HRC Joins Activists to Testify in Favor of D.C.’s Community Safety and Health Act

by HRC Staff

The legislation would eliminate criminal prohibitions and penalties for consensual sex work and establish a task force to recommend further improvements to public safety, health and human rights.

Today, HRC staff joined local advocates for a D.C. Council hearing and offered testimony in support of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, legislation that would eliminate criminal prohibitions and penalties for consensual sex work and establish a task force to recommend further improvements to public safety, health and human rights. The legislation, which maintains the prohibitions on coercion and trafficking, is sponsored by Councilmember David Grosso.

Testifying on behalf of HRC was Carmarion D. Anderson, HRC Alabama State Director. Her full testimony as prepared:

Thank you Chairperson Charles Allen and members of the Committee.  My name is Carmarion D. Anderson, and I am a senior staffer with expertise in public health at the Human Rights Campaign currently serving as the Alabama State Director. I am also a Black woman of trans experience. HRC is America’s largest civil rights organization working towards full equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. On behalf of our more than 3 million members and supporters nationwide, I am honored to provide this testimony in support of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019.

The criminalization of consensual sex work poses a serious threat to public health and increases violence in LGBTQ communities. These laws are not motivated by sound public policy goals but by institutionalized shame, a desire to shame people for daring to survive. It is no coincidence that the criminalization of sex work disproportionately punishes the poor, black and brown women, transgender women -- particularly those living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. The U.S. Trans Survey of 2015 (USTS) found that 12% of transgender respondents engaged in sex work in exchange for income with 9% doing so in the past year, with higher rates among trans women of color. This year alone, at least 20 transgender people have been killed across the United States, all but one black transgender women, with indicators that many were likely engaged in sex work. These alarming statistics underscore the urgent need to decriminalize sex work to bringing these workers out of the shadows and closer to critical services and protections.

Arresting individuals with the expectation that this will eradicate or reduce sex work demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of why people engage in sex work in the first place. People must eat, have shelter, and provide for their basic needs. This is the human condition we all share. Sex work offers a means of survival for those who are cut off from other labor markets. Black and brown transgender women, who frequently face discrimination in multiple areas of life, may turn to transactional sex work as a means of survival. Without creating viable alternatives to sex work and offering services and support, the threat of arrest does not deter sex workers from pursuing underground economies. Arresting sex workers and branding them with shame and the stigma of a criminal record has the effect of making other labor markets even more inaccessible, reinforcing poverty.

Shame exacerbates public health challenges, deterring people from showing up to be tested and learn about prevention of STIs. Criminalization disempowers people from taking control over their health by accessing and adhering to regiments of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) or utilizing Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).  It also discourages sex workers from carrying condoms since condoms are often considered evidence of sex work. Changing the relationship of sex workers with the law will allow them to secure both their health and the health of their clients while advancing the goal of achieving an AIDS-free generation.

Criminalization, by its nature, creates a target population vulnerable to violence and exploitation by forcing those trading sex to weigh the fear of their own arrest against the need to report victimization. Decriminalization has the potential to foster better relationships with law enforcement across the board and allow sex workers to self advocate when they experience violence while engaged in sex work such as sexual assault or battery. In addition, decriminalization allows people experiencing intimate partner violence to seek safety without fear that their abuser will land them in jail for sex work. Current law encourages clients and intimate partners of sex workers to see the sex workers as criminals which when combined with feelings of self-shame lowers inhibitions to violence.  For those who are trafficked, criminalization contributes to victim distrust of law enforcement, so that victims do not seek out help for fear of arrest or deportation. Eliminating criminal statutes that target consensual sex work allows law enforcement to focus on helping people who are forced into sex work.

Our Nation’s Capital should instead focus on providing tools that will actually change lives. By partnering with organizations that provide sex workers with necessities like stable housing, intimate partner violence survivor services, substance abuse treatment, health care, and job training, DC government has an opportunity to meaningfully reduce survival sex work.

On behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, I urge you to pass the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. The decriminalization of sex work allieviates a myriad of problems by helping to reduce the high rate of HIV in the LGBTQ community, increasing the physical and emotional well-being of sex workers, fostering better relations with law enforcement, and decreasing violence and harassment against sex workers who are often afraid to seek police assistance. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Community activist and HRC Operations Coordinator Laya Monarez also submitted testimony. An excerpt is included below:

Incarcerating sex workers makes it difficult for them to find other employment especially with several charges. Oftentimes multiple charges result in sex workers returning to the streets. It also makes it easier for pimps and traffickers to make sex workers afraid of going to authorities for aid. Decriminalizing sex work builds trust between the police and sex workers, which allows them to report violence or instances of trafficking. We need to stop spending police hours and resources on criminalizing and harassing sex workers and focus on the real problem, which is trafficking and violence against sex workers.

More information on the legislation and why it’s important:

The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 was drafted in consultation with Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), a coalition of public health and civil and human rights organizations, including HIPS, ACLU DC, GLAA, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, National Center for Trans Equality, Whitman Walker Health, Casa Ruby, Best Practices Policy Project, SWOP-USA, Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, Black Lives Matter DMV, No Justice No Pride, D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, Bread for the City, Network for Victims Recovery DC, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Ultraviolet, Center for Health and Gender Equity, and URGE.

Eighty percent of street-based sex workers reported violence, according to one report. Nearly nine in ten transgender people engaging in sex work or suspected of engaging in sex work reported being harassed, attacked, sexually assaulted or mistreated in some other way by police, according to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey. Out of those who were working in the underground economy at the time they took the survey, nearly 41% were physically attacked in the previous year and over one-third were sexually assaulted in that same time.

In many instances, the criminalization of sex work can exacerbate the epidemic of violence targeting the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color.