The Effort to Decriminalize Prostitution in the Nation’s Capital

A man and woman pass a prostitute posing in a doorway in Amsterdam's red-light district
Red-light district, Amsterdam (Thijs Paanakker, via Flickr Creative Commons)

While political prostitution gets a pass in that big bordello known as Capitol Hill, local cops’ futile war of attrition on consensual adult sex work continues apace in the District of Columbia, as it does everywhere in the Unites States (save for parts of Nevada).

D.C. Council member David Grosso and his allies want to end that legal disparity between the work of politicos and prostitutes. Last week, the councilman, an independent first elected in 2012, introduced a bill that would decriminalize sex work between consenting adults by repealing and rewriting sex-crime ordinances.

According to Rachel Kurzius’s report on the effort on the website DCist, Grosso’s proposal — the Reducing Criminalization to Promote Public Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2017 — would do away with criminal penalties for adult prostitution that have been on the books since the early part of the 20th Century, repeal a statute outlawing “houses of lewdness, assignation, and prostitution,” as they are referred to in city code, and amend district ordinances on “pandering” so they specifically protect minors, as well as adults forced into prostitution.

Kurzius notes that Grosso’s proposal eschews the use of red-light districts or any other scheme to regulate the sex trade, and that under both local and federal laws, “coercing people against their will to engage in sex work remains illegal.”

If passed, the bill would form a task force to study the removal of criminal penalties for sex work and look into providing services for those who engage in commercial sex.

Writes Kurzius:

Grosso has been preparing the legislation in concert with the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition, a group of local stakeholders that includes HIPS, Whitman-Walker, and more. The bill would also create a task force to study its implementation and make further suggestions for reform.

“This is an approach that the world is being encouraged to take–to take a healthcare lens and try to resolve the issues,” says Grosso, citing recommendations from groups like Amnesty International and the World Health Organization.

While prostitution has been legal in some parts of Nevada in the form of brothels for more than a century, what’s often called “the world’s oldest profession” remains criminalized in the rest of the United States. An effort to decriminalize prostitution via referendum in San Francisco failed in 2008, after heavy criticism from city officials at the time. Kamala Harris, then the city’s district attorney and now a rising star senator, said the measure “would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”

But in the near decade since then, there’s been a shift in perspective alongside a growing international movement further popularizing the policy change that sheds stigma in favor of pragmatism.

The idea is that if sex workers don’t fear arrest, they’ll be able to access healthcare and other services. One 2014 study from The Lancet found that decriminalizing sex work could “have the largest effect on the course of the H.I.V. epidemic.”

Proponents also say that legalizing prostitution would make it easier for workers to inform authorities when they observe instances of sex trafficking, defined as coercive sex work or that involving minors.

Click here to follow David Grosso on Twitter, and here to follow Rachel Kurzius. Click the link below to read Kurzius’s article in its entirety.

New Bill Would Decriminalize Sex Work in D.C.