Tamika Spellman is happy to go out on the strip in the morning and pick up used condoms with her own two hands if that’s what it takes. She has been a commercial sex worker, by choice, for 36 years. She wants to see sex work decriminalized in D.C., and she’s spent nearly two years advocating for a bill that would do just that.
She’s not alone. Today a coalition of sex workers and their advocates unveiled their bill—co-introduced by At-Large Councilmembers Anita Bonds, David Grosso, and Robert White, and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau—which would decriminalize both the sale and purchase of sex in D.C.
Those advocating for this bill, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, are part of a grassroots movement largely led by current and former sex workers. In collaboration with advocates, Grosso and White co-introduced a similar bill in 2017, but it didn’t even get a hearing. So the organizers regrouped, built a website, held events celebrating and talking about their position, went door knocking, wrote op-eds, and met with councilmembers.
This time around, the organizers would like a hearing.
“People need to come around to this at their own speed,” says Grosso. “So I don’t mind taking the time to get it right.”
The world of people who sell sex for money in D.C. is not a monolith with one blanket policy need. Among their ranks are those who sell sex by choice; those who sell sex to survive, feed their children, and stave off homelessness; and those who sell sex against their will because they’ve been trafficked.
Under the current law in D.C., police can arrest and charge anyone who sells sex. Often, the arrest goes like this: A plain-clothes officer pulls up to a strip and asks a suspected sex worker if she’d like a ride or wants to get in the car. When the sale advances, the officer makes an arrest. “And that’s how it always happens,” says Spellman. “And then for you to cuff me, take me to jail. That’s unconscionable. You criminalized me purposely. You picked me out of the crowd.”
Or maybe an officer knocks on a hotel room door and does approximately the same thing, pretending they’re there to buy sex.
Under this new bill, police would no longer have cause or power to employ this tactic for catching sellers of sex mid-sale—a change that many sex workers and their advocates enthusiastically endorse.
From their perspective, criminalization is the core problem, an unconscionable layer of abuse the government piles on the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“Criminalization doesn’t give people an opportunity to leave the trade if they want to,” says Alicia Sanchez Gill, interim executive director for Collective Action for Safe Spaces, an organization that has been at the center of the fight to decriminalize sex work in D.C.
“A lot of our young transwomen who are leaving home at an early age and being rejected by their communities and their families are already traumatized,” says Dee Curry, an elder in D.C.’s trans community. “But to have that stigma of becoming a part of the system and being locked up and going in and out of the court system—that’s even more traumatizing.”
“I was always comfortable doing sex work,” says Spellman. “So I’m one of the ones that just wants the freedom because I deserve it. But then to keep pushing people that are out here struggling for survival into this box of criminality for surviving, and not having any support systems around it?”
“Rather than making these people out to be horrible criminals that we should prosecute and throw in jail, why don’t we do a better job providing them the help they need up front so that they can turn to the government for help when they need something if they don’t want to engage in sex for money?” asks Grosso.
And if sex workers do want to exchange sex for money, the advocates behind this bill firmly believe they should be able to participate in the trade with no interference from law enforcement.
“At some point we need to look at the fact that this is no different from women’s health issues, and trying to control what women do,” says Spellman. “It isn’t their body to tell me what I can and cannot do with, like contraceptive rights and abortion are not anyone’s choice but a woman’s.”
Achieving that level of freedom, however, requires the decriminalization of both the selling and buying of sex.
That’s where the supporters of this bill often diverge from advocates for trafficking survivors.
City Paper spoke with advocates at three local organizations that support victims of sex trafficking, and all expressed concerns with decriminalizing the purchase of sex. One attorney who represents those who have been trafficked says that decriminalizing the purchase of sex will result in making it extremely difficult to prosecute trafficking.
She says that forced prostitution looks a lot like voluntary sex work on the surface. Take away the laws against buying, and she has one less tool to prove that a forced encounter wasn’t consensual.
“We do a lot of criminalization of sex workers, and people who are just trying to make a living, and not a lot of criminalization of the people who are trying to take advantage of them,” says Erin Andrews, executive director of FAIR Girls, an organization that serves survivors of sex trafficking.
Two of the advocates City Paperspoke with have noted a recent increase in juvenile sex workers, especially those who are in foster care. Juveniles are trafficking victims by default.
But decriminalizing only half the transaction doesn’t work either, as even this attorney acknowledges. When the 2018 federal SETSA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) shut down Backpage and part of Craigslist, platforms for buying and selling sex, it pushed sex workers who had been accustomed to negotiating rates and arranging to meet at indoor locations back on to the physical streets, where they make much less money and face increased danger. As long as buying sex is still illegal, police can continue to have reason to interfere.
In a statement, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department says that its “primary concerns are for the health and safety of the women involved in sex work, the public hygiene issues associated with activities (disposed condoms, public urination/defecation), and the human trafficking of sex workers. Because of increased community complaints about prostitution occurring throughout the District, MPD’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division’s enforcement efforts have centered on ‘Johns’ and not sex workers. This has resulted in approximately a 5 to 1 ratio of ‘Johns’ to sex workers arrested. Sex workers may be arrested in some cases, as this is still an illegal activity.”
While the coalition behind the bill and some anti-trafficking groups diverge on what should happen to buyers, the list of things they agree on is long: that police should not arrest people who are selling sex; that nearly all sex workers are in desperate need of safe, secure housing; that black, brown, trans, and queer women are most likely to suffer; and most important, that it’s time to have a community-wide conversation about the policing and criminalization of sex work in D.C. because the current system does not work.
Spellman is always ready for the conversation.
“People look at sex workers as these dirty, nasty people doing all ungodly things,” she says. “I don’t think so.”