Protesters voice their views. (Courtesy of The Sex Workers Project)
Protesters voice their views. (Courtesy of The Sex Workers Project)

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Criminal penalties have been enforced against sex workers for many years and the approach has left some of D.C.’s most marginalized residents vulnerable to violence, discrimination and exploitation, according to Councilman David Grosso.

“Criminalization of sex work has a greater negative impact on groups already facing historical and current discrimination, including those experiencing homelessness, communities of color, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, people with disabilities, immigrants and people with criminal convictions,” Grosso said.

The at-large council member has reintroduced the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 which eliminates criminal prohibitions and penalties for consensual sex work and establishes a task force to evaluate the effects of removing criminal penalties and recommend further improvements to public safety, health and human rights.

“By removing criminal penalties for those in the sex trade, we can bring people out of the shadows, help connect them to the services they need to live safer and healthier lives and more easily tackle the complaints we hear from communities about trash or noise,” Grosso said in a news release.

The council member said research shows that over 80 percent of street-based sex workers experience violence in the course of their work.

“Criminal penalties have also made sex workers more vulnerable to violence and police abuse. In the District, one in five sex workers have been approached by police asking for sex,” Grosso said.

These impacts have been brought into sharp relief since 2018, when, due to the federal SESTA/FOSTA law, more sex workers have been pushed into street-based work, the release noted.

A recent analysis of research involving sex workers between 1990 and 2018 shows that repressive policing is associated with increased risk of violence from clients and partners as well as increased risk of HIV and STIs.

The study further demonstrates that decriminalization positively impacts sex worker “relationships with police, access to justice and negotiating powers with clients,” according to the news release.

“By removing criminal penalties, this legislation will reduce the vulnerability of sex workers to exploitation and violence, promote public health by improving access to services and help address human trafficking,” Grosso said. “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.”

Eighty percent of sex workers report experiencing some form of violence in the course of their work, according to the news release.

“Decriminalizing sex work will make life easier not only for the people that complain about K Street, but also for the girls who are getting turned away from jobs, housing, health care and more. Everyone needs to survive and everyone needs to make money,” said Tiara Moten, the lead organizer with the group No Justice No Pride.

“If Sis has to turn to sex work so she can buy a room or so she can eat, don’t send her to jail,” Moten said.

The Rev. Shirley Currie, an associate minister at Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast, said that as a faith leader, a Black woman and an advocate for abused and neglected children, at-risk youth, adjudicated youth, victims of domestic violence, women’s issues and cancer patients, she believes that Black women “deserve to live free from violence and provide for themselves and their families.”

Currie attended a rally with Grosso and others in support of the council member’s legislation.

“I support the decriminalization of sex work because criminalization only harms our communities and we must support and love one another not ostracize each other,” Currie said.

Stacey Brown photo

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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