Op-Ed: Why decriminalizing sex work is central for gender equity, public health, and racial justice

Tamika at a rally on June 2, 2018. Flickr/This Is Bossi

I’m Tamika Spellman, a Black trans woman who does advocacy and policy at HIPS, a direct service organization in DC that provides services and resources to drug users and people in the sex trade. I’ve been living in the District for the last three decades, and I’m proud to call it my home. As a long-term DC resident who has had to engage in sex work to put food on my table, I've become an outspoken advocate for people who conduct consensual sex work.

Many survival sex workers are trans women of color who have been denied access to employment, housing, and other resources due to discrimination. Trans Awareness Week falls on the second week of November each year, leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20. Listening to sex workers and fighting for the wellbeing of people in the sex trade are a few powerful ways you can show your support for trans lives.

I’m working with a coalition of organizations at the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition (SWAC) to bring monumental change to the lives of people in the sex trade in DC. We’re pursuing the decriminalization of sex work and increased investments in resources like housing, education, healthcare, and employment. In October 2017, we worked with Councilmember David Grosso to introduce the Promoting Public Safety and Health by Reducing Criminalization Amendment Act of 2017, a bill that would remove criminal penalties from the selling and buying of sex in DC. We’ve been uplifting these efforts through our outreach campaign, DECRIMNOW, and we believe that decriminalizing sex work and investing in supportive resources would ultimately benefit the safety of everyone in our communities.

Criminalization and policing is the root cause of harm of many people, especially for people who are profiled by the police and treated unjustly by the criminal legal system. This includes people who are Black and brown women, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, poor, immigrants, and more. Many sex workers, and people profiled as sex workers, experience police brutality and harassment. In a 2008 study of sex workers in DC, nearly 40 percent of sex workers who had an encounter with police were verbally abused by the officer, and nearly 20 percent were asked for sex from the officer.

And because of the fear of police involvement, when sex workers experience violence, we don’t have many supports to reach out to for help. HIPS data shows that around 80 percent of street-based sex workers in DC have gone through violence on the job. However, since police abuse is so rampant, we have few options for finding safety.

Given how much survival sex workers, and those profiled as sex workers by police, have expressed the dangers that criminalization brings to us, I'm stunned that our elected officials continue to hyper-criminalize us and allow various laws, like SESTA/FOSTA, to conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking.

Around 80 percent of street-based sex workers in DC have gone through violence on the job. However, since police abuse is so rampant, we have few options for finding safety.

SESTA/FOSTA are federal laws that passed earlier this year with the stated goal of decreasing sex trafficking—however, the laws have made life difficult for sex workers. SESTA/FOSTA shut down online platforms that many sex workers use to find and vet clients, pushing many sex workers back into the streets to facilitate their work.

The sex work I engage in is consensual sensual massage. As SESTA/FOSTA is written, content I post online—like online profiles or communicating with a date to make sure they are safe to meet up with—can be construed as promoting sex trafficking. In other words, the law treats me as though I am trafficking myself, that I should be both rescued and thrown in jail. This conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is something that has existed before SESTA/FOSTA, and, ultimately, only further endangers everyone in the sex trade instead of helping people who are being trafficked. People who are being sex trafficked and people in sex work consensually need resources like safe housing, healthcare, and community support, not the added stigma that comes with criminalization.

Tamika testifying in front of the DC Council. Screencap by HIPS

I’ve grown to believe in the decriminalization of sex work from firsthand experience. I’ve been criminalized and punished for being who I am—a Black trans woman—and for the actions I’ve taken to survive in a society that doesn’t provide me with many options for employment or housing. I’ve been the target of sting operations by the police three times while doing sex work. During one sting, an undercover officer invited me into his car. When I got into the car, instead of revealing that he was an undercover, he asked me to engage in a sexual act and allowed me to unzip his pants and pull out his penis. In other words, he engaged me in sex.

After a few minutes, I figured out it was a sting because I saw police surrounding the car. To protect myself from being charged, I had to hold onto the officer’s penis because I knew the upcoming officers were less likely to charge me if they saw that the undercover actually engaged in the exchange—because then they’d have to charge him, too. Surely enough, they didn’t charge me, and they didn’t charge the officer, either. It’s a telling story about who the government is interested in criminalizing and who they’re interested in protecting.

Being targeted by police often means being criminalized for things that aren’t actually illegal or wrong. I’ve been charged for possession of drug paraphernalia just because I had rolling papers on me. You can buy rolling papers legally all over the District—but when I’m holding them, police call it “illegal drug paraphernalia” as an excuse to harass and arrest me, disrupting my life and my ability to live safely.

Tamika and organizers at No Justice No Pride. Flickr/This Is Bossi

The criminalization and stigmatization of sex work creates barriers to safety and public health for sex workers and our broader communities. Due to the threat of police harassment, arrest, and brutality, many sex workers can’t reach out to anyone when they are harmed, attacked, beaten, or threatened. Many sex workers also can’t get access to condoms and regular STI check-ups due to the stigma and fear of being reported to police. Some police officers in DC confiscate condoms from anyone they profile to be in the sex trade. This makes it difficult for us to stay safe, supported, and healthy. And since many people pay for sex in DC—from our neighbors, to our family members, to our politicians—when sex workers aren’t taken care of, it can create a public health crisis for our communities.

Sex workers are important members of our communities and, most importantly, we are human. We are worthy of compassion, support, equal justice, and protection of the law. The law shouldn’t call me a criminal for exercising autonomy over my body. It's my body, and my rights over its use should never be questioned. Placing restrictions on someone’s right to sell consensual sex and pleasure is similar to placing restrictions on someone’s access to contraceptive control methods: the government has no place in monitoring nor restricting me from using my body in any shape, form, or fashion.

We are worthy of compassion, support, equal justice, and protection of the law.

For all of these reasons, and many more, the time has come to end the stigma against sex workers. After all, the majority of living souls were conceived by people having sex, and many people enjoy sex. Given this, is it so bad that some people sell sex, and some people buy it? When so many of us selling it are just trying to get by?

Tamika L. Spellman is a peer advocate and policy fellow with HIPS, organizer with SWAC and the DECRIMNOW campaign. Follow her on Twitter @tamikahs66