DC bill to decriminalize prostitution stalled after lengthy hearing

The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, DC. It houses the offices and chambers of the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia. It was constructed in 1908 and originally known as the District Building. | (Photo: Awiseman at en.wikipedia)

A bill aimed at legalizing prostitution in the District of Columbia will not move forward, following a lengthy hearing that included expressed opposition from survivors of the sex trade.

Known as the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019,” the bill would have removed various criminal penalties from the so-called sex work industry, notably prostitution.

However, The Washington Post reported Sunday that the D.C. Council has opted to bury the bill for the time being, in response to opinions expressed at a lengthy hearing and thousands of emails sent to lawmakers.

Council member David Grosso, who wrote the legislation reportedly with assistance from local prostitutes, explained that he “always knew this would be an uphill battle.”

“I think it could happen in the future,” said Grosso, as reported by Washington Post. “I think we should bring it to the ballot box.”

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which had campaigned against the proposed legislation, celebrated the decision of the Council to not move the bill forward.

“DC should shrink the sex trade not legitimize it,” stated NCOSE President Patrick Trueman in an email sent out to supporters on Monday.

“Full decriminalization would endanger D.C.’s most vulnerable citizens while turning the city into a magnet for sex tourism and sex trafficking.”

In June, Grosso announced that he was re-introducing legislation aimed at decriminalizing prostitution, arguing in a statement that such a measure would benefit those in the sex industry.

“By removing criminal penalties for those in the sex trade, we can bring people out of the shadows, help connect them to the services they need to live safer and healthier lives, and more easily tackle the complaints we hear from communities about trash or noise,” stated Grosso earlier this year. 

Grosso explained that the bill differed from past attempts to decriminalize prostitution by including “language in the code making it crystal clear that coercion, exploitation, and human trafficking are not tolerated in D.C.”

His bill had the support of several progressive organizations, including the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Trans Equality, Black Lives Matter DMV, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Ultraviolet.

Last month, the Council held a hearing that lasted about 14 hours and featured around 180 witnesses who testified against the bill.

The Reverend Marian Hatcher, a sex trade survivor, wrote an open letter signed by around 200 people rejecting the proposed bill.

“We are horrified by the proposal to decriminalize informal brothels throughout the District. This, paired with the decriminalization of sex-buying, would surely fuel the trafficking and exploitation of countless other vulnerable groups,” wrote Hatcher, as reported by ABC News.

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