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Now that gay marriage is legal in the District, what’s next for gay activists in D.C.? The Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance (GLAA) recently released its 2010 agenda, which prioritizes causes like keeping same-sex marriage legal, fighting HIV in D.C., and addressing the city’s response to hate crimes. But Mike Debonis points us to a more “taboo” priority for D.C.’s LGBT activist set: Legalizing prostitution.
The final item on the GLAA’s agenda is “Prostitution: Legalize It, Regulate It, Zone It, Tax It.” And their plan to do so is pretty awesome:
“Public officials seldom ask a most practical question,” the agenda reads. “[W]ho benefits from the criminalization of prostitution?” The agenda goes on to cite notable scholars on the question, from Samuel Johnson to Jesse Ventura:
Samuel Johnson described the ills associated with prostitution—crowding, intemperance, famine, filth, and disease—and assured his friend John Boswell that “severe laws, steadily enforced, would be sufficient against those evils, and would promote marriage.” Jesse Ventura came closer to the truth when he told Playboy in 1999, “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run illegally by dirt-bags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it would be far better.” Not just girls, Jesse.
The GLAA then lists the reasons that D.C.’s LGBT community should get behind legalization: A lot of sex workers don’t choose prostitution freely. People treat them poorly. Our criminal justice system in particular treats them poorly. And criminalization only makes matters worse:
As advocates of the legalization of prostitution, we think it needs neither sanitizing nor glorifying. It is not a profession filled exclusively with people who freely chose it from a host of other options. No doubt there are some in that category, like the college student turning tricks for extra cash. But too many turn to it by necessity. These include gay teenagers who have been thrown out of the house by their parents, and transgender people whom discrimination has left with few options.
People in these situations are practicing survival sex. They face greater risk of substance abuse, mental and physical abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The District has seen numerous murders of sex workers in recent years—murders that were made harder to prevent and harder to solve by the fact that the victims worked the streets and were without legal sanction or protection.
Harassing, arresting and prosecuting people for survival sex solve none of their problems, but only pile more on. Whose idea of responsible public policy is this? To be justified, any public law ought to serve some identifiable common good. Saying to people as Sister Mary Ignatius did, “You do the thing that makes Jesus puke,” is no basis for criminalizing whatever it is. Having been the targets of moralistic lawmaking, we as gay people are especially on guard against it.
The best-case scenario for sex workers? The District should fund “the creation of drop-in centers, transitional housing, job training, counseling, addiction recovery programs and other services for at-risk populations.” But first, it’s going to have to get over its hang-ups in talking openly about sex:
Our society’s penchant for legislating morality is the chief obstacle to eliminating the harm caused by prostitution and solicitation laws. Otherwise compassionate and practical people often lose their bearings when the subject turns to the “naughty bits.” Overcoming this will take time, especially in D.C. with its constitutional vulnerability to congressional grandstanding; but we will never get there if we do not start. We can begin with a humble recognition of the normal variation in sexual expression, the proper limits of government coercion, and the fact that other people’s personal choices are none of our business unless they harm us. In the case of sex behind closed doors, whether in homes or hotel rooms, the fact that someone is paying for it is no more a legitimate basis for police involvement than if the transaction is a more informal one involving dinner and a show.