Earlier this month, a clash over the criminalization of sex work ignited in the nation’s capital. Over the course of 14 grueling hours on Oct. 17, more than 170 people testified at the first-ever council hearing about a bill to fully decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C. — including the buying and selling of sex. If the bill passes, the District will become the first U.S. city to decriminalize sex work, putting it at the vanguard of a growing movement that workers say would make them safer by preventing police abuse, increasing access to medical care and allowing them to make a living in the way that they choose. Many human rights groups and public health organizations agree: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch support the full decriminalization of sex work, and the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund say it would contribute to major global health gains.
As The Washington Post reported, those who oppose the bill argued that decriminalizing the act of paying for sex would embolden pimps, sex traffickers and others who coerce and force people to sell their bodies. They also said it would turn the nation’s capital into a sex tourism destination.
“Residents of the District of Columbia should not be subjected to a social science experiment that we already know the consequences of,” LaRuby May, an attorney and a former D.C. Council member, said at the hearing. “This legislation will create more victims and subject our residents to more trauma.”
Advocates who support the legislation, meanwhile, say that decriminalization is an issue of safety for sex workers. Kate D’Adamo, a consultant with Reframe Health and Justice, an organization that works on harm reduction, says it’s okay to personally disagree with sex work. “All we’re talking about when we talk about decriminalization is violence … the violence of homelessness, of arrest and incarceration,” she says. “You can be in support of decriminalization and feel complicated about sex work.”
Sex workers have been organizing for decriminalization for decades, but their campaign has gained national momentum as attention to mass incarceration, police violence, the #MeToo Movement and the legalization of marijuana has grown. The passage of legislation known as “FOSTA-SESTA” — a bill intended to fight human trafficking by targeting websites used to sell sex — also became the focus of national attention last year. Sex workers opposed the legislation, arguing that the law would make them less safe by taking away their means to advertise online, thereby pushing them onto the street, where they are more vulnerable to violence and harassment. Reports show their predictions were likely right.
The Lily spoke to sex workers and activists who attended the hearing, testified and were involved in writing the bill to understand how criminalization has affected their lives. Committee members will vote on the legislation at a later date.
Tamika Spellman has been a sex worker for 37 years and is one of the architects of the decriminalization bill. She works for HIPS, a D.C.-based organization that helps people working in street-based economies, including drug users and sex workers.
The reason sex work is criminalized is simple, says Tamika Spellman: It’s about controlling women.
“I’m not a bad person,” Spellman says of her own decision to sell sex. “I’ve been a good parent, I’ve raised my kids well; I put them both through college through my work as a sex worker. I’m just as human as the person who lives next door to you.” Spellman says she has never had a problem with sex work in theory or in practice; instead, “society is the one with a problem with what I do,” she says.
Spellman doesn’t practice street-based sex work anymore. Now, she connects with clients online. That allows her to screen them for safety, she says, though the passage of FOSTA-SESTA has made online sex work more difficult.
But when Spellman did practice sex work in the streets, her life was often defined the criminalization of her work — she “hid in the shadows a lot,” she says. The number one reason, according to Spellman, was police harassment. She says she has been arrested three times in undercover prostitution stings.
A recent Washington City Paper investigation found that in the first 10 weeks of 2019, there were 185 total solicitation charges in D.C. Most of them were brought on by the Metropolitan Police Department’s human trafficking unit and were a result of undercover operations similar to those that targeted Spellman. Despite the department saying it has changed its focus to buyers, almost a third of the people charged were sex workers, the investigation found.
This has caused many sex workers to distrust police more generally, says Spellman. Whether it’s robbery or murder, sex workers disproportionately become the targets of violence because people know they won’t go to the police. “I incurred violence from everyday people because they know they can victimize us,” Spellman says. Indeed, one study found that street-based sex workers face a homicide rate over 13 times higher than the general population.
Many people who oppose decriminalization in D.C. do so because they believe it will make women less safe. Spellman wonders why these same people aren’t focused on tackling the District’s gaping social issues that drive people into unsafe working conditions in the first place. D.C. has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country, and in 2016, the District had the highest per capita rate of homelessness nationwide. The deck is often stacked against women who are just trying to survive, Spellman says. Criminalization makes that survival more difficult.
Toni Van Pelt doesn’t believe it is possible to ethically pay for sex. She also believes that women who say they are voluntarily participating in the sex industry need to “really, really investigate what their motives are.”
“I’ve seen videos and documentaries of women who are ‘in the life’ who say, ‘This is my life, I chose to do this,’” she explains. “Then I read later that they recant and then they realize that they didn’t want to be doing it.”
Van Pelt says that NOW supports women at every stage of the sex industry, whether they’re still participating or whether they’ve left. She says that they advocate for full services for sex workers, such as mental and physical health care, to help women leave. She also believes that passing the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that says civil rights can’t be denied on the basis of sex, as well as ensuring equal pay, would help give sex workers more options to make ends meet.
The men who pay for sex, however, are another story.
“Who are these men that would do these things?” Van Pelt asks. “Who would even do that? Let’s have these men come out of the shadows and let’s arrest them. What’s wrong with them?”
Like many others who oppose D.C.’s decriminalization legislation, Van Pelt believes the increased demand for paid sex would cause a spike in human trafficking — that the bill would turn D.C. into a sex tourism destination city.
She cautions sex workers who argue for full decriminalization; she says they may not know the full consequences of their advocacy.
Van Pelt is also worried about the message legalization would send: “If we as a culture condone the sale of sex acts, what does that say about us as human beings, that they could be bought and sold?”
Kimberlee Taylor has been a sex worker in D.C. for a decade. She testified at last week’s hearing about how criminalization has affected her, particularly as a black trans woman.
Kimberlee Taylor estimates she’s been arrested for prostitution five to six times in D.C. and another five to six times in Maryland in undercover sting operations. When she used to work on D.C.’s K Street and Eastern Avenue, she says, she was held at gunpoint, choked and robbed by strangers and clients. She says she never reported any of her assaults to the police.
“All you can do is walk away,” she says.
Today, Taylor does everything she can to avoid working on the street. She uses a constantly shifting set of websites that haven’t yet been shut down in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA.
For her entire adult life, Taylor’s housing has been unstable, too, causing her to sometimes sleep at bus stops or to share apartment floors with a dozen other women. When she has the money, she lives in hotels.
“I didn’t ask for this to be a part of my journey, but at this point, I’m in so deep it’s impossible to get out,” she says. “I’m at the bottom of the barrel, and it still keeps getting harder, but all I can do is keep going.”
She’d like to leave sex work behind her and start a modeling career; she also hopes to go to school for massage therapy. But she says another life is almost impossible with her criminal record. That’s why, she says, her work shouldn’t be criminalized.
“I can understand people’s feelings about sex work, but at the end of the day, how are we going to make an income?” she asks.
After the recent hearing, Taylor isn’t optimistic that the bill will pass, but she does hope that the coverage at least shines a light on the experiences of women like her.
“We’re human beings too,” she says. “We want to live in nice homes and drive cars, and have a family. That’s what a lot of trans women yearn for. Instead, we’re treated like criminals who don’t belong here on this earth.”