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Joint Letter to the Council of the District of Columbia Regarding Supporting B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019”

July 2, 2019

The Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Re: Support B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019”

Dear Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Charles Allen, Councilmember Anita Bonds, Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, Councilmember Jack Evans, Councilmember Vincent C. Gray, Councilmember David Grosso, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Councilmember Elissa Silverman, Councilmember Brandon Todd, Councilmember Robert White, Jr., and Councilmember Trayon White, Sr.:

We, the undersigned organizations, urge you to support B23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019.”

This bill would increase public health and safety in the District by removing criminal penalties associated with sex exchange. Specifically, the bill repeals statutes that criminalize adults consensually engaging in sexual exchange, upholds existing laws prohibiting sex trafficking including of people under 18, and establishes a task force to evaluate the impact of decriminalization and the need for additional steps to improve community safety.

This approach is not new, and it has proven results. Sex work has been decriminalized in New Zealand since 2003,[1] and this approach is gaining momentum in the United States as the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act moves forward in DC and similar legislation is introduced in New York.[2]

  1. Criminalization of Sex Work is Ineffective and Harmful

Criminalization of sex work has a greater negative impact on communities already facing discrimination, including communities of color, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people with criminal convictions.  Many sex workers in Washington, DC are Black and brown trans and cis women, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Nationally, around 20 percent of trans people have engaged in sex work in their life, and this number increases to nearly 40 percent for Black trans people.[3] Many turn to sex work to survive after experiencing discrimination or abuse and being denied access to employment, housing, and healthcare.

Criminalization increases violence against sex workers, especially survival sex workers, by exposing them to police harassment and brutality and by creating additional obstacles to safe and stable housing, employment, and healthcare due to arrest and incarceration.

Street-based sex workers engaged in survival sex work often bear the brunt of criminalization. Research shows that over 80 percent of street-based sex workers experience violence in the course of their work.[4] In DC, among the surveyed sex workers who had been approached by police, nearly 40 percent were verbally abused, and one in five said that an officer asked them for sex.[5]  Criminalizing sex work perpetuates stigma against people who face already high rates of violence, subjecting them to harassment, dehumanizing comments, and risk of experiencing violence.

“I’ve been picked up by a police officer before, and I’ve been told that either you give me [sex] or you’re going to jail,” says Louraca, a Black trans sex worker organizing for sex work decriminalization in DC. This experience is common in the District and sex workers rarely feel safe enough to report these harms. In November 2018, two trans sex workers reported that police officers in Prince George’s County and DC were using the threat of arrest to coerce them into having sex with the officers, requesting anonymity for their safety.[6] In DC, when incidents were actually reported to law enforcement, 75 percent of sex workers reported being dissatisfied with police response.[7]

Criminal penalties for consensual sexual exchange often harm the most vulnerable while fostering violence and exploitation. While criminalizing sex work is often touted as a means to prevent trafficking, it can actually increase vulnerability to trafficking for the sex workers who are criminalized, due to fear of arrest, discrimination, and loss of income, particularly with the recent loss of internet platforms through SESTA/FOSTA.[8] Criminalization of sex work also impedes trafficking enforcement because witnesses are less likely to report evidence of coercion or trafficking to authorities if they fear arrest.[9]

As Police Chief Peter Newsham has said, “we can’t arrest our way out of prostitution.”[10] Our response to poverty and lack of traditional employment must be based in supportive services and housing. The District will not solve anything by criminalizing people for doing what they need to survive.

  1. Removing Criminal Penalties Will Help Improve Public Health and Safety

Removing criminal penalties for engaging in sexual exchange reduces public violence and protects sex workers. Criminalization of sex work only leads to a cycle of violence, poverty, and incarceration. Sex workers tell us this, and the research shows us this, as well. 

A meta-review published in PLOS Medicine in December 2018 analyzed 134 studies about sex work from 1990 to 2018 across the world, and found that the policing of sex work is associated with increased risk of violence and increased risk of HIV and other STIs for sex workers.[11] They recommended pursuing legal reforms to remove criminalization and investing in social services for and by sex workers.[12]

  1. Reduces Vulnerability to Exploitation and Violence

People in the sex trade are safest when their work is not criminalized, because they are able to screen clients, to negotiate safer sex practices, and to report incidents of client and police violence.[13] A study in nearby Baltimore demonstrated an association between sex work criminalization and client-perpetrated violence.[14] After criminal penalties were removed in New Zealand, sex workers reported that they were more likely to report a bad incident to the police and 61.9 percent of street-based sex workers reported they were more able to refuse a client.[15]

While most sex workers are not coerced or trafficked, sex workers are in the best position to identify who is being coerced or trafficked, and removing criminal penalties allows them to be full partners in efforts against exploitation.[16] In fact, in 2019, Mexico City passed legislation to decriminalize sexual exchange as part of their effort to combat human trafficking.[17]

  1. Promotes Public Health

Addressing sexual exchange as a public health matter improves the connection to services, increases the ability to negotiate safer sex practices, including condom use, and reduces the transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and other STIs.[18]  After decriminalization in New Zealand, sex workers reported increased ability to negotiate safer sex with clients.[19]

The criminalization of sex work is a worldwide problem, necessitating comprehensive solutions. Around the world, criminal laws on sex work prevent sex workers from accessing health and legal systems that should serve them. Criminalization of sex work has a profound and costly impact on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of sex workers, especially Black and brown sex workers. Female sex workers, in particular, bear a disproportionate burden of HIV[20] and also experience significant unmet needs related to family planning, safe pregnancy, safe abortion, and gender-based violence.

