Extraordinary Hearing on Decriminalization of Sex Work

Nov 25 · 13 min read

Report of the October 17 hearing before the Washington DC City Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on the Community Health and Safety Amendment Act of 2019 introduced by City Councilman Grosso and co-sponsored by four other Council members

Or in layman’s terms: Report of the hearing on the bill to decriminalize prostitution in Washington DC

By six from the US PROStitutes Collective, Global Women’s Strike and Every Mother is a Working Mother Network who were there in support of the bill

Supporters and opponents of an historic bill to decriminalize sex work in Washington DC squared off at a hearing on October 17 at the DC City Council chambers. The bill would strike language from DC codes criminalizing sex work and establish a task force to monitor decriminalization. Sex workers, LGBTQ groups, young Black people and others came together in the DECRIMNOW coalition which worked over two years to draft the bill and win this hearing. They gave powerful testimony and were joined in support by other groups such as the ACLU, DC Progressives, other LGBTQ rights groups, health organizations — and our own groups — among many others.

In groups of four, 180 people went up to testify for 5 minutes each (3 minutes for an individual). In the end those for the bill outnumbered those against, but the beginning was weighted more heavily toward those against — exercising their power to be heard first? We wonder.

Opponents of the Act were drawn from local and national non-profits, some feminist organizations, a few “not in my backyard” neighborhood types, and others, some who flew in from around the country and even the world to oppose the bill. Among them was oil billionaire and religious fundamentalist Swanee Hunt whose presence outraged people who were murmuring, “what business does she have being here when prostitution is so closely connected to women’s poverty?” And, “why is she acting like a concerned friend when the policies she advocates have put sex workers in jail and put them in harm’s way?” More on her and the Hunts below.

After listening to ten hours of testimony (it went on for 14 hours, but we left after ten hours), we began to practically memorize the playbook of those opposing the bill: this bill will increase child trafficking, bring in drugs and organized crime, lead to more violence against women, increase (white) men’s appetite for sex with young (Black) girls, create legions of pimps trolling outside schools for vulnerable youth to meet that appetite, spread across the land and should have been focused on education and other resources instead.

They also universally supported the Nordic model which criminalizes the buyers but not the sellers of sex, a model that has been rejected by sex workers everywhere as not doing anything to make them safer, which is the point of the legislation.

Citing dubious facts and statistics, opponents sounded like prohibitionist moral crusaders, ignoring what this Act is all about: removing criminal penalties which in fact make sex workers vulnerable to the very things opponents said there were against: trafficking, crime, violence and exploitation. The criminal penalties also siphon resources into the criminal justice system that could be used instead to meet community needs or provide non-punitive and non-judgmental services that benefit sex workers.

Opponents must have made a conscious decision to ignore the fact that the Act leaves in place laws concerning those under age 18 and protections against youth trafficking. Despite repeated attempts from the Committee Chair and City Councilman Grosso who had drafted the bill to say that this bill is not about youth trafficking but about consensual sex between consenting adults, “child trafficking” was repeated over and over. It reminded us of the way “weapons of mass destruction” was used over and over to justify a war. The repetition was trying make you believe that youth trafficking what this bill is about. But “anti-trafficking” has another use, and that is to enforce immigration controls, arrest and deport immigrant sex workers, and increase police powers particularly in Black and low-income communities.

Another line of attack was that sex work perpetuated unequal power relations between men and women. But we wondered where in society are power relations between men and women equal? And if equality is the standard for relationships, then marriage should be outlawed because nowhere is the power relation and the division of labor between women and men more unequal than in the home, and nowhere are women less safe.

After a while we could give a pretty good guess of where someone was going to stand on the bill just by the introduction. As soon as we heard CEO or Director or President or Executive Director or Vice President, we knew that the name of a well-funded non-profit was probably coming next, and the chances were they would be opposed to the bill. Supporters of the bill tended to be public witnesses, policy coordinators, advocates, counsel and grassroots non-profits that do not get funding for anti-trafficking, if they get any funding at all.

Opponents brought in cover for the fact that there were mainly executives of well-funded non-profits and other organizations. They had “clients”, meaning usually people who were diverted to them by police in lieu of prison, there to speak in person or by recording. Some women were wearing “survivors of the sex trade” t-shirts, some wearing buttons that said, “Protect survivors, not buyers”. While no one dismisses their experiences, we can ask where their funding comes from. Some may have had little choice but to speak against the bill or lose their services (talk about pimping!). One of the women in our group who had lost her nieces and nephews to the child welfare system said, “Parading impacted people upfront to speak against the bill was like seeing the smiling faces of foster care youth on posters for child welfare agencies. I don’t know any foster care youths who smile much.”

Not content to spew their lines over and over, the opponents also threw out facts and figures that were false, misleading or unsubstantiated, like 21,000 people are trafficked every year. Or that there would be a 20% increase in the number of people paying for sex if the bill passed. They also made outrageous claims that people (ie poor Black people) were selling their children to traffickers for money.

