'This Is a Culture War': Sex Work Decriminalization Bill in D.C. Draws 14 Hours of Passionate Public Testimony

From morning till past midnight, supporters and opponents of a bill to decriminalize prostitution offered starkly different visions of safety and rights.


For more than 14 hours on Thursday, D.C. officials heard impassioned public testimony about decriminalizing prostitution.

The Council of the District of Columbia's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee has been considering a measure (the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019) that would remove criminal penalties for commercial sex between consenting adults.

Right now, both selling and paying for sexual services in D.C. is illegal. So is "arranging" prostitution, receiving anything of value from prostitution you helped arrange, or occupying or using a space deemed a house of "lewdness, assignation, or prostitution." All of these laws are used to go after sex workers and people they choose to associate with for normal, non-exploitative arrangements and activities.

The proposed decriminalization measure would not legalize prostitution in the District. In other words, it would not set up a sanctioned brothel system, red light district, sex work registry, or anything like that. And it would not touch existing prohibitions on sex work involving children, coercion, fraud, abduction, or violence, nor other criminal laws surrounding sexual assault, labor exploitation, or activity involving people under 18.

You might not have guessed that last bit from listening to some of the testimony at yesterday's hearing. The speakers included several representatives from "anti-exploitation" groups that view all sex work as damaging and inherently abusive. Their speeches were rife with refusals to distinguish between voluntary sex work and human trafficking, or between what the bill would actually do (decriminalize the former) and the detailed tales of trauma they told.

Again and again, nonprofit representatives invoked trafficked children and raped women, taking for granted that these things would escalate if we stop caging adults for consensual sex.

The president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Toni Van Pelt, worried aloud that the bill would let people abduct kids with impunity. She also called all prostitution a form of gender-based violence and said—inaccurately—that all NOW chapters across the country agreed.

Another speaker worried that the change would somehow ruin sexual assault cases for non-sex workers.

Councilmember David Grosso, who introduced the bill and is now among four sponsors, stressed repeatedly that, if anything, this measure would give police more capacity to handle the sex crimes that should actually be sex crimes. "We should arrest someone for assault," he said. "But when it's two adults engaging in a consensual sex act, I don't see why that should be an arrestable offense."

This position earned Grosso—a white man—a number of direct and indirect accusations of only sponsoring this bill because he didn't understand life in black and brown communities, didn't care about the girls from them, and wanted to make rich white men happy. But Grosso only brought forward the legislation after being approached by a coalition of activists working in local LGBTQ, racial justice, harm reduction, and related realms.

The campaigners from this coalition, DECRIMNOW, are overwhelmingly young D.C. residents of color, many with personal experience in sex work or who have otherwise been affected by its criminalization (such as getting profiled and harassed by police simply for being a transgender woman). They went door to door in D.C., conducted social media outreach, and otherwise put in a lot of effort to see that this bill got to where it was yesterday and that so many people showed up.

"It's clear that Grosso is a white man. Ok. But 'Black & brown girls' developed this legislation and folks opposed to #DecrimNowDC keep furthering their erasure," tweeted Black Youth Project (BYP) 100 organizer @youngstalli yesterday. "Stop it."

During the hearing, many DECRIMNOW representatives offered powerful testimony about their own experiences with arrest, police abuse, or being victimized by a partner or customer yet unable to report it because of our current laws. They testified to myriad reasons for starting sex work; what it has meant for them in terms of survival and opportunity; and what it would mean for sex work to truly be treated as a job like other. Some talked about how the lines between coercion and consent are not always neat and bright—but on either side, criminalizing sex workers and their customers does not help.

The anti-decriminalization folks' usual lines about this being pushed by the "pimp lobby," "white men," or only the most privileged and elite sex workers rang especially hollow in the face of the firsthand, often raw, and unwaveringly pro-decrim message from current sex workers—including many who are trans, street-level, or otherwise especially vulnerable.

The contrast was made even more stark by the fact that so much of the opposition came from people at big organizations whose whole business model is proselytizing against sex work. This professional anti-prostitution gang was unmistakably older, whiter, and less local than those testifying in support of the bill.

It included Swanee Hunt, the oil heiress and Clinton-era ambassador who has spent the past decade or so attacking "sex buyers." Hunt—who long sponsored a "National Johns Suppression Initiative" and was recently outed for paying police departments to conduct prostitution stings on her terms (including framing them as sex trafficking busts)—told a local trans sex worker sitting next to her yesterday that they both wanted the same thing.

