The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was one of many organizations that testified Thursday during a hearing on a bill to decriminalize prostitution in the District of Columbia.
The D.C. Council is currently considering B23-0318. Should the bill pass, Washington, D.C. would become the second place in the country to decriminalize prostitution. The practice is currently legal in parts of Nevada.
The bill was sponsored by Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).
“Because we believe that each of us possesses inherent dignity and is entitled to respect as a person created in the image of God, it is also part of the mission of the archdiocese and the Catholic Church to defend the dignity of the human person against all forms of exploitation,” Mary Forr, Director of Life Issues for the archdiocese, said during the hearing.
“This includes prostitution, which reduces the person to an article of commerce and a mere possession to be bought, used, and discarded without regard for any physical and psychological trauma to the person in the process,” she added.
She outlined the various programs the archdiocese offers to anyone who has been victimized by traffickers, which include counseling, medical and dental care, and job training.
“We provide hope to those struggling on the margins of society and strive to make a positive difference in people’s lives,” she said.
“The archdiocese will always strive to be a source of support for anyone in need; however, full decriminalization of the sex trade will exacerbate the struggles many residents of the District already face,” said Forr.
The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 (B23-0318) - also known as the Reducing Criminalization of Commercial Sex Amendment Act of 2019 - is modeled after similar legislation in New Zealand.
Unlike the “Nordic Model,” which decriminalizes the act of a person selling themselves but instead heavily penalizes the act of buying the services of a sex worker, the DC proposal would also decriminalize brothels, pimping, and buying sex.
Sex trafficking, or the act of forcing someone into prostitution against their will, would still remain illegal, although advocates against the bill warned repeatedly that passage of B23-0318 would encourage the sex trade and increase prostitution. Child prostitution would also remain illegal under the proposed legislation.
Supporters of the bill argued that adults have a right to engage in consensual sex work.
Laws criminalizing prostitution “impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate safer sex practices, screen clients, report incidents of violence, and access basic needs like housing and health services,” the ACLU of DC said in a statement.
“Criminalization has placed vulnerable D.C. residents at greater risk of violence, police harassment, and exposure to exploitation. It has led to a cycle of violence, poverty, and incarceration that only creates additional barriers to more traditional employment for those engaging in survival sex work.”
Tamika Spellman, a biological male who identifies as transgender, testified in favor of the bill. Spellman has worked as a prostitute for some four decades - since age 14.
Spellman, who was one of the bill architects, according to the New York Times, argued that the bill is a matter of empowerment and safety for sex workers, particularly racial minorities and members of the LGBT community.
Opponents of the bill include D.C. government officials. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has led the District of Columbia since 2015, is vehemently against the bill. She says it would make it harder for the city to successfully target sex traffickers and would not make the sex trade any safer for those who engage in it.
“The mayor’s position is rooted in the need to maintain a safety net to identify and assist victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, and her belief that decriminalization will lead to an increase in sex trafficking,” Michelle Garcia, director of the city’s Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants said in the hearing.
Garcia said there are steps that should be taken to improve the lives of sex workers, but that this bill is not the correct approach. Mayor Bowser has long been concerned about the lives of sex workers in the city, said Garcia. The city has had a working group since April 2019 that is aimed at creating a program to divert sex workers away from the criminal justice system and into alternative assistance programs, she explained, and Bowser was given their proposals and recommendations for review earlier this week.
The D.C. Attorney General’s office also raised concerns about the bill, and how it could put children at increased risk from sex trafficking. The bill repeals part of the “safe harbor law” that requires children be referred to services if they are found to be victims of trafficking, and it also “negatively impacts” the use of nuisance laws that are used to target traffickers, said Erin Cullen, deputy attorney general for the Family Services Division at the D.C. Attorney General’s office.
Opponents of the bill also claimed that should prostitution be decriminalized, there will be an increased demand for prostitution, which could potentially turn the nation’s capital into a destination for sex tourism. There were repeated claims that this increased demand for commercial sex would naturally result in an increased number of people who are trafficked into sex work.
The hearing lasted approximately 17 hours. Public comments can be submitted until November 1.