The Sexist

D.C. LGBT Activists Push to Legalize Prostitution

Now that gay marriage is legal in the District, what's next for gay activists in D.C.? The Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance (GLAA) recently released its 2010 agenda, which prioritizes causes like keeping same-sex marriage legal, fighting HIV in D.C., and addressing the city's response to hate crimes. But Mike Debonis points us to a more "taboo" priority for D.C.'s LGBT activist set: Legalizing prostitution.

The final item on the GLAA's agenda is "Prostitution: Legalize It, Regulate It, Zone It, Tax It." And their plan to do so is pretty awesome:

"Public officials seldom ask a most practical question," the agenda reads. "[W]ho benefits from the criminalization of prostitution?" The agenda goes on to cite notable scholars on the question, from Samuel Johnson to Jesse Ventura:

Samuel Johnson described the ills associated with prostitution—crowding, intemperance, famine, filth, and disease—and assured his friend John Boswell that “severe laws, steadily enforced, would be sufficient against those evils, and would promote marriage.” Jesse Ventura came closer to the truth when he told Playboy in 1999, “Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it’s run illegally by dirt-bags who are criminals. If it’s legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything any other worker gets, and it would be far better.” Not just girls, Jesse.

The GLAA then lists the reasons that D.C.'s LGBT community should get behind legalization: A lot of sex workers don't choose prostitution freely. People treat them poorly. Our criminal justice system in particular treats them poorly. And criminalization only makes matters worse:

As advocates of the legalization of prostitution, we think it needs neither sanitizing nor glorifying. It is not a profession filled exclusively with people who freely chose it from a host of other options. No doubt there are some in that category, like the college student turning tricks for extra cash. But too many turn to it by necessity. These include gay teenagers who have been thrown out of the house by their parents, and transgender people whom discrimination has left with few options.

People in these situations are practicing survival sex. They face greater risk of substance abuse, mental and physical abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. The District has seen numerous murders of sex workers in recent years—murders that were made harder to prevent and harder to solve by the fact that the victims worked the streets and were without legal sanction or protection.

Harassing, arresting and prosecuting people for survival sex solve none of their problems, but only pile more on. Whose idea of responsible public policy is this? To be justified, any public law ought to serve some identifiable common good. Saying to people as Sister Mary Ignatius did, “You do the thing that makes Jesus puke,” is no basis for criminalizing whatever it is. Having been the targets of moralistic lawmaking, we as gay people are especially on guard against it.

The best-case scenario for sex workers? The District should fund "the creation of drop-in centers, transitional housing, job training, counseling, addiction recovery programs and other services for at-risk populations." But first, it's going to have to get over its hang-ups in talking openly about sex:

Our society’s penchant for legislating morality is the chief obstacle to eliminating the harm caused by prostitution and solicitation laws. Otherwise compassionate and practical people often lose their bearings when the subject turns to the “naughty bits.” Overcoming this will take time, especially in D.C. with its constitutional vulnerability to congressional grandstanding; but we will never get there if we do not start. We can begin with a humble recognition of the normal variation in sexual expression, the proper limits of government coercion, and the fact that other people’s personal choices are none of our business unless they harm us. In the case of sex behind closed doors, whether in homes or hotel rooms, the fact that someone is paying for it is no more a legitimate basis for police involvement than if the transaction is a more informal one involving dinner and a show.

  • Chuck Anziulewicz

    I've never quite understood the laws against prostitution. After all, why should it be illegal for someone to sell something that is perfectly legal for them to give away for free?

  • Marty

    I'm so glad The Sexist now has a Jesse Ventura tag.

  • Rick Mangus

    This is why the public in general think that we are a bunch of low life freaks! GLAA sure in hell don't speak for me or a majority of the GLBT community!

  • DCBob

    It should have been noted that the GLAA position is essentially unchanged from two years ago.

    GLAA also asked all of the candidates their views on the issue. The candidates questionnaire responses are at The prostitution quesiton is at the end of the questionnaire.