They most certainly do not. But Hunt wasn't the only opponent of decrim trying to co-opt the language of the sex-worker rights and decriminalization movements.

Few opponents to the bill mentioned morality or religious values, as would have been the case not all that long ago. Nor did anyone but a handful of local residents and neighborhood leaders bring up "quality of life" concerns (such as worries about loitering, appeals to community morale, or fear that decriminalization would cause other crimes to go up).

Even NOW-style arguments about the "message" this sends to men about women's bodies, how it advances The Patriarchy, etc., were relatively rare.

Overwhelmingly, opponents of the decrim bill—especially those speaking as professional advocates—framed their opposition as a concern for sex workers themselves, and particularly concern for women and girls of color, transgender women, and gay people. A lot said they supported "partial decriminalization," where customers and associates of sex workers would still be prosecuted but sex workers themselves would not.

This is known as the "Nordic" model—or, sometimes, the "End Demand" model. It's been the subject of a slew of negative studies since taking effect in various Nordic countries and spreading to Canada and throughout Europe.

Proponents now are trying to rebrand it as the "Equality" model. But whatever we call it, the logic upholding it is paternalistic and twisted. It relies on the underlying assumption that sex workers (who in these narratives are always women or girls) are victims regardless of what they say about it and that anyone who pays them for sexual companionship is guilty of violence against them. Hence, arresting those who pay for sex (who in these narratives are almost always straight men) is only right and also the key to stopping human trafficking.

Several speakers yesterday pointed out that under the Nordic model, police still surveil sex workers and conduct prostitution stings, customers are still too worried to submit to screening procedures, the work still has to be done underground, and sex workers still face unsafe conditions and diminished economic prospects.

But since the end goal of the Nordic model is the eradication of sex work, keeping those in it from feeling fully safe or making too much money is hardly a flaw for its advocates.

Some supporters of the idea undoubtedly do care about decreasing police intervention and jail time in sex workers lives, and some truly believe that all sex workers are victims at heart. But promoting the Nordic model also lets them lay claim to a compassionate, "feminist" stance while largely still sticking up for the status quo—and, as at yesterday's hearing, actively working against existing efforts to stop sex workers from being rounded up and thrown in jail.

The upside is that this shows how far things have come and how fast they're moving. It's no longer acceptable to openly scorn and dehumanize sex workers, it doesn't cut it to cite '90s-style crime fears and broken-windows policing theories, and no one's getting anywhere with appeals to religious values or community standards.

Not even treating sex workers as an acceptable sacrifice to the criminal justice complex in order to protect kids is getting as much bang for their buck.

Now the only tenable way forward for sex-trafficking-awareness professionals and all these groups that depend on promoting themselves as protectors of women and girls (while ignoring what real women and girls say) is to partially give in to the decriminalization movement's goals. Whether that works out for them depends on how convincingly they can sell the myth that everyone's on the same side here. If yesterday was an indication, they're in for a tough battle.

For a much more detailed play by play of testimony yesterday, check out this Twitter thread from sex worker rights activist Kate D'Aadmo. (I also shared some good and bad from the day's testimony on Twitter, starting here.) You can find more under the #DecrimDC, #DecrimNow, and #DecrimNowDC hashtags.

I had signed up to give an official statement but I was the 120th person on the list and my name wasn't called until around 9 p.m. By then, having shown up to the hearing not long after it started at 10 a.m., I was watching along from home at that point. (You can read what would have been my statement here.)

Some tireless advocates, for and against, stuck around all day and night and into the next morning, still snapping in silent support (no clapping was allowed) or shaking their heads in alarm as the last set of witnesses finally had their say just after midnight. Video of all the testimonies can be viewed through the D.C. Council website.

"The fact that this #decrimnowdc has garnered this much attention and so much national opposition by carceral feminist is a testament to how much power we have built," tweeted* Nnenna, an organizer with BYP 100. "They are scared. They are frightened. This is a culture war."

Similar legislation introduced by Grosso back in 2017 failed, but this time he already has more backing from his colleagues. As of now, no date has been set for next move, but the bill must first make it out of a vote by the Council's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee before it can be put up to a vote by the full, 13-member council.

The measure is open for public comment through the end of the month. Instructions on how to do so are here.

* CORRECTION: This post previously attributed Nnenna's "culture war" tweet to the sex-worker outreach group HIPS, when HIPS was merely retweeting Nnenna's original statement.