WASHINGTON — Tamika Spellman, who is in her 50s, has worked as a prostitute since she was 14. The job, she said, is the most stable work she has had and helped put her son through college.
She has grown tired of people’s moral qualms about what she does for a living, of police harassment, and of the dangers of the work. But she is doing more than stewing about it.
Instead, Ms. Spellman is one of the architects of a bill before Washington’s City Council that would make it the first American city to decriminalize prostitution, placing the nation’s capital at the forefront of a growing movement that seeks to permit the activities of prostitutes, as well as pimps and johns, and to allow bordellos. An initial hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Ms. Spellman, a transgender woman and activist, has worked for more than two years with David Grosso, a City Council member, and advocacy groups in the city to try to marshal support for the legislation.
The proposal is dividing the city’s progressive community, pitting some women’s groups against advocates for sex workers. Some prostitutes who have been sex trafficked find themselves on the other side from sex workers who have not been. But all sides agree that prostitution practiced openly would reverberate well beyond the city’s thriving but shadowy sex industry of street prostitution, massage parlors, strip clubs and high-end call girls.
Prostitutes would most likely work openly out of homes in neighborhoods across the city. Certain blocks could become de facto red-light districts. And policing strategy would have to change so officers could distinguish pimps from sex traffickers.
Prostitution in the United States is legal only in a few counties in Nevada. In all, there are about 20 legal brothels in the state.
Four of the Council’s 13 members have signed on as co-sponsors. Supporters say the bill — versions of which have recently made little headway in New York State, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and elsewhere — is the only effective way to combat sex trafficking. They say that only when every aspect of prostitution among consenting adults is made legal will prostitutes feel secure enough to report criminal activity, including coercion and abuse by pimps or sex buyers, without fear of arrest.
“It is an outdated law based on moral outrage,” Ms. Spellman, 52, a longtime advocate for sex workers, said about existing prohibitions on prostitution. “Why are they arresting people for having casual sex? I understand the need to protect people, and there are people being exploited, but not in the numbers that people think.”
Critics counter that the initiative is promoting a narrative that is dangerously false. They say decriminalization would exacerbate the sex trade’s worst abuses because it would increase demand for prostitution. That, they say, would force ever younger girls into prostitution and make it difficult for law enforcement to detect sex trafficking cases because citizens might call 911 less frequently if prostitution is legal.
Opponents have also spoken darkly about the nation’s capital becoming a destination for sex tourism.
“This bill is a sex trafficker’s dream,” said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls, a Washington-based human rights organization that seeks to end violence against girls and young women. “This will cause more harm and more exploitation of our most marginalized people. Girls have told us they heard about the bill for the first time from their pimps, who were excited about it. If pimps and sex buyers are on the same side of this legislative proposal, doesn’t that say something to the other supporters?”
Groups supporting decriminalization include the A.C.L.U., Black Lives Matter, Amnesty International and the World Health Organization.
Opponents include the National Organization for Women and World Without Exploitation, a coalition of groups dedicated to ending sexual trafficking and exploitation.
The two sides speak about prostitution in very different terms.
For supporters, sex work for adults can be a viable, well-compensated profession that is generally free of exploitation. Pimps are referred to as managers, and violence is uncommon. They argue that laws forbidding bordellos mean that prostitutes are unable to have consensual sex with clients in the safety of their own homes.
Ms. Spellman, who says she does not have a pimp and handles her own business affairs, said pimps and managers serve a vital role — from providing security and transportation to arranging appointments and dealing with child care.
“If the issue people have about pimps is that they are benefiting from other people’s labor, don’t they have managers who do that at McDonald’s?” she asked.
For opponents, however, prostitution cannot be separated from exploitation.
“This is an incredibly violent industry and a harmful industry,” said Lauren Hersh, national director of World Without Exploitation.
Many of the organizations that oppose decriminalizing pimps and johns support variations of what is known as the Nordic model, in which sex workers do not face criminal charges, and are instead offered social services, including housing.
Tina Frundt, a sex trafficking survivor and executive director of Courtney’s House in Washington, which provides services to children and young adults who have been trafficked, said 30 percent of the people who come to the center had been trafficked by relatives. Most are between 11 and 19 years old.
“I do not believe sex workers should be arrested — that’s a no-brainer,” she said. “But this bill legalizes pimping. This bill is horrible.”
In many ways, the disagreement is a sign of how quickly the decriminalization movement has become mainstream, an unexpected outgrowth of successful efforts during the past decade to call attention to racial disparities in mass incarceration and the mistreatment of women as part of the #MeToo movement. Prostitutes in many American cities are disproportionately African-American, Native American and Latina women and transgender people, advocates say.
The murders of transgender women in recent years, some of whom were sex workers, have also fueled the movement. Advocates believe that decriminalizing sex work would specifically help protect transgender people because they often face discrimination when seeking jobs and decent housing.
Several cities have curtailed their arrests for prostitution in recent years, although buying sex is still prosecuted and pimping continues to be treated as a serious crime. Law enforcement officials say pimps are often also sex traffickers who force women and girls into prostitution through intimidation and violence, including kidnapping. Street gangs have increasingly become involved in organizing prostitution networks.
The experience of New Zealand, which decriminalized prostitution in 2003, is used by both sides to try to bolster their position.
Decriminalization advocates point to a 2012 study that found that “the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off” in New Zealand, while opponents call attention to the National Council of Women of New Zealand’s finding that some prostitutes continue to be as young as 13.
In Washington on an overcast autumn day this week, motorists could be observed pulling over and engaging in brief conversations with women who lingered on a sidewalk along a stretch of K Street, a few miles from the White House. The women would sometimes climb inside the vehicles and the driver would merge back into traffic.
The sex industry has grown as the city has gentrified, according to prostitutes and the police. There have been numerous arrests on 14th Street and K Street in recent months, and prostitution in the K Street area has led to an F.B.I. investigation into sex trafficking.
In 2017, the police in Washington made 216 prostitution-related arrests, which includes crimes committed by prostitutes and pimps, according to police data. That figure increased to 519 in 2018, and there have already been nearly 800 prostitution-related arrests this year. The increase probably reflects changes in both police enforcement and in the prostitution market.
The K Street corridor is an illustration of why the legislation is needed, said Tiara Moten, an organizer with No Justice No Pride, a Washington-based group that works with the L.G.B.T. community.
“Decriminalizing sex work will make life easier not only for the people that complain about K Street, but also for the girls who are getting turned away from jobs, housing, health care and more,” she said. “Everyone needs to survive, and everyone needs to make money.”
In addition to decriminalizing the entire sex industry, the legislation calls for the creation of a task force to study the law’s potential impact and then decide what changes might be necessary.
Despite the dire warnings of advocates about sex trafficking, Ms. Spellman said decriminalization cannot come soon enough for her and other transgender sex workers.
“People who have not walked in my shoes are telling me what’s best for me,” she said. People look at legalizing prostitution and see something nefarious, she said. “But what we’ve asked for is exactly what we need.”