Sex Work Decriminalization Finds Support In D.C. City Council

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s been about three years since the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education Research Project (ESPLERP) and three individual sex workers filed suit in federal court in California to get rid of the state’s prostitution laws—a suit which failed at the Ninth Circuit, and would likely fare the same at the U.S. Supreme Court—and that action seems to have sparked similar attempts in other states to legalize sex work, which is often referred to as “the world’s oldest profession.”

As AVN noted yesterday, lawmakers in New York have just introduced a bill, S. 6419, which would remove criminal penalties for selling and purchasing sexual services, and on June 4, D.C. City Councilmember David Grosso introduced his Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 (apparently also known as the Reducing Criminalization of Commercial Sex Amendment Act of 2019), which would strike down the district’s laws regarding paid sex if the person is “arranging for prostitution involving himself or herself,” is over 18 years of age, is doing so voluntarily, and the “arrangement involves no force, fraud, coercion, or any violation of the Prohibition Against Human Trafficking Amendment Act of 2010″—in other words, there’s no trafficking involved.

The bill would also amend the district’s Criminal Code to remove language criminalizing “engaging in prostitution or soliciting for prostitution”; remove sections that allow vehicle impoundment and asset forfeiture penalties for the same; repeal a five-year criminal penalty for “keeping a bawdy or disorderly house”; and repeal a section making it illegal to “establish, continue, maintain, use, own, occupy, or release any building, erection, or place used for the purpose of lewdness, assignation, or prostitution.”

The introduction of the bill was foreshadowed by a news conference called by Grosso on the steps of the district’s City Hall on June 3, which attracted about two dozen supporters, and led to the arrests of two activists who scaled a pair of flagpoles in nearby Freedom Plaza and attempted to hang a banner between the poles reading “Decriminalize Sex Work.” Other attendees held signs reading “Everyone Deserves to Feel Safe in Their Work,” and “Sex Workers Matter.”

“Sex workers have fought for their rights, and now it is time for the government to join their efforts,” Grosso, who’s been trying since 2017 to get such a bill passed, said during the news conference.

“Most of these people are not choosing to do this work because it’s their preferred option,” stated Councilmember Robert White, one of four co-sponsors of Grosso’s bill. “It’s because there’s discrimination at every turn, in the job market, in the housing market. 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.”

It should be noted that D.C. is in a strange position politically. While the Home Rule Act of 1973 allowed the district, which is not a state, to have its own mayor and city council, the U.S. Congress retains the power to review and overturn laws created by the city council, and also to intervene in local affairs. The district has a delegate in Congress, but that person is not allowed to vote on federal bills.

It’s that political anomaly that allowed Maryland Rep. Andy Harris (guess which party!) to attempt to insert language in the federal budget which would ban the city from spending any of the district’s funds to enact the decriminalization law.

“If this law passes, prostitution and all the things associated with it are decriminalized literally outside the doors of this building,” said Harris during a Tuesday House appropriations hearing. “We don’t want this to be the red light capital of the United States. We want people coming here not for sex tourism, but to come see the seat of government.”

Of course, that’s pretty funny, considering that just ten years ago, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the D.C. Madam, was convicted of running an escort agency in the district—and sent politicians and other elites running for cover lest their names be found among the estimated ten to fifteen thousand client phone numbers that Palfrey had in her little black book. One U.S. senator who admitted being a client was Louisiana’s David Vitter (guess which party!).

And who could forget 2008’s other big D.C. prostitution scandal, the one involving former U.S. Attorney and NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who reportedly had patronized an escort service known as Emperors Club VIP, part of which report revealed that Spitzer had traveled from his home in New York to the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. for his assignations?

But Grosso has at least a couple of defenders in Congress.

“It’s a local issue and Congress should butt out,” opined Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who chairs a panel that oversees district affairs.

“If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” declared Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a 2020 presidential candidate. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, also vying for the 2020 presidency, has expressed similar views.

And New York and D.C. aren’t the only jurisdictions looking to decriminalize sex work. Bills to do so have already been introduced in Maine and Massachusetts, and one is expected soon in Rhode Island, which for a time in the early ’00s had accidentally decriminalized prostitution statewide until someone in officialdom noticed.

Pictured: German Prostitute by Julica da Costa/Wikimedia Commons


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