sex workers to do their work under safer conditions, minimizes labor exploitation, protects their sexual and reproductive health on their own terms, and increases their access to social safety nets, especially when their rights are violated. Not only has DC's sex work criminalization policies failed to deter violence and improve public safety, they have also failed to protect trafficking survivors.

Many who oppose sex workers do not often think about the whole person as this bill tries to do. Instead, many who oppose sex workers automatically deduce the argument to “if we protect sex workers, we will harm sex trafficking survivors.” While the goal of ensuring trafficking victims’ safety is laudable, it is attacking the wrong problem by criminalizing sex workers (or by failing to legislatively protect them).

Contrary to an often popular narrative, sex work and sex trafficking are distinct concepts. On one hand, sex work is consensual and non-coercive, while trafficking, on the other hand, involves coercion, deceit, or fraud. People in the sex trade are safest when their work is not criminalized, because they are able to screen clients, negotiate safer sex practices, and report incidents of client and law enforcement violence (which has now been limited by the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)). Even the Department of Justice recognizes how difficult legislation thought to help trafficking survivors, like FOSTA, make it difficult to prosecute traffickers because it extends beyond minimum federal interest.

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According to the Freedom Network To Empower Trafficked and Enslaved Persons, “human rights violations of sex workers create an environment where trafficking can flourish.” That’s because criminal laws and policies make it nearly impossible for sex workers to report exploitation, dangerous working conditions, and sexual assault. Every second Councilmember Allen prevents a public hearing from going forward is a day both sex workers and trafficking victims are being harmed. Decriminalizing sex work is helping those who are trafficked.

Make no mistake: sex trafficking is a major problem. It deeply impacts marginalized communities, including sex workers, yet pitting sex workers against those who are trafficked is misguided and doesn’t get us any closer to an effective solution. DC Council must find ways to tackle both issues without trivializing the lives of sex workers who are entitled to the full enforcement of human rights. Without the passage of a sex work decriminalization bill, sex workers are more susceptible to being trafficked because criminalization leaves marginalized communities even more vulnerable to perpetrators of violence.

A first step to solving these problems is by signing this petition urging Councilmember Allen to bring the “Promoting Public Safety and Health by Reducing Criminalization Amendment Act of 2017” to a hearing in the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The lives of sex workers and sex trafficking survivors depend on his urgent action.

— Preston Mitchum
Organizer with BYP100 DC

 

Sign the petition to decriminalize sex work in DC