Under the guise of improving “community safety and health,” D.C. Councilmembers David Grosso, Anita Bonds, Brianne Nadeau, and Robert White have put forward D.C. Bill 23-0318 (a.k.a. The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019) which, if passed, will amend existing D.C. statutes to fully decriminalize prostitution in the nation’s capital. The proposed bill seeks to decriminalize not only those who sell sex acts, but also acts of pimping, brothel keeping, and sex buying.
Don’t let the lofty sounding title of this bill fool you. It is a trojan horse empowering organizers of sexual exploitation—pimps (i.e. sex traffickers) and brothel keepers—while serving the interests of sex buyers (those who “rent” sexual access to the bodies of others).
The D.C. City Council’s Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing on Bill 23-0318 that stretched from 10:00 AM on October 17 to the early hours of October 18. Approximately 180 groups and D.C. residents testified both for and against the bill.
Several members of the NCOSE team, as well as allies from D.C. and across the country, offered powerful testimony in strong opposition to the bill. Their words fell on deaf ears as the bill’s lead sponsor, Councilmember David Grosso, showed raw disdain for opponents of his bill. Councilmember Charles Allen, chairman of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, was slightly more polite but still made clear that in his view “sex work is work.”
Many survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking in the sex trade bravely shared their personal stories to a packed hearing room. It was painful and infuriating to watch as members of the D.C. Council, especially Grosso, reacted flippantly or in some instances ignored both their stories and their warnings about the dangers posed by the bill.
Groups lining up to testify against the bill included Awaken Reno, Children’s Law Center, Children’s National Hospital, Courtney’s House, Demand Abolition, Exodus Cry, the Family Research Council, My Life My Choice, NCOSE, the National Organization of Women (NOW), Polaris Project, Rights4Girls, The Salvation Army, the U.S. Human Trafficking Institute, the D.C. Attorney General’s Office and many others. Their testimony was compelling, yet clearly not of genuine interest to the Councilmembers to whom they were speaking.
There were many “takeaways” from the hearing, including (but not limited to):
- Nearly all the persons currently prostituting who testified in support of the bill explained that they were either abused as children and/or began prostituting as minors. This is plain evidence of the typical pathways into prostitution 1) child sexual abuse and 2) sexual exploitation of children.
- Some supporters of the bill, including Grosso, believe that minors can consent to participating in the sex trade. Of course, these views are outrageous in the extreme given what we know about child development, and all the ways that society seeks to protect children from other harms such as smoking and drug and alcohol use. What, it’s not okay for kids to smoke, but it’s all right for them to be bought and sold for sex?
- The lack of housing and employment opportunities, as well as forms of discrimination, create powerful push factors, propelling racially, socially, and economically marginalized persons into the sex trade to “survive.” One currently-prostituting person who testified described prostitution as “the only option left.” Yet, nothing in Bill 23-0318 addresses these issues.
- According to supporters of the bill, so-called “survival sex” (exchanging sex in order to feed and house oneself) is just work. But we know that the involvement of minors or adults in the prostitution to feed themselves or their families isn’t a survival strategy—it is the very definition of sexual exploitation. It’s also evidence of deeply the broken social systems that the D.C. Council should be working to fix, rather than throwing the city’s vulnerable populations like meat on a table to sexual exploiters.
- The effort to dissect prostitution from sex trafficking was particularly strong. What was particularly striking was the patent refusal by supporters of the bill to acknowledge the subtleties of sexual coercion on which the sex trade depends. Most anti-trafficking laws criminalize severe forms of sex trafficking which involve force, fraud, and coercion. While it’s great that the use of coercion to facilitate sex trafficking is recognized in the law, it’s another matter when it comes to proving it in sex trafficking cases. Coercion is the use of invisible influences like threats of violence towards one’s self or others to control a person. Historically law enforcement officials have been bad at recognizing signs of coercion in prostitution—which by definition is sex trafficking. It’s hard to recognize and prove something not readily visible to the untrained eye.
- Supporters also fail to see the grotesque power imbalance between the person purchased in sex, and the purchaser. Simply put, the person with the money, is the person with the power. Whether the buyer is Robert Kraft or a blue collar worker, it’s the money that leverages the sexual exchange not an actual desire to have sex. Thus, paid sex is coerced sex.
- Another refrain from supporters is that full decriminalization of prostitution brings prostitution “out of the shadows.” In a sense this is true. This bill dramatically expands existing prostitution venues from the streets, strip clubs, massage parlors, and hotels where prostitution routinely happens, into the heart of D.C.’s residential communities. If D.C. Councilmembers pass this bill, prostitution venues will spring up in residences across the city—residences where children reside—putting them and others in the daily proximity of sex buyers, some of whom have no qualms about using minors for sex or with sexually assaulting adults.
At the same time, unleashing the full predatory force of the sex trade on D.C.’s residential communities will make the accompanying sexual abuse of children and sexual assaults of adults more invisible than ever. Without strong evidence of crime, police will lack probable cause to enter homes where prostitution is happening. And, as victims of child sexual abuse and domestic violence know all too well, physical and sexual violence occurring in residential settings is all too easy to cover up.
In sum, this bill opens the floodgates to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in the nation’s capital and, if passed, will morph Washington D.C. into a global sexual tourist paradise. Moreover, the global sexual exploitation movement will use passage of the bill in D.C. to galvanize similar efforts in other parts of the country.
While the situation is critical and bleak, it is not hopeless. Here are some ways you can help:
- If you are a DC resident, contact your D.C. City Councilmember and ask them to oppose this bill (D.C. Bill 23-0318 a.k.a The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019).
- If you have friends in family in D.C., call them, talk to them, and ask them to oppose this bill (D.C. Bill 23-0318 a.k.a The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019).
- Call your member of Congress. Tell them you don’t want the nation’s capital turned into a global sex tourist destination.
- If you have expertise in child development, child protection, sexual assault prevention, anti-trafficking, or related fields, submit written testimony to the D.C. City Council. The deadline to submit testimony is November 1.
- If you are active on social media, please use Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to speak out and raise the alarm. Use the hashtags #DCDecrim, #Stop318DC, and #ProtectSurvivorsNOTBuyers when you do.
Please join us in doing everything in your power to stop this bill from passing.