Compassion, not Criminalization, for DC’s Sex Workers

The way sex workers are perceived by many in DC fails to take into account the struggle of sex workers in our community. Almost no one chooses sex work as their first attempt at employment. The issues facing this community is more systemic–and far more concerning–than a few scattered condoms on our streets.

Many sex workers in DC have previously faced employment discrimination that caused them to lose, or leave, their job. This is one reason sex workers in DC are overwhelmingly trans. Finding a job can be fraught with transphobic burdens–a recent study found that almost half of DC employers would hire a less-qualified cisgender candidate over a more qualified trans applicant. This bigotry is unacceptable, and harmful.

DC residents who turn to sex work in order to sustain themselves often have no other option: people with criminal convictions unable to find work elsewhere, young people forced from abusive homes, immigrants faced with a labyrinth of language, legal, and financial challenges, and people with disabilities of all kinds. On top of being disproportionately femme, female, of color, and homeless, these circumstances can often make sex work the only viable option for someone seeking to afford the ever-rising cost of living in DC.

Our city has failed sex workers before they even take a client, from allowing employment discrimination to sitting idly by as rents rise across DC, and wages fail to keep up. Too often, when sex workers try to work through those challenges, they’re criminalized. This only serves to exacerbate matters, by continuing a cycle of unemployment and an inability to secure stable housing.

Criminalization also endangers the health and safety of sex workers. Fearing arrest, workers are unable to report exploitation to authorities, even though 80 percent say they’ve been mistreated on the job. This creates an especially high risk of coercion at the hands of police, who can threaten legal punishment if workers refuse them. And sex workers are unable to negotiate for standards, like using protection or getting tested for STIs, while punitive measures loom over their heads.

That’s why I fully support the Reducing Criminalization to Improve Community Health & Safety Amendment Act of 2017, which should be passed as soon as possible. This would mean removing criminal penalties for engaging in commercial sex, while letting workers control their own financial regulations and choices. It’s the model that sex worker advocacy groups, like HIPS, have recommended. Under this proposal, all laws regarding human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and sex with minors would remain unchanged. These crimes are horrific, but we have sufficient evidence showing us that the solution to these problems isn’t to criminalize all sex work. Decriminalization would increase reporting and prevention of these abuses by facilitating a partnership with legal authorities and the sex work industry to maximize the community’s safety.

That means improving public safety, too. When sex workers have housing stability, they’re less likely to work on the streets, which means fewer children finding used condoms in public. This is also, of course, safer for sex workers, who would control the conditions in which they work.

Moving forward with decriminalization would signal a cultural shift, one that promotes dignity over repression. We should be focusing on improving housing and employment opportunities instead of incarcerating non-violent sex workers we’ve left without the support and services they need to seek other work. Above all, our city government should be attacking structural inequality and discrimination, not its victims.