  • Kit-Kat

    I think it's certainly worth debating whether and how to legalize or decriminalize prostitution, but I don't think it's a panacea without a lot of other changes as well.

    In Amsterdam, where the activity is legal, the majority of prostitutes are foreigners (not Dutch) and without immigration papers (which authorities think means that they are likely victims of sex trafficking). The Netherlands is one of the top destinations for human trafficking, because organized criminal gangs are in on this lucrative business. Women are lured or kidnapped from Eastern Europe, former Soviet republics, Africa, China, Thailand, etc., and forced into the sex trade. Merely legalizing and regulating prostitution won't fix all the problems. Changes in laws and policies relating to immigration, drug enforcement, and social services are also necessary.

    The counties in Nevada that have legal brothels have a relatively large administrative and law enforcement structure dedicated to making sure that the employers and the women are free of ties to organized crime as well as sexually transmitted diseases and drug use, conducting brothel inspections, licensing brothels and registering prostitutes. Any conversation about legalizing prostitution needs to deal with the cost associated with effective regulation, licensing, and enforcement to ensure the safety of those who work in the industry.

    I agree that many of the ills of prostitution are a result of its illegality, but not all of them are, and an honest and informed conversation about how to address those ills in an effective way would be welcome.

  • Charlie

    I find GLAA's position to be ill-considered. HRC makes it's symbol the equality sign. That is that the rights LGBT people seek are the same rights that everyone else has, such as the right to marry. They haven't given evidence that LGBT people are treated differently as to prostitution.

    I think sex can be addictive and there are limits on things that are addictive such as smoking, gambling , and alcohol and drug use. People are certainly free to argue what level of restriction is applied.

    I think this can also be a problem for GLAA. That the sentence from their Agenda:

    "But too many turn to it by necessity. These include gay teenagers who have been thrown out of the house by their parents, and transgender people whom discrimination has left with few options. "

    Are they advocating prostitution for teenagers? Is the solution for discrimination against transgendered people to make them into prostitutes? GLAA acknowledges it work with allies to advance the agenda. Would SMYAL and T.H.E. think prostitution is the answer for the communities problems?

    The suicide of the DC Madam - Deborah Jean Palfrey - is cited as the inspiration for the article that is the basis for this agenda item. I think the characterization of her as someone "who faced a prison sentence for doing something that harmed no one" is wrong. She got a lot of mileage in the press by portraying herself as a victim being persecuted by the government. I think she was a individual who knowingly violated the law and hoped to escape punishment through her "independent contractor" ruse. I also find the "harmed no one" claim to be bogus. Plenty of people are harmed by prostitution.

    There are certainly arguments to be made for the legalization of prostitution. I don't see it as a gay issue, however.

  • kza

    Well I for one can't wait to "buy rape" legally from a teen that's been kicked out of the house. Thanks GLAA!

  • Kit-Kat

    @Charlie--I didn't get the vibe that GLAA was *advocating* prostitution for teenagers, but making the point that criminalizing prostitution may make it harder for people forced to engage to get help or seek protection, and makes them more vulnerable to abuse by pimps, johns, and even the police. Making it legal might make it easier for prostitutes to access social services, job training, alcohol and drug treatment, etc., and might facilitate them reporting violent pimps or johns, as well as solving the underlying problems that drove them to prostitution and helping them escape. As I said, I don't think legalization is either simple or a panacea, and it may come with its own complications, but I also don't think it means endorsing it as a positive lifestyle choice for teenagers.

  • hexy

    Legalisation and decriminalisation are two very different things. What SHOULD be advocated here is decriminalisation, which is simply the removal of criminal sanctions relating to sex work.

    I am a sex worker who works in a state where sex work is decriminalised, and sex workers here have been demonstrated to have better health and safety outcomes than sex workers in other states, including those where sex work is legalised and regulated. We are more comfortable seeking out medical services and police support, and feel safer performing our work. Decrim is the best practice model.

