VICTORY! Women and girls to DC lawmakers: protect survivors, not buyers and pimps

*** Update! ***
The Washington Blade has reported that Councilman Charles Allen, chair of the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee, will not continue pushing the bill to decriminalize pimping and sex-buying–for now. WoLF members, residents of D.C. and the surrounding region, and other women’s groups across the country are prepared to mobilize again if the bill is reintroduced.

“I don’t think necessarily that there is an appetite to move it forward now,” Grosso told the Blade in discussing what may happen next with the bill. “I think right now we still have some work to do to garner support to get it moved through the full Council,” he said.

Washington Blade

A diverse crowd of people and groups from D.C., the surrounding region, and across the country gathered this Thursday, October 17, to deliver a powerful message to the Council of the District of Columbia: the bill that proposes to fully decriminalize the prostitution business in the District will increase demand by sex buyers, provide a boon to pimps, and make it harder for women and girls to escape their exploiters. WoLF members have been working for over a year to defeat the bill, and some attended the hearing to support survivors, press for the Equality Model (also known as the Nordic Model), and testify about the appalling effects that the proposed law would have for prostituted individuals and all women and girls in the district.

Virtually everyone who spoke agreed that it’s high time to end the arrest and prosecution of people swept into prostitution – whether through force and coercion, false promises of love from a “boyfriend,” or desperate financial need. But the room was deeply divided on the proposal to decriminalize the entire business and bring it “out of the shadows,” in an effort to normalize and legitimize the acts of buying and pimping adults. Although the bill’s main sponsor Councilmember David Grosso insisted that his bill does not decriminalize certain harmful acts, opponents of the bill carefully identified the precise sections of the bill that would in fact decriminalize pimping and create a near-impossible evidentiary standard for D.C. police to enter houses suspected of being brothels.

DC Councilmember David Grosso

Many present to oppose the bill observed that the hearing was conducted in an especially biased manner, with Grosso at times arguing with survivors and cutting them off while asking numerous friendly questions to the supporters of his bill. When one former prosecutor testified that one of the proposed changes to the law would harm the ability of police to enter suspected brothels and deprive them of this essential tool for finding children and teens being held and sold for rape by adult men, Grosso insultingly asked the witness whether she had read his bill.

Several strong themes emerged from opponents of the bill. For one, prostitution is inherently coercive and violent and incompatible with human sovereignty and dignity. Full decriminalization also increases demand for the sale of humans for sex, which in turn increases regional and international trafficking of children and adults. Further, full decriminalization (and the D.C. proposed law in particular) does nothing to address the underlying problems that plague people in prostitution, including poverty, lack of housing and employment options, organized crime, racist policing practices, and the high homelessness rate among LGB and trans-identified youth. 

Supporters pushed their own claim that prostitution is the choice of consenting adults (especially trans-identified males who, they claim, absolutely need it as a source of income) while denying that it has anything to do with the market for trafficking or child rape. Yet the testimony from the pro-prostitution camp did much of our work, by repeatedly testifying to its horrors: that prostitution frequently begins when victims are still children, it commonly results from the lack of better choices, and it takes place in an environment that is so violent and dangerous that the need for police and medical help is ever-present. Some of us have personally witnessed how the business of selling the bodies of trans-identified teenage males in the District is a brutal one. Nonetheless, the bill’s supporters insisted that fully decriminalizing the entire trade (at least among adults) is the only solution they desire because it allows them to continue making money as “sex workers” or as “managers,” euphemisms repeated throughout the 12-hour long hearing.

The bill’s sponsors touted support from a segment of the District’s population and NGO communities. One, represented by the Sex Worker Advocacy Coalition, favors full decriminalization and views the industry as consensual. They also have support from numerous organizations claiming to represent the LGBTQ umbrella, and such international entities as Amnesty International and the World Health Organization. As radical feminists who follow this issue will know, that shameful policy endorsement has been roundly condemned by prostitution and trafficking survivors around the world. And, as WoLF member and proud lesbian Kacie Mills testified, the fact that LGB and trans-identified youth disproportionately fall victim to homelessness and prostitution demonstrates that they need better opportunities, not the false promise of “sex work.” 

Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality led the charge for the transgender NGO community, claiming that “sex work is often a means of survival chosen by adults who know the risks.” Keisling claimed that criminalization makes it harder for prostituted people to get help, and that local NGOs are too limited by the current law, and that local service providers who were there to testify in favor of the bill are too limited by the current law. (This claim that the pro-prostitution NGOs are too limited struck us as an odd one considering that the budgets and staff of groups like Casa Ruby, HIPS, and the DC Antiviolence Project are rather larger than the much smaller groups who provide direct services and advocacy on behalf of survivors but remain firmly anti-prostitution, like Rights 4 Girls and Courtney’s House.)Responding to testimony about specific studies cited to show that full decriminalization increases demand and violence, Keisling offered little more than a personal promise: “I can assure the critics and the councilmembers that it simply does not do that… and we would not support it if it did.” 

In the end we were struck by the sheer selfishness of the pro-prostitution witnesses who identified themselves as “sex workers,” and the “harm reduction” NGOs. It must be noted that if prostitution ended tomorrow there would be no reason for those NGOs to continue existing and receiving all the public and foundation funding they do. Despite heartfelt pleas from trafficked underage girls to support the Equality Model, and material evidence that full decriminalization would harm women and girls like them, several trans-identified males went to the microphone to claim that they desperately need the prostitution industry to continue operating, even claiming that street prostitution is nothing more than “casual sex” between consenting adults. One of the more horrifying moments of the day came when Kacie delivered a warning that an increase in rich white men from Baltimore will come to D.C. to purchase black girls, to which an adult trans-identified male at the front of the audience cheered “yes!”

Despite the alarming extent of support for legalizing the purchase of people for sex, we were encouraged that witnesses representing the D.C. Mayor’s Office, the U.S. Attorneys Office, and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General testified against full decriminalization, for many of the same reasons we and our allies had stated. 

Because the testimony opposing this bill was so powerful, we urge you to listen to it yourselves. 

  • Video recording of the full hearing, beginning at the 13:00 minute mark HERE.
    • Listen to two formerly trafficked teen girls testifying by audio, at 02:05:56
    • See powerful testimony of trafficking survivor and advocate and co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, Noel Gomez, at 2:44:35
    • Watch Tina Frundt of Courtney’s House, which she founded to help girls and boys escape sex trafficking, at 2:00:20. 
    • Hear Yasmin Vafa of Right 4 Girls, at 2:56:50. 

WoLF will continue to monitor and report on this bill as it develops. Should any members or supporters wish to tell the D.C. Council why passing the bill would be a terrible crime against women and humanity, you can email your letter on or before November 1, 2019 to [email protected], with the subject line “B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019.”