Last month, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced a bill to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C.

Although this editorial board endorses the council’s goal of protecting the safety and rights of sex workers in D.C., it believes the manner in which this bill attempts to do so will only worsen the problems associated with sex work.

Grosso’s bill was developed in consultation with the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition, a group of organizations dedicated to helping the District rethink its policy surrounding sex work, and was co-sponsored by Councilmember Robert White Jr. (D-At Large). The bill seeks to decriminalize, but not legalize, sex work in the District: It aims to repeal laws that make sex work illegal and lift criminal penalties for it, but it would not regulate the industry.

Currently, it is illegal to engage in or solicit sex for money in D.C. As such, sex workers are often unable to reach out to law enforcement or health services in cases of abuse or trauma for fear of legal repercussions.

Problems such as human trafficking and cases of abuse continue to persist in the sex work industry. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has reported 256 cases of sex trafficking in the District since 2012.

Proponents of decriminalization argue that it will help mitigate these issues by allowing sex workers to come out of the shadows and seek protections, such as the ability to report to law enforcement when they face abusive situations. However, many of the empirical studies about legalization and decriminalization indicate that such measures fail to adequately protect sex workers and instead exacerbate current problems.

Critics note that this method — decriminalization without legalization — could empower pimps to expand their enterprises without fear of repercussions, essentially allowing already-dismal conditions for sex workers to be further exacerbated.

The primary concern of any policy related to sex work must be to protect as many sex workers as possible, particularly those from marginalized groups — such as members of the LGBTQ community — who currently have little access to protections. Though Grosso’s bill intends to remedy the current situation, as a policy, decriminalization is empirically ineffective and remains problematic.

Denmark, for example, decriminalized prostitution in 1999, with the justification that decriminalization would make it easier to police. Yet, there is also evidence that decriminalization and legalization of sex work increases rates of human trafficking. A 2013 article in the European Journal of Law and Economics found a strong link between harsher laws surrounding prostitution and lower levels of sex trafficking.

Similarly, an article in World Development, a peer-reviewed academic journal, noted that in 2004, though its population was about 40 percent larger than Denmark’s, the number of human trafficking victims in Sweden was less than four times that of its neighbor.

In 1999, Sweden made it illegal to buy sex, but decriminalized the sale of sex. As such, the punitive measures were shifted from sex workers to their customers.

This “Swedish Model” of sex work policy appears to be the most effective option to protect the rights and safety of sex workers.

This model allows sex workers to come forward to law enforcement and health services — one of the most prominent advantages of decriminalization — while also enforcing criminal penalties for the purchase of sex to curb demand for sex work and prevent the rise of human trafficking.

The Swedish Model places the power in the hands of sex workers, giving them greater access to resources without the detrimental effects of decriminalization. That trafficking rates are significantly lower in Sweden proves the efficacy of this policy.

The criminalization of the purchase of sex, rather than the sale of it, is a necessary first step toward creating a safer environment for sex workers. If the D.C. Council hopes to protect the health and safety of sex workers in the District, it must recognize the Swedish Model as the superior alternative to the outright decriminalization of sex work.

One Comment

  1. Sadly while you make a thoughtful presentation, you miss the broader picture. It is helpful to keep in mind that the US Government in the first year of the GWBush administration asked congress for 15 billion dollars to help with the HIV/AIDs epidemic. Congress gave PEPFAR $30 billion. While late to come forth with this help, this is the PEPFAR program which denied any money, even to those who were getting it before, if they encouraged use of condoms (religious influence) Brazil turned down many million because prostitution is legal there. Plus PEPFAR included a pledge that anyone one or any organization that got any of that big bundle of money must swear to aggressively attack prostitution. Only last year was this declared unconstitutional by the supreme court, but for 15 years this pledge made sure that only the most conservative people regarding sex have stocked jobs as experts, funders, and rescue workers – and they remain n place, surely including ones you quoted. The point is that huge amounts of money and influence has skewed an otherwise highly polarised issue in one (prudish, conservative) direction. Your presentation has taken that side. There are organizations and governments that endorse complete de-criminalization but they drowned in US Gov money and influence.

    I am a student of demography in my retirement after a career with the US State Dept. Trafficking is a migration issue. REPEAT: Trafficking is a migration issue.
    People out number jobs and, with the continued development of robotics, this will only get worse and quickly. For the first time in history women migrants out number me. Why? Because there are more jobs they can do, including sex work. America’s international War on Sex is not unlike our War on Drugs. The world see that “help” and many other kinds of “help” America offers as bullying in areas (sex culture) America is not equipped to understand.

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