About the Author: Siena Richardson is a first year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Siena graduated from New York University and hopes to work in public interest law after graduating law school.


As the wide-reaching challenges of COVID-19 continue, activists and human rights advocates have renewed calls to protect one vulnerable population: sex workers. In Washington, D.C., recent policy efforts to move toward decriminalization have struggled to gain traction, confronting opposition on all sides. A recent report on the realities facing sex workers in the District emphasizes that decriminalization is urgent.[1]

In 2019, a bill that would have decriminalized sex work in D.C., introduced by council member David Grosso, never made it to a vote after “an emotional hearing and thousands of emails revealed deep divisions among D.C. residents.”[2] A 2020 proposed ballot measure, too, was unsuccessful.[3] It faced opposition not only from lawmakers hesitant to champion the controversial measures but also from local activists who took issue with a national group that sought to spearhead the measure without local leadership.[4]

A report from D.C. health law experts produced troubling findings about the impacts of preserving the status quo. Whitman-Walker Institute, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, and Honoring Individual Power & Strength found that current D.C. laws are not successful at preventing sex work because people rely on this work for survival and criminalization puts workers at increased risk of harassment, violence, and coercion by police and others.[5] It centers the issue as a vital step for racial justice, highlighting statistics that show Black LGBTQ workers are overrepresented in the sex trade.[6] The report cites discrimination in legal employment as a primary motivator for entering the industry, for gay and bisexual men and transgender people, in particular.[7] In the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, sex workers face greater risk because many have had to stop in-person services or risk infection and have been largely denied support through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which “exclude[s] businesses ‘of a prurient sexual nature.’”[8]

Federal legislation on the subject has been widely criticized by sex worker advocates and human rights groups. The 2018 laws known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) restrict access to online platforms that host sex workers and were passed with bipartisan support.[9] While supporters claimed the Acts would curb human trafficking, advocates argue the elimination of online screening platforms creates more dangerous working conditions for consensual sex workers and trafficking victims alike.[10] Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced legislation that would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study assessing the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex worker safety and health, but the bill died in committee without receiving a vote.[11]

In New York, state lawmakers are considering legislation based on the “Nordic model,” in which purchasing sex remains illegal but selling sex would be decriminalized.[12] Proponents of the bill claim it appropriately punishes buyers and traffickers, while protecting victims of sex trafficking.[13] However, New York sex-worker advocates claim the bill conflates consensual adult sex work with trafficking and fails to protect workers from abusive work environments, preventing them from organizing to ensure their safety.[14] Human rights advocates, too, oppose the Nordic model, claiming it imposes on the rights to personal autonomy and privacy and “makes it harder for sex workers to find safe places to work, unionize . . . or even open a bank account for their business. It stigmatizes and marginalizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to violence and abuse by police as their work and their clients are still criminalized.”[15]

The proposed 2019 D.C. legislation would have led to full decriminalization akin to the policy implemented in New Zealand, rather than the Nordic model.[16] In addition to supporting the revival of that bill, the Whitman-Walker Institute report advocates policing reforms in the meantime to protect sex workers and transgender women, who are often profiled as sex workers.[17] While the politics remain challenging, the report makes clear that policy changes are needed to protect sex workers in D.C.


[1] Sean Bland & Benjamin Brooks, Whitman-Walker Inst. et al., Improving Laws and Pol’ys to Protect Sex Workers and Promote Health and Wellbeing (2020).

[2] Marissa J. Lang, D.C. Effort to Decriminalize Sex Work Won’t Move Forward After 14-hour Hearing, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2019, 5:40 PM), 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.

[3] Id.

[4] Fenit Nirappil et al., An Effort to Decriminalize Prostitution in D.C. Faces Unlikely Opposition: Local Sex Worker Advocates, Wash. Post (Feb. 14, 2020, 12:09 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/activist-accused-of-sexual-misconduct-wants-to-decriminalize-sex-work—-and-buy-it/2020/02/14/8de97374-4cd6-11ea-b721-9f4cdc90bc1c_story.html; Fenit Nirappil, No D.C. Ballot Measure to Decriminalize Sex Work After Local Activists Object, Wash, Post (Mar. 4, 2020, 4:06 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/no-dc-ballot-measure-to-decriminalize-sex-work-after-local-activists-object/2020/03/04/4ff36d28-5e4b-11ea-b29b-9db42f7803a7_story.html.

[5] Bland, supra note 1, at 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id., at 15

[8] Lucy Platt et al., Comment, Sex Workers Must not be Forgotten in the COVID-19 Response, 396 Lancet 9 (2020); Anna Liss-Roy, Excluded from Stimulus, DC’s Sex Workers Find Support from Local Groups, WUSA9 (Nov. 21, 2020, 2:40 PM), https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/sex-workers-stimulus-dc-virginia-maryland-tamika-spellman-homeless/65-89424668-b195-460c-b8c8-249da5062528.

[9] Sarah Sakha et al., ACLU, Is Sex Work Decrim. The Answer?, 1 (2019).

[10] Id.

[11] SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, H.R. 5448, 116th Cong. (2019).

[12] Megan Cerullo, New York Bill Would Decriminalize People in Prostitution, Punish Pimps and Buyers, CBS News (Jan. 25, 2021, 11:32 PM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-york-bill-decriminalize-sex-work/.

[13] Id.

[14] Kayla Kibbe, Why Not All Sex Workers Are in Favor of New York’s New “Decriminalization” Bill, InsideHook (Jan. 26, 2021, 11:19 AM), https://www.insidehook.com/daily_brief/news-opinion/new-york-sex-work-decriminalization.

[15] Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalized, Q&A (Aug. 7, 2019 3:31 AM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/08/07/why-sex-work-should-be-decriminalized#.

[16] Rachel Kurzizius, As Prostitution-Related Charges Double in D.C., Lawmakers Are Reintroducing a Sex Work Decriminalization Bill, dcist (June 3, 2019, 3:49 PM), https://dcist.com/story/19/06/03/as-prostitution-related-charges-double-in-d-c-lawmakers-are-reintroducing-a-sex-work-decriminalization-bill/.

[17] Bland, supra note 1, at 41.