Washington Area Women's Foundation

Centering the Voices of Young Women of Color to Inform Policy Decisions

Just a couple of weekends ago, I heard an episode of Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast that sought to reframe sex work by exploring the legal and financial realities of the trade.

My ears perked up when this episode started; DC is in the middle of considering full decriminalization of the sex trade. I have been following some of the arguments for and against this proposed legislation, as a public hearing before the Council’s Judiciary Committee occurred last week. DC’s proposed legislation would fully decriminalize the sex trade in DC, including acts of pimping, purchasing sex, and operating brothels. If passed, DC would be the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to have full decriminalization, and advocates are hopeful of making a statement coming from the nation’s capital.

The podcast’s host started the episode by asking a sex worker simple questions, such as, how to pay taxes, maintain records, or do marketing. The host goes on to ask about barriers sex workers come up against when running their businesses and changes that would benefit them. The podcast guest shares her wish list, including what most sex workers are advocating for: full decriminalization—meaning all criminal penalties removed for all parties involved. However, she also shares there is a big gap between what she personally would like to have, versus what is best for the greatest number of people.

While all advocates agree on the decriminalization of the sale of sex as an effective way to center the rights of sex workers and sex-trafficked children—who endure most of the arrests and who represent some of the most marginalized members of our community—there is no agreement about decriminalizing the act of buying sex. For some sex workers, it is in their best interest to protect their clients, but for others, offering legal immunity to those who exploit and traffic them is a dangerous policy.

In DC, it is currently up to the DC City Council to identify what is best for the greatest number of people involved in DC’s sex industry and adopt corresponding policies. In particular, it is the responsibility of the Council to identify what is best for those most vulnerable of being exploited. The Council has the task of passing legislation that strikes a delicate balance between affirming the rights of sex workers, but also the rights of survivors and trafficked victims.

The Blueprint for Action of the Young Women’s Initiative outlines recommendations developed by young women of color with the objective to shift local policies and practices in the District of Columbia in support of young women’s ability to thrive. During 2017 and 2018, The Women’s Foundation facilitated conversations and conducted interviews with young women of color and community members to understand barriers to success and propose recommendations to improve the experience of black and brown girls.

(Click image to read report)

Many of the recommendations in the Blueprint continue to be insightful and relevant to current policy considerations, including the current discussion around the full decriminalization of the sex trade. The safety and violence prevention recommendations of the Blueprint for Action, listed on page 42, include actions and policies that ensure young women and non-binary youth of color feel safe and free from all forms of violence in private and public spaces.

It is important for young women of color to have a voice in the policy decisions that affect them.  As councilmembers consider proposed legislation to decriminalize DC’s sex industry, I urge them to use the Blueprint for Action of the Young Women’s Initiative to learn the recommendations young women and non-binary youth of color identified to alleviate some of the most pressing policy issues that affect them.

Claudia Williams is Program Officer at Washington Area Women’s Foundation where she contributes to crafting and executing program strategy and manages the Young Women’s Initiative of Washington, DC