Human Rights Watch has joined with 61 organizations calling for the passage of a bill to decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC.
Last week, the groups sent a letter to the Council of the District of Columbia urging passage of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act 2019, which would repeal statutes that criminalize adults consensually engaging in sexual exchange, while upholding existing laws prohibiting sex trafficking. The signatories represented a wide range of organizations working in racial and gender justice, LGBT rights, health, and civil liberties.
For sex workers in the US capital, who have long been subjected to police harassment (including police extortion of sex), arrests, discrimination, and violence, the bill is a beacon of hope. Human Rights Watch has interviewed sex workers in Washington, other US cities, and in countries ranging from Tanzania to South Africa to China about the impact criminalization has on their lives. We consistently found that criminalization makes sex workers less safe, driving them underground and creating conditions for appalling levels of violence, including rape and murder – a sad reality for sex workers in and around the District of Columbia. People of color, trans people, and members of other marginalized groups who sell sex are particularly at risk, as DC’s Sex Worker Advocates Coalition has argued. Many sex workers fear reporting crimes to the police; when they do, they face humiliation and even arrest. As Human Rights Watch has shown, use of condoms as evidence of sex work, including in Washington, is a deterrent to safer sex practice that undermines protection from HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy.
Laws against sex work run afoul of international human rights law, including privacy rights. Sex work, distinct from trafficking, is about having a choice and not being treated as a voiceless victim. Arguments that sex work should be banned to “protect” sex workers disregard their agency. What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.
As New York State and other jurisdictions also look to decriminalizing sex work, DC’s councilmembers should act immediately to schedule a hearing on the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act. As the letter to the DC Council sets forth, “The time for justice for people who trade sex in DC is now.”