Tamika Spellman Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Mumble Sauce is a summer and fall 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment eight of 10.

My great-great aunt ran a cathouse in Columbus, Mississippi. My grandfather lived with her until he was 4 years old. He spent a lot of time in the cathouse, which, according to my grandfather, got its name from the illegal moonshine (aptly called “catpiss”) that patrons could purchase at the brothel. 

The bottles of moonshine were buried in the backyard, my grandfather tells me, and he knew the location of each one. When someone ordered a drink, my great-great aunt would send him to the back to dig up a bottle from the earth with his small brown hands.

My grandfather didn’t enjoy life at the cathouse that much, but he tells me now that it beat picking cotton. 

Like a lot of Black people, my grandfather was forced to understand the concept of “getting it how you live it” at an early age. The underground economy—like drug dealing and the sex trades—is filled with people trying to get it how they live it, figuring out how to get their needs met with the means life has provided. 

A popular refrain among people in the sex trades is that “everyone knows a sex worker”—if you feel like you’re an exception to the rule, it’s likely because the sex worker in your life doesn’t feel comfortable telling you. Sex workers are members of our communities. They are mothers, friends, uncles, cousins, and great-great aunts. 

I didn’t know my family’s connection to sex work when I started getting involved with advocacy in D.C.’s sex worker community in 2018. I’d been an organizer with BYP100 DC—a collective of radical Black organizers—for a couple of years, and we were members of the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition. SWAC is a coalition of several organizations in D.C. that formed in 2016 to create safety and support for people in the sex trades, prioritizing the decriminalization of sex work as a policy goal.

I was late to the party by the time I got involved, but I’d had a soft spot for sex workers since I was young. A couple of my middle school friends talked about wanting to be strippers when they grew up, and I had some friends in college who danced and did sex work to help pay for living expenses. Being tangentially involved in the world of sex work became a small pastime. One of my college friends and I would climb into bed together and scroll the Craigslist personals, giggling into the night about the men we saw, drafting and deleting posts about being co-eds looking for a free meal.

Looking through Craiglist personals for entertainment was far from the lived realities of many sex workers. I knew I had a lot to unlearn by the time I started regularly joining SWAC meetings in 2018. Leaders in the coalition—like Tamika Spellman, Nona Conner, and Shareese Mone—made this unlearning possible for me as they shared their wisdom and insight. In BYP100 DC, friends like Nnenna Amuchie helped me understand the extent to which criminalizing sellers and buyers of sex harms Black communities and is a central contributor to mass incarceration.

I’ve found another family with the people I organize with. We were proud to join the legacy of freedom fighters like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who called to decriminalize sex work and invest in community in the 1970s. And we knew that to fully decriminalize sex work in the District, we had to shift hearts and minds. Through DECRIMNOW, we started uplifting the stories and perspectives of the countless Black and brown trans sex workers who experienced violence and wanted to be safe.

Now, after decades of fighting to be respected and supported, the D.C. Council is starting to take the needs of people in the sex trades seriously.

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On Oct. 17, the Council will have a hearing for the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019,” a bill that would remove criminal penalties from selling and buying sex in D.C. Sponsored by Councilmembers David Grosso, Brianne Nadeau, Robert White, Anita Bonds, and Charles Allen, the bill was introduced this summer with the help of SWAC and the DECRIMNOW campaign.

My co-organizers and I are passionate about the bill because we’ve seen criminalization and policing bring harm to people in the sex trades and our broader communities. Police abuse against people in the sex trades is common. Criminalization pushes the trades into the shadows where people aren’t able to access support due to stigma and fear of police involvement. Incarceration is inhumane, and having a criminal record exacerbates obstacles to accessing resources. Decriminalizing sex work and investing in safe and stable housing, health care, transportation, education, and other forms of support would benefit us all.

D.C. has a rich history of resistance from Black LGBTQ+ folks, so it’s no surprise that the District is one of the first places to introduce a bill like this. While many sex workers are in the trades because they enjoy it, a lot of sex workers in D.C. are Black and brown trans women, cis women, trans men, and non-binary people who turn to the trades to survive. With limited access to support, selling sexual services is one of the only ways many people are able to support themselves. 

Some people in the sex trades are escaping abusive family situations. This was the case for my big-sister-from-another-mister Nona Conner, one of the organizers with SWAC and DECRIMNOW who works at Collective Action for Safe Spaces. Conner ran away from her family’s home in Southeast D.C. when she was 15 with nothing but $20 in her pocket. She fled to K Street and met several other Black trans girls who had escaped abuse and violence, too. They all did sex work to survive. Being turned away from job interviews because of her identity made Conner rely on sex work even more. 

Conner had little recourse when she experienced assault at the hands of clients or strangers. Police officers couldn’t be trusted. They often enacted the abuse themselves. 

Police abuse is one of the main reasons why Spellman, a mother to many in the movement, is fighting for the decriminalization of sex work. An advocate with local harm-reduction nonprofit HIPS and a leader in SWAC and DECRIMNOW, Spellman spends most of her nights visiting popular strolls in D.C. to make sure sex workers have condoms and access to safety. She wrote in 730 DC last year about some of her experiences with police brutality while sex working, including a time when an undercover officer engaged in a full sex act with her before revealing that it was a sting. It’s an experience many sex workers in the District can relate to. Police abuse against sex workers—including sexual assault—is an open secret in D.C. 

Spellman enjoys sex work, but she doesn’t enjoy how hard it was for her to find a job despite having a college degree. She certainly doesn’t enjoy the police abuse that she’s experienced, abuse that is encouraged by a society that demonizes sex workers and Black trans women. And it hurts her heart to see so many of her sisters lose their lives to violence.

Spellman and others in the DECRIMNOW campaign often call on the names of Zoe Spears and Ashanti Carmon, two Black trans women with experience in sex work who were killed earlier this year. In my last “Mumble Sauce” entry, Bianca Bonita Carter, an organizer in SWAC, DECRIMNOW, and No Justice No Pride, recalled seeing Spears at a cookout the day before she was murdered. To Carter, it seems like violence against Black trans women in the DMV, especially those with experience in the sex trades, is escalating.

Stigma against sex workers and discrimination against Black and brown trans women contribute to violence against our loved ones. It’ll take a long time to repair the harm that has been done. The bill to decriminalize sex work is a small piece in a larger puzzle of creating safer environments for everyone in our communities.

Ultimately, all people in the sex trades need access to resources and community support, not the threat of arrest and harm. Moralistic arguments about whether it’s “right” to sell sex quickly become moot when you have nothing to eat and nowhere to live. 

I’m a Black queer woman with family from Maryland to Mississippi. My grandfather grew up in a cathouse because his daddy was lynched before he was born. I understand the history around violence, including sexual violence, against my people throughout slavery and colonialism. Having autonomy over our bodies is central to our freedom and liberation, and that includes having the choice to trade sex to provide for ourselves and our families. Restricting that choice using stigma, policing, and shame is simply another form of control. 

We deserve support and liberation instead.

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