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. ButI 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