Sex Work Advocacy in DC since 2019
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unabona on Unsplash
On November 17, 2019 a bill brought forward to decriminilize sex work in Washington, DC wasn’t pushed forward. If the bill had been moved forward DC would be making strides to decriminilize both the buying and selling of sex.
The hearing included nearly 14 hours straight of testimony from advocates for legal sex, people opposed, and sex workers themselves. DC Council Members claimed that residents and individuals from all over the country filled their inboxes with concerns that the District was not ready to vote on this issue. At the end of the hearing the chair of the committee, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), said the proposal lacked the support to move forward with a vote.
Former at-large council member David Grosso co-wrote the 2019 bill. Grosso’s work towards this bill started in 2016 when his team agreed to study sex work in DC. “When you look at it through a human rights lense the people who are most often the most pushed out and marginalized are the poorest people, the people who are resorting to sex work to make a living,” Grosso said.
This study led to a member of Grosso’s team creating the sex worker advocacy coalition (SWAC). Grosso said SWAC “created a coalition where sex workers themselves are in the lead and they could be the ones in charge of what the bill should look like.” With the aid of local sex workers, the bill was written.
When the bill’s hearing began, the volume of attendance was something Grosso had never seen before. “I started working on the council in 2001. I never saw the community come out like it did to fight for their rights. These are folks who don’t trust the government and have been mostly persecuted and attacked by the government for their whole lives and they still showed up in force and testified,” Grosso said.
More than two years have gone by and the lack of legalization hasn’t changed the numbers of sex workers in DC. Sex worker advocacy groups including HIPS and SWAC have continued operating in DC to provide a sense of safety towards sex workers that advocates say the government is not.
HIPS (honoring individuals power and strength) is a sex work advocacy organization whose mission statement is “advance the health rights and dignity of the people and communities impacted by sex work.” HIPS currently offers a range of support including peer support groups, safer sex materials, and HIV and Hepatitis C testing and treatment.
Abigail Morris, the mobile housing specialist at HIPS, started working there in 2019. She was also in attendance at the November hearing.
Morris currently goes out in the “HIPS van” at least three times a week on the night shift from 10pm-7 am. The HIPS van offers safer injection supplies, tourniquets, alcohol pads, narcan, fentanyl testing strips, safer snorting and smoking kits, safer sex supplies, wound care & first aid, hand sanitizer, masks, food, drinks, and more.
According to Morris, the number of sex workers they’ll see on their ride-arounds ranges from 30-90 depending on the weather conditions. “It’s a community out there,” Morris said, “we see the same people and some of them come from far away.”
During these ride arounds Morris said “the only people who harass us on the streets are the cops.” “Once one asked me why we are “encouraging prostitution,” she said. Morris explained that if cops want to tell them information they will pull the van over with their lights on. “Seeing flashing lights can be really triggering to some of the people in the van,” Morris said. “Occasionally they’ll tell us if they are looking for one of our clients, which can be useful to know if someone is missing or was assaulted,” Morris said.
Morris said one time a cop pulled the van over and asked them to check on a girl a few blocks away who refused to talk to them. When Morris turned onto the street she saw a girl waiting for her ride after a night out. “She was probably 10 times more freaked out that first a cop, then a random mini van with pink letters came up to her,” Morris said.
There is currently no official way to gauge the number of sex workers in DC and the number of police calls made in relation to illegal sex work. Officer Elaina from the DC police office of public affairs said, “People could talk to our officers at community meetings and say I’ve seen this happening. We don’t have stats to back that up.” Advocacy groups seem to have the most realistic estimate of sex workers in the area. Grosso said he believes the police’s procedure towards sex workers continued to be filled with stigma.
“Society’s still not there when it comes to sex yet. There’s so much shame,” Grosso said. Sex workers are on the streets to provide a service and make money. Grosso fears that the focus on trying to get them to stop this work is the wrong one. “It’s been documented over and over that most of the people engaging in sex work are choosing it,” Grosso explained,“whether they’re choosing it because they need to survive or because they enjoy it.”
Morris is frustrated with how officers handle cases relating to sex workers. “There’s this idea that everyone who's out on the streets is a criminal when in reality they’re just people going to work and doing their jobs and providing a service,” Morris said “Their lives are made so much more dangerous because they’re criminalized for existing.”
Some of those opposed to the decriminilization of sex work suggest the implementation of the Nordic model. The Nordic model is associated with Northern European countries such as Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. The model focuses on arresting those who purchase sex and decriminalizing those forced into sex work.
Countries who currently follow the Nordic Model do so in hopes of protecting those forced into sex work. Grosso believes that if any aspect of sex work remains illegal there will still be a lack of trust. “Arresting people who are paying them is not the solution,” Morris said.
While there are no bills currently in motion to decriminalize sex work, advocacy groups are working to destigmitize it.Grosso believes part of the issue is that few people are willing to take on the work. “They have bad memories from the hearing where it was really contentious and hard,” Grosso said, “there’s no one willing to go out on a limb like I did.”
Despite no longer being in City Council, Grosso continues to work towards decriminalizing cannabis and focusing on other public health issues that could subsequently support the saftey of sex workers. Grosso and Morris remain hopeful that positive change will come over time. “There’s been a lot of activism towards decriminalization and we’ve seen a lot of progress in other arenas,” Morris said.