  • Charlie

    @Kit-Kat I am sure in fact that GLAA did not intend to *advocate* for teenage prostitution. In fact I feel it was a cheap shot to suggest that they would. But I am sure there are those who would be willing to misinterpret their stance in that way. (KZA - DeBonis)

    But I don't buy the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime. Would the woman who contracts a sexually transmitted disease that makes her sterile from a boyfriend who frequents prostitutes be considered a victim? This is also a cheap shot. I would say that GLAA's position is that less harm is done by legalization than current prohibition policies. Maybe so, but as @HEXY says, there are other policy choices such as decriminalization rather than legalization. It is a complicated issue.

    I am willing to consider that prostitution creates more problems than it solves. however, I do not feel that it is a LGBT issue. For instance, I am personally very much opposed to the death penalty. But I do not assume that other gay people share this outlook. And except to the extent that LGBT people are treated differently in regards to sentencing, I would not expect others to share my view.

    I have a personal philosophy which states "Be careful what your argue for, you may come to believe it." I haven't made up my mind about prostitution legalization. But I keep my philosophy in mind.

  • kza

    I was totally serious!

  • Rick Rosendall

    Charlie, as the author of GLAA's policy statement on prostitution, I am happy to state something that I thought was already clear: we are not touting prostitution as a good career choice, we are pointing out that its criminalization only causes more problems for the vulnerable populations who are driven to it by circumstances. When we talk about the range of services that they need--including job training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and housing assistance--we are talking about helping them get a better job, not learn to be better hookers.

    GLAA did not say that prostitution is a gay-specific issue, any more than we said that those opposed to a vibrant D.C. nightlife (the people we call NIMBYs for "not in my backyard") are anti-gay. In the latter case, we argue that gay people in Washington have a right to enjoy the city's nightlife, and that those who object, whether gay or straight, should consider moving to a quiet suburb if that is what they want. In the case of prostitution, we pointed out the populations within the LGBT community--homeless teens and transgenders--who are at risk of being driven into survival sex, and we criticize the current policy that only harms them and helps no one.

    I would love to get an explanation of the difference between decriminalization and legalization. If something is not a crime, then it is legal--isn't that true by definition?

    It is unfortunate, BTW, that some people insist on being so snide on this subject, and make it clear by their comments that a serious discussion of a real problem and an exploration of possible solutions cannot be tolerated. Please go and look at our policy statement on this, which is the last item at, and explain what we say that is reckless. Our arguments on this are essentially conservative ones, unlike those of the old COYOTE activists ("Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics") who celebrated prostitution. At least people could respond to what we actually say, instead of to a cheap caricature.

  • Janis

    What's next? Bestiality, Polyamory, Polyandry? These types of LGBT policy stances are why people see gay folks as freaks and fucking jokes.

    Fuck GLAA and fuck their stupid ass statement.

  • Yeah, Well

    Isn't paying for sex from a teen also the same as taking sex from a teen without pay or having sex with a willing teen -- statutory rape? Jus' wonderin'. I'm sure that i could support decrim for consenting adults and then defining consenting is the key issues rather than whether money was offered, asked, or exchanged....

  • Amanda Hess

    @Janis Newsflash, polyamory ain't "next," it's perfectly fucking legal for people to have intimate relationships with multiple people at one time. Ooga booga!

  • Rick Rosendall

    Janis, your insults and curses are based on what information, exactly? We have not advocated for any of the "horribles" you list. Nor did we even sing the praises of prostitution (it is somewhat more complicated than that). We have a 39-year history of consistent, thoughtful, engaged, and informed advocacy on a range of issues. Our superb record of service to the community includes the leading role we played for decades in fighting for civil marriage equality. It is grossly irresponsible to write us off altogether with curses because you disagree with us on one thing (though you don't appear even to understand us on that). Most people in fact do NOT view gay people as freaks. Nor does GLAA's thoughtful discussion of a problem justify such attitudes. We should be able collectively to have an adult discussion on an uncomfortable topic that affects real people without your sort of panicked, angry, taboo-invoking response. If we are wrong, kindly address specifics of what we actually wrote, and offer arguments rather than insults. Advocacy sometimes involves rocking the boat; I am sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but we did not bring up the topic lightly or frivolously and will not be intimidated by what amount to crude attempts to shout us down.

