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.




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