Washington, DC


Locations of Likely Human Trafficking Cases in the U.S. via Polaris

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Fully decriminalizing the sex trade in Washington, D.C. would increase the risk of sex trafficking
Brad Myles, CEO of Polaris

Proponents of legislation headed for hearing before the D.C. Council in mid-October would have you believe that the question of how to handle the sex trade in our city is a binary one: Either you decriminalize sex work, or you don’t. Period.

That’s no accident. Even the name of the bill – the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act” – is designed to send this misleading message. The reality is far more complicated. This bill does not solely decriminalize sex work in an attempt to help keep people in prostitution safer. It also repeals crimes related to pimping, brothel-keeping, and sex buying, on the grounds that people in prostitution should not have their livelihoods interfered with in any way. In doing so, it increases the risk of sex trafficking for vulnerable people in the District.

Here’s the more complicated, honest version. The sex trade in DC is heterogeneous – a market ecosystem involving many different actors and impacting tens of thousands of lives. Some people are in the sex trade out of intentional choice. They exist, but it is a minority of the trade. Some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society are exploited in the sex trade, or get involved out of desperation and lack of other options.

An undeniable part of most any commercial sex market is the presence of sex trafficking. This is the part of the sex trade that victimizes children, or that coerces adults into prostitution through violence, threats, deceit and expert psychological manipulation.

This bill proposes a trafficker’s dream scenario – reduced risk of getting arrested once pimping is no longer a crime; fewer tools for law enforcement to detect when and where sex trafficking and violence from buyers is happening once owning and operating brothels is greenlighted; and a growing market of customers, once sex buying is legal and proliferates from all the new customers who no longer fear arrest. Anti-trafficking organizations with deep expertise on the issue, such as Rights4Girls, Courtney’s House, and Polaris are sounding the alarm that human trafficking is likely to increase in D.C. and be harder to combat as a result of this bill.

More importantly, survivors are speaking out. They are alarmed and more so, they are angry. The authors and proponents of this bill did not meaningfully consult survivors of sex trafficking before putting this legislation forward. Survivor leaders frequently share firsthand experience of how traffickers and pimps gravitate towards the places where conditions make sex buying more active and where the laws create the lowest risk.

Survivors have also expressed to us a feeling we share: grave disappointment at a lost opportunity. Proponents of this bill have raised concerns about the criminalization of people in prostitution, the rights and safety of those in prostitution, and the stigma and public health risks of being in prostitution. These are valid concerns on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable populations who have experienced serious harm. A bill that takes the one clear step of decriminalizing individuals directly selling sex in prostitution would be a reasonable policy proposal worth debating in response to these concerns. We would have welcomed that discussion. DC Bill 23-0318 is not that. This bill takes multiple unnecessary and dangerous additional steps far beyond what has been simplistically framed to the public as decriminalizing sex work to garner support.

Sex trafficking is often inextricably intertwined within the overall sex trade in any given community. Just like there are climate deniers in the environmental field, there are also trafficking deniers who try to paint human trafficking as a fringe anomaly hyped up by an overblown moral panic. Based on working on this topic for the past 18 years, trafficking is much bigger than most realize.

The notion that we can pass this bill and still effectively combat sex trafficking in DC misunderstands the nature of trafficking and what it takes to stop it.

The DC City Council will be making a grave and regrettable mistake that makes sex trafficking worse if they pass this bill and turn their backs on the survivors of sex trafficking who tried to warn us.

Pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers will be celebrating if this bill passes. That should be a warning to us all about who really stands to gain the most by the effects of this bill – yet again, those with more privilege, wealth, and power.

Polaris works to end labor and sex trafficking by dismantling the systems that make human trafficking possible and profitable. Polaris also operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. To get help, call 1.888.373.7888

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