But supporters wearing t-shirts saying, “sex workers need housing not handcuffs” and “decrim now” buttons, had solid statistics of our own backing up our claims:
— 89% of people arrested for trafficking were adults engaging in consensual sex;
— 89% of those convicted of prostitution related offenses in Washington DC are Black when the population is 47%.

And the zinger from the Chair:
in the last 2½ years, there have only been 5 convictions for trafficking and pandering in Washington DC suggesting not so much a failure of law enforcement, but an indication that trafficking, victimization and exploitation are not as all-pervasive as those getting massive funding to stop it would suggest. All those $millions for anti-trafficking given to the rescue-industrial complex, when poverty is the crime! The Poor People’s Campaign has found that there are 140 million poor people in the US; 73% are women and children. Many mothers are driven into sex work due to economic necessity, and need resources, not rescue.

The Chair attempted to keep things civil, asking people not to react, clap or boo and to create a safe space for people testifying, and people tried to respect that. But some testimonies were too moving and truthful to not at least snap, and others were too much to let go without comment, such as when one white woman opposing the bill quoted Nelson Mandela, as if she had the anti-apartheid movement on her side. People erupted at that, and even the chair seemed to think that was a bit too much to stomach.

Then there was the really enjoyable moment when the Chair tried to pin down the Executive Director of the National Organization for Women if she speaks for all chapters of NOW. She kept trying to wheedle out of it by saying she speaks for the national which includes the chapters or some variation on that theme. Finally the chair said, “well, I’ll just ask the DC Chapter directly.” It turns out the DC Chapter of NOW is in favor of the bill.

So who are these forces against the bill? Let’s highlight a few:

Swanee Hunt and her sister Helen set up the Hunt Alternative Fund. They get their money from oil, real estate, and ranching. Their father was the richest person in the world, and their brother on the board of Halliburton. They own oil wells all over the world. They strategize and plot and plan with the State department, the FBI, academics, anti-prostitution forces around the world and others and fund initiatives to eliminate prostitution by targeting the clients of sex workers, and other repressive measures. This alliance backed the Bush era anti-prostitution pledge, which required HIV/AIDS groups to denounce prostitution or lose US Government funding.

Polaris Project is one of the biggest funded anti-trafficking projects. Polaris “brought in $10 million in 2016, of which $2.1 million is government funding”[1]. Polaris puts out exaggerated numbers of sex trafficking cases based on their national human trafficking hotline, and has been criticized as “heavily invested in ‘raising awareness’ of the potential of human trafficking in what may well be benign or legal situations, there’s no telling how accurate their findings are.”[2]

One of their latest targets against sex work is to close down massage parlors in the name of anti-trafficking. “Though Polaris says it doesn’t know how many people are trafficked in what they call IMBs (illicit massage businesses), its campaign nevertheless targets such businesses. The campaign kicked off with an 11-city tour called “Hidden in Plain Sight,” held in movie theaters alongside blockbusters and concession stands. For $5, attendees could watch a film on the sex trade in Seoul, Korea, listen to guest speakers from social service agencies, and hear Polaris staff pitch the campaign — popcorn and soda included.”[3]

As a result of their massive fight against massage parlors, many sex workers — mainly Asian — have been arrested and deported. One woman died trying to escape in a police raid of a parlor in New York.[4]

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is a right-wing organization that serves as “expert sources” on conservative blogs. Its President Patrick Trueman served in the first Bush administration and is tied to the Catholic Church. They list the Defense Department and several corporations as their partners or funders on their website. “Its twitter promotes other conservative, anti-porn crusaders, like one obscure New York-based group called NY Families which purports to offer “pro-life, pro-family, conservative Christian perspective on all things New York State.” https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/318579/Opinion_Illuminating_the_shadowy_group_celebrating_Valves_latest_censorship_drive.php

Some voices in support of the bill

Rachel West, USPROStitute Collective (US PROS)
Hearing Testimonies (starts at 3:19:30)

Rachel West, US PROS

Every cut in welfare, food stamps, housing & other benefits means an increase in prostitution and the numbers of sex workers, mainly women of color, going to prison. Communities of color, disproportionately targeted under the prostitution laws & other low-income communities need access to resources and services, not punishment for trying to survive.

In 1994, US PROS was part of a groundbreaking Task Force on Prostitution set up by the Board of Supervisors in SF. The key recommendation was to decriminalize sex work by redirecting the $7.6 million wasted on enforcement into services & resources to improve the health & welfare of the whole community, starting with opportunities for young people, women & others who want to leave the sex industry.

Criminalization of sex work increases violence, and even murder. One example given was in Los Angeles where over 200 Black women, many of them sex workers, have been murdered or disappeared. The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, whose work work we support, report that the murders were labelled NHI “no humans involved” by police and ignored. Their work was in part covered in the HBO documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper. We know from our experience that the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 would have a life-saving impact.

Global Women’s Strike and Every Mother is a Working Mother Network Hearing Testimonies (starts at 9:32:17)
Presented by one Black woman whose caregiver was a sex worker and who spent time in foster care and one white woman who is a Quaker and who was born and grew up in Washington DC. When we finished, the Chair thanked the mothers for coming and speaking.

