Why DSW Is Pulling Out of Washington, D.C. (March 4, 2020)

Decriminalize Sex Work’s (DSW’s) mission is to end the prohibition of prostitution in the United States. We are willing to work with anyone to stop the arrests of adults engaged in consensual sex work. Our objective is to change the laws that currently criminalize consenting adults who exchange sexual services for money or something of value. We also strongly believe in working with compassion, respect, and empathy. Therefore, we are respectfully pulling out of D.C. and offering hope that we can work collaboratively in the future towards shared goals of full decriminalization.

We identified a unique opportunity to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution in Washington, D.C., this year. Thanks to years of grassroots organizing by committed activists in D.C., members of the D.C. Council proposed bill D.C. B23-0318, which would have fully decriminalized adult consensual prostitution in our nation’s capital. B23-0318 was drafted with the support of DECRIMNOW DC and the Sex Workers Advocacy Coalition (SWAC). Five councilmembers signed on to the bill. On October 17, 2019, there was a public hearing. DSW submitted expert testimony; Kaytlin Bailey, our director of communications, spoke in favor of B23-0318. Unfortunately, after the 14-hour hearing, councilmembers decided the bill was too contentious to bring forward for a vote.

That’s when DSW considered taking action.

We believed an initiative similar to the proposed council bill could win on the November ballot. We conducted a public opinion poll that confirmed this: 55% of D.C. voters support our proposed initiative to decriminalize sex work, 19% are undecided, and only 26% are opposed.

DSW is a national organization. We provide resources and strategic input to support local partners, whenever possible, to work toward a shared goal of decriminalizing sex work. We first acquired funding to run an initiative in D.C. in December 2019, and the next thing we did was reach out to every organization that identified itself as a member of SWAC.

We came to D.C. with admiration and respect for the work that has been accomplished on the ground — and with hopes of supporting and augmenting that work with funding and strategic support. We wanted SWAC members to participate in the strategy and drafting of the initiative. We offered a $20,000 grant to SWAC to distribute amongst their members as they saw fit. We wanted to hire SWAC activists to gather signatures. We offered to remain in the background, out of public view, only handling bureaucratic matters and providing financial support.

On January 22, DSW was invited to a SWAC conference call. We anticipated talking about the initiative and working together on a strategy; instead, we were surprised by accusations that mischaracterized our work.

We know that this ballot initiative can be won, but we cannot and do not want to do it when local activists are not interested in collaborating with our organization. Divided in this way, we all lose. So, we are discontinuing our efforts to decriminalize sex work in the nation’s capital.

We remain committed to our mission. Evidence shows the initiative we drafted and submitted to the D.C. Board of Elections could win in a public election. We know that decriminalizing sex work is the right thing to do. We are offering a $100,000 grant to a qualifying local D.C. organization to run a decrim initiative in 2022.

The criminalization of prostitution causes enormous harm. If 2020 is similar to 2018, nearly 300 people will be arrested for prostitution in D.C. this year, primarily people of color and a disproportionate number of transgender and non-binary people.

Laws are changed when people from different political ideologies work together on shared goals. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we are ready to work with others towards decriminalization in the future.