  • Rick Rosendall

    To Yeah, Well: we advocated legalizing prostitution, not changing the age of consent (which is 16 in D.C.). Sex with someone under 16 is a crime in D.C. whether payment is involved or not. We in GLAA are happy with the age of consent as it is, which is the same regardless of sexual orientation. But if someone 15 years old or younger is engaged in prostitution, he or she needs to be rescued and helped, not prosecuted. The older person(s) exploiting him or her are another story.

  • Kit-Kat

    FYI: "Legalization" means to make legal something which was previously illegal. "Decriminalization" only removes criminal penalties, but may leave in place other prohibitions and regulations, including permitting requirements, fines, and other civil penalties. Something may be illegal without being criminal. Certainly, the two terms have overlap. There may also be de facto decriminalization, in which an authority simply does not seek to impose criminal penalties for a particular crime.

  • Rick Rosendall

    Kit-Kat, okay, I had not thought of non-criminal civil penalties. But as to regulation, GLAA says "regulate it" right in the title of our write-up on the subject. Both smoking and alcohol consumption are legal, but both are regulated. GLAA did not get into the details of what a regulatory regime would look like in this case; but we noted that we could learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions.

  • Rick Rosendall

    BTW, Amanda, thanks for covering this.

  • femme

    First thing that jumps out is the statement that since equal marriage has been achieved the only thing left is the legalisation of prostitution.

    Well what about speaking to those that have transsexualism or those who are transgender. I'm sure both those two communities could show you many issues they still have in the D.C. area alone. Like medical support for those who have transsexualism, to help them correct their bodies. Or within the community of those who are transgender, I expect they face laws not permitting them to be expressing their idea of gender as they do.(keeping in mind just how large the transgender umbrella covers)

    Or even still what about the community of people who are intersex and the physical abuses and genital mutilations done to them as infants? ( contact Organisation Intersex International I'm sure they will fill you in)

    So already I've shown a few issues still to be tackled, don't be fooled that the right to marriage makes the rest of the problems already being faced, go away.

    But I do agree that prostitution issue is an important one and that affects all various communities that fit under the queer /straight umbrellas. If it is legalised that allows those working in that end of the sex trade to do so safely. And pay taxes while doing so.
    Really that's a huge win for the government as we already know that many people use the services of a sex worker It would also mean those working in the field would be required to under go routine medical examination that watch for various STIs.

    But the morality police and religious right in that country would never allow such a thing.

  • DB

    Involving legal tender in the touching of other *legal* persons' tenders

    hates our freedom.

    A system which spends several thousand dollars per case with the ultimate goal of making someone sit in a locked room for a while--some time after touching tenders

    loves our freedom.

  • mysterymilf

    I agree with this article as long as we throw sex workers in jail and offer them no services then what do we expect to change. Usually the JOHN"S are let go and only the sex worker is held responsible.
    Sex workers have been made outcasts by part of our society that is trying to be the MORAL POLICE. Our current laws on prostituion where orginally passed to keep "the women from showing her wares in public", yes to keep them off the street corners. So why are we spending tax payers dollars to STALK A FEW CONSENTING ADULTS. Meanwhile we sit by while our teenage kids are being pimped out and rarely is anyone given the 25 year human trafficking sentence.
    Read this article from 1997 from ohio where they arrested a women who had been married for 19 years because her husband paid her for sex. The funny part is prostitution is the same thing as marriage.

  • Richard J. Rosendall

    Femme, if you look at GLAA's "Agenda: 2010," you will not find any suggestion that with marriage taken care of, all that's left is prostitution. Far from it. The current draft of the document is 23 pages long; before getting to the issue of prostitution we cover a wide range of other issues, with transgender-related issues raised all through the document.

    GLAA in the past has organized training of D.C. Office of Human Rights staff on intersexed issues. We are an all-volunteer, locally focused group and cannot do everything, but this is on our radar as something about which there is little understanding and much work to be done.

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