GLAA testifies in support of sex work decriminalization

Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington

Testimony on Bill 23-0318,
Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019

Before the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety
D.C. Council
October 17, 2019

Good morning. I am Rick Rosendall, a former president of GLAA. We join other advocates and members of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) today in supporting the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, which would decriminalize consensual sex work for people 18 or older and create a task force to monitor the implementation and effects of the act.

As former GLAA President Guillaume Bagal wrote two years ago in the Washington Blade: “[In 2008], GLAA came out in forceful opposition to the criminalization of sex work in the District of Columbia. Over the years, we have continued to learn from HIPS and other organizations advocating for sex work decriminalization including the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), UN Women, World Health Organization, and Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women….

“Data shows that the enforcement of sex work laws disproportionately impacts communities of color, gay and transgender people, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions. Furthermore, a growing body of research indicates that the criminalization of sex work leads to sex workers facing extreme stigma, systematic exclusion, violence and discrimination. These challenges create an environment in which individuals trading sex have difficulty accessing health services and information, experience various human rights abuses, and decline to seek protection from the police even when in grave danger….

“As SWAC has pointed out, research and the experiences of people trading sex all show that … collateral crimes arise from criminalizing sex work rather than sex work itself, and that the best way to address these public health and safety issues around sex work is to eliminate the related criminal penalties. Furthermore, this bill does not ‘legalize prostitution,’ nor does it affect existing laws pertaining to trafficking or crimes related to sex work.”

Let us address arguments we have heard from opponents. We are told that the fact that this bill does not allow a parade of horribles such as sex trafficking does not matter because it would make DC a magnet for the worst sort of people. Well excuse me. Current law already harms vulnerable populations. It makes no sense to fret over imagined harms while ignoring actual harms. In 1981 Congress overturned the District’s first attempt to repeal the sodomy law amid lurid portrayals of satyrs in the streets, which we were not seeking to permit. We succeeded in repealing the sodomy law a dozen years later. No satyrs appeared. Let’s leave the alternate reality to the current occupant of the White House.

Our old friend Colby King of The Washington Post, who received GLAA’s Distinguished Service Award in 2005 for his outspoken support of marriage equality, wrote on August 30, “I support decriminalization measures that include providing the means for sex workers to get out of that business. But this bill merely seeks to make business conditions better, not produce resources and methods for people who are in ‘the life’ to leave it.” He approvingly quoted Councilmember Nadeau’s statement, “Let’s make sure that people engaged in sex work are being fully supported.”

Colby said the Council wouldn’t want to hear from survivors of sexual exploitation or from “experts who think the city should help sex workers escape and stay out of the business.” We’re not so sure about that. Considering the countless hours you spend on that dais and throughout the District listening to your fellow citizens, you deserve some credit.

We have advocated decriminalization for over a decade without touting sex work as a desirable profession. Similarly, advocacy of reproductive freedom is not a recommendation of abortion. A lesson many of us need to learn is that our sisters’ choices are not about us. Furthermore, when we talk of survival sex, we are no more defending the anti-trans discrimination that drives many into it than Spike Lee was encouraging rioting when he filmed his great tragedy, Do the Right Thing. Sometimes other people’s experience is uncomfortable to hear.

We agree with Colby that those who want to leave the sex trade should receive help. The District should put its resources into drop-in centers, transitional housing, job training and placement, counseling, addiction recovery programs, mental health services, and STD testing and treatment. Those are budgetary priorities, not a proper subject of criminal law, though public policy has a long and ugly history of criminalizing minority populations. This bill has a mechanism for evaluating its implementation and effects. The District retains a variety of tools to deal with collateral problems, which are only made worse by forcing the sex trade onto the black market.

Some of our legislators said one thing on this issue in response to GLAA’s candidate questionnaire, and did something else when faced with an earlier version of this bill. But as Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.” We are always happy to see recalcitrant representatives reconsider their positions and move in our direction.

A dozen years ago, some people worried that GLAA’s push for civil marriage equality would be undermined by our concurrent defense of people’s right to choose adult entertainment. We replied that we were a civil liberties organization, and we were capable of multitasking. As it turned out, the District won marriage equality ahead of forty-four states, despite Congress breathing down our necks.

It is time to lead. It is time to act. Thank you.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.