Mothers and sex workers are often not put together. But the majority of sex workers are mothers, estimated as high as 75–80%.

Where were those who want sex work criminalized when welfare for single others was cut? Why haven’t they been fighting for payment for the 40 million unpaid family caregivers.

It’s the devastating effect on children of criminalization that needs to be addressed. Children whose mothers are in prison for prostitution are often placed in foster care where one third say they face abuse and who have more PTSD than Gulf War veterans.

Other memorable quotes:

Nnennaya Amuchie, Chair, Black Youth Project 100
In the United States, Black youth account for approximately 62% of minors arrested for prostitution offenses, even though Blacks make up 13.2%. In DC, the most common arrests among Black girls are prostitution related arrests and truancy. The reality is that Black youth do trade sex. They are youth that are running away from home, abandoned or ostracized by their family, who are building communities on the street in ways that the government has restricted or has criminalized them for.

Black youth need housing, not arrests and then a diversion program, because why are you arresting people to get services? … I urge you to support the decriminalization of sex work.

Tamika Spellman
I’ve put my life on the line for this campaign by telling my life story and about how this decision I made unintentionally put me at risk of state violence many years ago. I am looking to this bill to change the dynamic as policing sexual pleasure among consenting adults made me vulnerable to being violated by law enforcement. I agreed to do sex work, not be raped by officers of the law. Yes, officers. This is one of many dynamics that need to change because all I was doing is trying to survive, take care of my kids, and continue living free to be me. You see, I am 52 years old, started transition at 20, and have done sex work since I was 16. I freely consented at 16 because a baby does not understand why it’s not being fed or changed. As an adult, what was I to do with no job skills? And I was still in high school myself. I made it happen because I am a survivor by any means necessary. I went on to graduate and eventually sent both of my kids through college, sex working to support them. My family, those that are real and acquired, and for myself.

Cyndee Clay, HIPS
Self-referral is always better in our experience than law enforcement referral, and while we appreciate that there are organizations in the city who use law enforcement referral as their primary method of reaching their clients, we chose specifically not to work that way because we wanted people to come to us, and we wanted to make ourselves available to individuals for when it made the most sense and when we have the resources to give them.

Sex workers themselves that have lived under the Nordic model have talked about how the Nordic model has been very very harmful. … When people are worried about high police presence, they take less time to negotiate both for their safety and for their health. So, people aren’t going to take the time necessarily to negotiate condom uses strongly, they’re not going to take the time to look and make sure they feel comfortable about their date, or the situation with the car, because they’re worried. They want to get it done quickly so they can avoid arrest or avoid police interactions. And so those kind of challenges aren’t diminished at all under a Swedish or Nordic model.

Jordan Pomo-Lupu, an archeologist:
Just over 100 years ago during the winter of 1912 to 1913, a similar set of people were sitting in a similar room discussing almost exactly the same topic. In fact, many of us have repeated the narratives they explained and the arguments they made. You see, in 1914 after these hearings, prostitution was initially criminalized in DC, but for nearly a century before that, sex work was essentially decriminalized in Washington; we have a model for how it looked.

The criminalization of sex work came at a time of intensive morality movements, such as the temperance movement and the prohibition party, rallying against sex work, gambling and other social vices, these reformers pushed for morality reforms that criminalized, “All such person who live a notoriously lude or lascivious course of life,”. This last statute was broadly used to criminalize the lives of those society saw as deviant or sexually immoral, including people who today would be identified as LGBTQ. And these crusades for sexual and social morality were explicitly white supremacist.”

You on the committee have an opportunity today to start working to undo a century of harm caused by our collective ancestors. The criminalization of sex work is a failed project. The decriminalization of sex work through the passage of this bill is the best and only path forward.

In conclusion
There is growing momentum to decriminalize sex work to make it safer for sex workers to work, as this bill and ones introduced in NY and NH as well as statements toward decriminalization from candidates Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren show. And the backlash is fighting to stem the tide. But we have come too far. In Philadelphia, the District Attorney has said his office is not prosecuting sex workers. In the UK, recently published government research is providing evidence that the current prostitution laws increase the chance of harm and undermine sex worker safety. Sex workers organizing now even have governments on their side!

Poverty is the crime, not sex work. We say Outlaw Poverty, Not Prostitution.

US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS: uspros@allwomencount.net
P.O. Box 14512, San Francisco, CA 94114 Phone: 415–626–4114

Global Women’s Strike/Every Mother is a Working Mother Network:
P.O. Box 11795 Phila PA 19101 215–848–1120 www.everymothernetwork.net

[1] https://theappeal.org/a-national-campaign-to-crack-down-on-massage-businesses-may-harm-the-women-it-wants-to-help/

[2] https://truthout.org/articles/special-report-money-and-lies-in-anti-human-trafficking-ngos/

[3] https://theappeal.org/a-national-campaign-to-crack-down-on-massage-businesses-may-harm-the-women-it-wants-to-help/

[4] https://documentedny.com/2018/11/26/one-year-on-from-yang-songs-death-asian-sex-worker-advocates-call-for-reduced-policing/