Bill to Decriminalize Prostitution Re-Introduced in D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s a truism that in any area where politicians cluster, sex workers won’t be far away. Recall that NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer used to travel to D.C. to tryst with Emperors Club VIP hookers at the Mayflower Hotel, and he’s only one of many who did (DO!) something similar. Remember Deborah Jeane Palfrey, better known as the “D.C. Madam,” who operated a D.C. escort agency? She raked in over $2 million over 13 years—before hanging herself in her mom’s storage shed rather than spend five to six years in prison for racketeering and money laundering.

Fact is, there’s plenty of prostitution going on in D.C., and while streetwalkers are the most visible, escort agencies and well-hidden brothels abound—and one city councilmember, David Grosso (I-At Large), has been trying for the last two years to rid the city of the laws that throw these sex workers in prison or “rehab,” giving them criminal records that can prevent them from getting other employment and/or certain city services.

Joining Grosso in sponsoring the sex work legalization bill, titled “Reducing Criminalization of Commercial Sex Act of 2019,” are fellow councilmembers Anita Bonds, Brianne K. Nadeau and Robert C. White, Jr. The current bill is a minor revamp of a version introduced in 2017, and while it makes clear that sex trafficking and non-consensual sex should continue to be illegal, it would strike language from several sections of Chapter 27 of the Code of the District of Columbia, titled “Prostitution; Pandering,” which has been on the D.C. books since 1935.

Specifically, the new bill, which has yet to be given a bill number, would completely strike Code §22-2701, which reads in part, “Except as provided in subsection (d) of this section, it is unlawful for any person to engage in prostitution or to solicit for prostitution.” (“Subsection (d)” refers to child prostitution, which has its own set of rules and would not be affected by the new bill.) Also on the chopping block are Code §§22-21723 through 22-2725, which allow law enforcement to seize vehicles and other property of those engaged in prostitution, either that of the workers themselves or their johns.

Also out would be Code §§22-2713 (“Premises occupied for lewdness, assignation or prostitution declared nuisance”) and 22-2722 (“Keeping bawdy or disorderly houses”), which would have the effect of legalizing brothels in the city, and allowing sex workers to rent rooms for assignations.

Finally, the bill would require the D.C. mayor to establish a 15-member task force to study and make recommendations regarding the effects, both positive and negative, of the current bill and to make recommendations regarding additional changes to the criminal penalties for commercial sex and to provide support for sex workers and others engaging in commercial sex in the District. It would also study the impact of sex work on society, provide guidance to the mayor on improving sex workers’ health and safety, including tracking violence leveled against them and their access to health and social services. The task force would be required to issue a report on its activities and finding within two years after its initial meeting—and be disbanded three years after that first meeting date.

It’s a great idea, of course—so good that a couple of Washington Post columnists have used their media access to oppose it!

After quoting “sex-trafficking survivor” (and NCOSE panelist) Tina Frundt and another anti-prostitution advocate Yasmin Vafa, who “denounced the legislative measure as ‘a misguided and dangerous policy that threatens to turn the District into a sex tourist destination and harm the very communities the bill aims to protect’,” columnist Colbert I. King stated on August 9, “I agree that decriminalizing paying for sex, which the Grosso-Bonds-White-Nadeau bill would allow, will make an already odious sex-trade business worse. … Think of the demand for bodies that decriminalization of buyers will create. Think of the supply: demeaned women and men. Is that what the District wants?”

On the day Grosso announced that he was re-introducing the bill to the Council, he held a press conference outside the Council chambers.

“It is long past time for D.C. to reconsider the framework in which we handle commercial sex, and move from one of criminalization to a new approach that focuses on human rights, health and safety,” he said. “The bill … does not change any of our laws regarding coercion or exploitation, which will continue to be prohibited in the District of Columbia. In fact, it does not change how criminal penalties are used to fight sex trafficking of minors.”

“Most of these people are not choosing to do this work because it’s their preferred option. It’s because there’s discrimination at every turn, in the job market, in the housing market,” added co-sponsor Robert C. White, Jr. “What we see are people struggling to survive and the government turning around and saying, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to criminalize you. We’re going to put you in prison even if you are a victim.’ And that is not solving anybody’s problems.”

The pols were met by several supporters, who carried signs reading, “Everyone Deserves to Feel Safe in Their Work,” and “Sex Workers Matter.”

Later that same day, co-sponsor Brianne Nadeau added, “We have to be making sure we’re looking after our constituents. Those who engage in sex work are our constituents. Let’s make sure that people engaging in sex work are being fully supported.”

As of this writing, the bill has yet to receive a hearing, and it’s worth noting that when a similar bill was introduced in 2017, it was sent to the Council’s Judiciary Committee, where it was never brought up.


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