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Polaris Statement on Bill to Decriminalize the Sex Trade in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 10, 2019)   Polaris, a leading non-profit organization in the global fight against human trafficking, issued the following statement regarding a bill currently under consideration at the DC City Council that would decriminalize the sex trade in Washington, D.C.

Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, said: “Polaris stands in solidarity with survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution and strongly opposes the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 (Bill 23-0318) currently under consideration before the DC City Council. Our concerns about the bill are rooted in our work over the last 17 years supporting, serving, working with, and listening to survivors of sex trafficking and the sex trade – more than 200 of whom recently sent a letter to the DC City Council opposing the legislation.

“Sex trafficking is the part of the sex trade that victimizes children, or that coerces adults into prostitution through violence, threats, deceit, or lies. Because sex trafficking is frequently present within the overall sex trade in a given community, the voices and lived experiences of sex trafficking survivors should be at the center of policymaking around these topics in DC and everywhere. What we have heard from many sex trafficking survivors is that they are deeply concerned that this bill, if passed, will have devastating unintended consequences for thousands of vulnerable and marginalized people in our city.  

Sex trafficking survivors were not meaningfully consulted in the crafting of the legislation despite their first-hand knowledge of forms of exploitation and violence that are present in the sex trade. Survivor leaders also object to the inaccurate, over-simplified, and misleading advocacy that proponents of the bill have engaged to garner support. Here’s the reality: the central question before our city regarding this bill is not – as some have portrayed – a binary one of decriminalizing sex work or not.  What is really being debated here is whether pimping, brothels, and sex buying should be decriminalized, what the impacts of those policy changes will be, and who stands to benefit the most.  

Polaris would support legislation that specifically ensured that people in prostitution did not face criminal penalties, coupled with providing resources for safe housing and access to health and other supportive services. We also support policies that enable people in the sex trade to report violence and other crimes they have experienced from law enforcement without fear of arrest.  We are deeply concerned about the health and safety of people in prostitution, regardless of how they entered the sex trade. We know from survivors that arresting people in prostitution actually strengthens the control of pimps and sex traffickers and that criminal arrests make it harder for people in prostitution to get out of the sex trade and move on with their lives if they choose and are able to do so. We also know that criminalizing those engaged in the sex trade often means that, disproportionately, cis and trans women of color are targeted.

But this bill goes way further than specifically decriminalizing people in prostitution. This bill also repeals multiple different crimes related to the overall sex trade in Washington, DC, including pimping/pandering, brothel-keeping, and sex buying. Based on Polaris’s 17 years of work combatting human trafficking in Washington, DC, and on a national scale, we strongly believe that sex trafficking in the District and surrounding areas will increase and be harder to combat if these policy proposals become law.

It is problematic and deeply alarming that this bill proposes to move DC towards the laws and market conditions that pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers prefer. 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. 

Pimping is often indistinguishable from sex trafficking, and both will be harder to stop if pimping is no longer a crime. The volume of sex buying will increase in DC when buyers no longer fear arrest, which will attract more traffickers due to the more lucrative market where demand far outpaces supply.  When asked who they want to be held accountable for the exploitation and abuse they lived through, sex trafficking survivors most often blame sex buyers and want them held criminally accountable. If brothels become decriminalized, police will have less cause to enter venues where people are experiencing sex trafficking and/or violence from sex buyers, and will have even fewer tools to detect when sex trafficking is happening at a time when local service providers report increases in trafficking based out of residential brothels in DC. 

There are good reasons why, with the exception of a few rural counties in Nevada, government leaders across the United States have been unwilling to take such risks with existing criminal law related to the sex trade. There are better ways to protect vulnerable people, such as those who identify as transgender, who are facing discrimination, violence, and economic dislocation without shifting market dynamics and incentivizing sex trafficking.  If this bill is passed, the DC City Council will make a grave mistake that makes sex trafficking worse and harms the welfare and well-being of some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community. Pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers will celebrate if this bill becomes law. That should be a warning to all of us about who really stands to gain the most by the effects of this bill – yet again, those with more privilege, wealth, and power.”

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