Criminalization serves as a key barrier to essential health services due to fear that seeking health care could lead to negative legal consequences. The World Health Organization’s guidelines on HIV prevention for key populations points to criminalization of sex work as a key “barrier to effective HIV services,” and recommends that countries “work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.”[21] Global models suggest that decriminalizing sex work could lead to a 33 to 46 percent reduction in incidences of HIV acquisition among sex workers over the next 10 years.[22]

*          *          *          *          *         

The time for justice for people who trade sex in DC is now. The lives of sex workers and sex trafficking survivors depend on urgent action. Supporting sex workers benefits the safety of our entire community. Sex workers deserve to survive and to thrive.

The undersigned recognize that removing criminal penalties is only one tool to help promote the safety, health, and well-being of sex workers. Housing and employment discrimination, racial profiling and police harassment, poverty and homelessness, are just a few issues that also impact the lives of sex workers.


350 DC
Advocates for Youth
Allen Chapel AME Church
Black and Pink, Inc.
Black Lives Matter DC
Black Youth Project 100
Blacks in Law Enforcement of America
Casa Ruby
Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)
Collective Action for Safe Spaces
DC Anti Violence Project
DC Area Transmasculine Society
DC Dyke March
DC For Democracy
DC for Reasonable Development
Defending Rights & Dissent
Free Speech Coalition
Harm Reduction Coalition
Human Rights Watch
In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda
Institute of the Black World 21st Century
International Indigenous Youth Council, DC
Jewish Voice for Peace
La ColectiVA
Lambda Legal
March for Racial Justice
Maryland Trans*Unity
Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition
Movement Voter Project
National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF)
National Cannabis Festival
National Center for Lesbian Rights
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for LGBT Health
National Lawyers Guild, D.C. Chapter
National Survivor Network
Nelwat Ishkamewe
No Justice No Pride
Occupation Free DC (OFDC)
Positive Women's Network-USA
Reframe Health and Justice
Restaurant Opportunities Center DC
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS)
St. James Infirmary
The Center for Constitutional Rights
The DC Center for the LGBT Community
The Future Is Feminist
The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
The W.I.R.E
Tits and Sass
Trans United
Trans-Latinx DMV
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Whitman-Walker Health
Woodhull Freedom Foundation


[1] Prostitution Reform Act 2003, New Zealand (2003),

[2] Decrim NY, Legislators Intro First Statewide Bill to Decriminalize Sex Work, Decrim NY (June 10, 2019), Other sex worker-led coalitions and organizations have been organizing for decriminalization in other parts of the country, too, including, for example, the national Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, BAY-SWAN in California, COYOTE-RI in Rhode Island, CUSP in Alaska, and Harm Reduction Hawaii.

[3] James, S. E et al., 2015 US Transgender Survey, Nat’l Center for Transgender Equality (2016),; Erin Fitzgerald et al, Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade, Nat’l Center for Transgender Equality (Dec. 2015),

[4] Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City, Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project (2003)​,

[5] Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., Different Avenues (2008),

[6] Marina Marraco, Transgender Prostitutes Who Accused Cops in Sex Scandal Meet with US Prosecutors, Fox 5 DC (Nov 20 2018),

[7] Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., Different Avenues (2008),

[8]Scott Cunningham, Gregory DeAngelo, Greg Tripp, Craiglist Reduced Violence Against Women,; Rose Conlon, Sex workers say anti-trafficking law fuels inequality,

[9] Erin Albright & Kate D'Adamo, Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization, 19 AMA J. Ethics 122 (2017),

[10] MPD Chief Peter Newsham, 2012 City Council hearing on Prostitution Free Zones.

[11] Lucy Platt et al., Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies, 15 PLOS Med. (Dec. 11, 2018),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.; Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers (Nov. 2007),

[14] Katherine Footer et al., Police-Related Correlates of Client-Perpetrated Violence Among Female Sex Workers in Baltimore City, Maryland, 109 Am. J. Pub. Health 289 (Feb. 2019),

[15] Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act On Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers 15, 116 (Nov. 2007),

[16] Erin Albright & Kate D'Adamo, Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization, 19 AMA J. Ethics 122 (2017),; Sex Work is Not Sexual Exploitation, Global Network of Sex Work Projects (2019),

[17] Christine Murray, Mexico City to Decriminalize Sex Work, Eyes Steps to Cut Trafficking, Reuters (June 2, 2019),

[18] Lucy Platt et al., Associations between sex work laws and sex workers’ health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative and qualitative studies, 15 PLOS Med. (Dec. 11, 2018),; Cunningham, S. & Shah, M., Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health, NBER Paper No. 20281 (July 2014),

[19] Gilian Abel et al, The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act On Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers 13 (Nov. 2007),

[20] See generally Shannon K. et al., Global epidemiology of HIV among female sex workers: influence of structural determinants, 385 The Lancet 55-71 (2015),

[21] Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations, World Health Organization 86 (2016),

[22] C. Beyrer et al, An action agenda for HIV and sex workers, 385 The Lancet 287 (2015),; HIV/AIDS: Sex Work, World Health Organization,

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