Community Outcry Stops D.C. From Becoming Red Light District… For Now

In 2018, police made a total of 519 prostitution related arrests in D.C.[1] As of August 2019, the district had already reached 718 prostitution related arrests.[2] In fact, the number of prostitution related arrests, including solicitation and pandering, has increased at a steady rate over the last few years, reaching an all-time high. However, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso believes there is a solution to the rising number of arrests. His solution comes in the form of a new bill called the Community Health and Safety Amendment Act of 2019. This is the second time Councilmember David Grosso has attempted to decriminalize sex work and, if enacted into law, this bill would decriminalize the selling and buying of sex in the District.[3] The act of forcing someone to have sex against their will, as well as any other kind of human trafficking and prostitution of minors, would remain completely illegal under the bill.

Grosso, and his fellow councilmembers who signed on as co-sponsors, believe the decriminalization of prostitution will provide safety to sex workers and allow them to report violence and health issues without fear of being arrested.[4] They also believe, it will allow those afraid to reach out for help the opportunity to do so without fearing arrest. Decriminalization could also allow sex workers to find and retain housing, as well as enable them to leave the industry as they please to secure other employment without the hinderance of an arrest record. Sex workers who voluntarily make a living off of their trade, as well as LGBTQ rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, are also proponents of the bill.

However, there are also many critics of the bill including anti-trafficking advocates, sex trafficking survivors, religious leaders, and District neighborhood commissioners. One reason for concern is that D.C. would become a haven for those interested in buying and selling sex. In other words, the bill could turn D.C. into a sex tourism destination. People in the surrounding areas, as well as those from all over, would be interested in visiting D.C. to participate in an activity commonly illegal elsewhere. D.C.’s reputation would run the risk of transitioning into that of a red-light district. In fact, D.C. would become the only jurisdiction in the United States to decriminalize sex work other than a few small counties in Nevada which contain several legal brothels.[5] The demand for purchasing sex would thus rise, which could be unsupported by the supply of willing sex workers.

To remedy the sex worker shortage, pimps in the area would likely import women and girls in order to meet demand. Women may agree to the pimp’s requests voluntarily, but it is likely that pimps will bring many women and girls to the district against their will in order to meet the rising demand of “Johns” by way of sex trafficking. This prediction raises another very real concern: former sex trafficking victims in the area have spoken up, stressing the difficulty in separating legal sex work from sex trafficking.[6] Those trapped in the trade against their will may find it harder to escape knowing the legality of the trade and fear that a lack of support for getting them out. Proponents of the bill vehemently claim that sex trafficking and underage prostitution will remain illegal. However, it is an unfortunate fact of our world that, though illegal, sex trafficking happens every day, even right here and right now in the District of Columbia. It is unlikely that sex trafficking will see a decrease if sex work becomes decriminalized; it may even see an increase.

These concerns were heard by the community at a hearing that took place in October 2019.[7] Fourteen hours of testimony was heard from advocates, activists, and former sex trade workers.[8] At the conclusion of the hearing, it was clear that there was not enough support for the decriminalization proposal to survive a committee vote. For this year at least, Grosso’s bill proposal will not move forward. The community succeeded in prohibiting the bill from moving forward, but Grosso still has hope for decriminalization. Grosso was quoted after the hearing stating that he believes it could still happen in the future.[9] Members of the community against decriminalization of sex work have done a great job voicing their opposition thus far, but it appears D.C. is not in the clear just yet.


 

[1] Colbert I. King, Are D.C. Residents Really Ready to Live in a ‘Sex Tourist Destination’?, Wash. Post (Oct. 22, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/are-dc-residents-really-ready-to-live-in-a-city-thats-a-sex-tourist-destination/2019/08/09/ad2109e2-ba22-11e9-a091-6a96e67d9cce_story.html.

[2] Id.

[3] Marissa J. Lang, D.C. Leaders Hear from Public Over Proposal to Decriminalize Sex Work, Wash. Post (Oct. 22, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-sex-tourism-destination-dc-leaders-hear-from-public-over-proposal-to-decriminalize-sex-work/2019/10/17/ff82dcc4-f109-11e9-b648-76bcf86eb67e_story.html.

[4] Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health & Safety Amendment Act of 2017, David Grosso DC Council At-Large (Oct. 24, 2019), http://www.davidgrosso.org/grosso-analysis/2017/10/5/reducing-criminalization-to-improve-community-health-safety-amendment-act-of-2017.

[5] Lang, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Marissa J. Lang, D.C. Effort to Decriminalize Sex Work Won’t Move Forward After 14-Hour Hearing, Wash. Post, (November 17, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-effort-to-decriminalize-sex-work-wont-move-forward-after-tense-14-hour-hearing/2019/11/16/b7c77358-06ef-11ea-ac12-3325d49eacaa_story.html.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

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