Decriminalizing Sex Work

Decriminalizing sex work is a matter of health, safety, and survival.

DC’s sex workers have reported that they sometimes engage in their work as a matter of survival. Under criminalization, a sex worker can face a whole series of threats to their health and physical harm as they work, including the threat of an arrest and all the negative consequences that follow from that.   Other places, like  New Zealand and Belgium, have moved towards a decriminalization model where research shows people who engage in sex work are employed, have more legal, health, and safety rights, and have better relations with police and their clients.   DC should reintroduce and pass the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act to decriminalize sex work and repeal current solicitation laws in the code. DC should also provide additional services and support to sex workers, targeting the core reasons why they engage in this work to make a living, and direct police officers to explain to sex workers their rights when an encounter occurs.

What you need to know

Sex work is criminalized – with specific laws targeting street-based workers.

Sex work is an umbrella term used to describe the exchange of consensual sexual services for money, clothing, or other items of value:  sex work includes exotic dancing, escorting, working in the adult film industry, and creating content on OnlyFans, work that is generally legal. Sex work also includes what many may call prostitution which involves performing specific sexual acts for money, which is a crime in most states nationally and in most countries. Sex work is a term coined to replace the word prostitution due to the word being outdated and misogynistic and is the primary focus when discussing decriminalization.

Sex workers say what they do is a matter of survival.

Those who engage in sex work may do so out of choice. But in DCJL’s interviews with a dozen individuals engaged in sex work, these workers reported to us that they do what they do as a matter of survival. For some people in DC’s Black, Hispanic/Latin, and LGBTQIA+ communities, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism contribute to someone not being able to work, and that drives them to seek employment as a sex worker.  Gentrification, its impact on housing insecurity, and the escalating cost of living deeply impact these communities, as does a lack of job opportunities.  Social and economic conditions can leave individuals with few options for a liveable wage, leading some to turn to sex work as a means of survival.

DC’s criminalizes sex work with significant penalties.

In DC and 48 out of 50 US states, the “criminalization model” is used: Sex workers, clients, and other third parties can be arrested and charged with crimes.  The penalties may vary from state to state. Still, solicitation – the act of communicating the sale or purchase of sexual services in exchange for compensation – is considered a misdemeanor or a felony, including jail time and/or a fine. In DC, the punishment for solicitation ranges from $500 and/or 90 days imprisonment to $12,500 and/or two years imprisonment.

Criminalizing sex work leads to dangerous conditions and criminal records.

Under current law, sex workers are fearful of being arrested, forcing sex workers to encounter dangerous situations.  Sex workers who experience sexual assault, robbery, and coercion from clients and police officers may not report these incidents because they fear they will end up incarcerated.  Sex workers may also be arrested and convicted of crimes, leaving them with a criminal record. This can further push someone into poverty and may lead to housing discrimination.

Models that fall short of decriminalization of sex work fall short of protecting people.

Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Maine use a model where sex workers do not face criminal penalties. Still, clients and other third parties do – which can prevent the operation of sex work by penalizing the purchase of it.  This “Nordic Model” still criminalizes the entire encounter, leaves barriers to sex workers making a living, and continues to incentivize risky behavior to avoid getting caught. Sex workers in these places may hire security staff or move-in groups to stay safe, and people can still be charged as pimps or traffickers.  Ten counties in Nevada as well as Germany, and Mexico, allow sex work without penalties. However, regulations and licensing structures still leave some workers out. Under the legalization model,  a two-tiered system exists: those who obtain a license to work legally and those who cannot, which still leaves some sex work criminalized.

Places that have decriminalized have seen sex workers report they are safer and healthier.

In 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalize the buying and selling of consensual sex work between individuals 18 years or older. Since then, other countries have followed, with Belgium in 2022 and two states in Australia — Victoria and Queensland – following thereafter.  The benefit of these models – sometimes referred to as the “New Zealand” model” –  is that they do not either criminalize or further marginalize communities engaged in sex work.  A review of the impact of New Zealand’s decriminalization found that since the change, 90 percent of sex workers believed the decriminalization gave them employment, legal, and health and safety rights. Sixty-four percent of New Zealand sex workers say after decriminalization, they found it easier to refuse clients. Significantly, 57 percent of those surveyed in New Zealand said police attitudes to sex workers changed for the better.

Research says decriminalization will reduce violence, promote health, and save money.

The Lancet has published research that estimates decriminalizing sex work would lead to at least a 33 percent reduction in HIV transmission, which would save a half-million dollars in health costs per person who avoided the disease over the average lifetimeResearch estimates the impact of decriminalization in DC found that per sex worker, $5058.08 will be gained from income tax revenue, $290 will be generated through health sector savings, and $20,118 will be saved in the criminal legal system (courts, policing, and jail) costs. Under decriminalization, sex workers would be able to negotiate prices, practice safe sex, and enforce their legal rights by refusing to see clients who refuse to pay after receiving a service.  Decriminalization empowers sex workers to engage in their work without threats of coercion or to speak out about violent and unsafe encounters.

DC has a legislative framework to decriminalize sex work.

In 2017,  former at-large council member David Grosso introduced legislation to decriminalize sex work in DC and reintroduced a similar measure in 2019–the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act. The bill would have decriminalized consensual sex between individuals 18 years or older while still prohibiting and criminalizing sexual assault, sex trafficking, and trafficking against children. The 2019 version of the legislation was cosponsored by four other council members. The bill resulted in DC’s first-ever hearing on the decriminalization of sex work. If the bill had passed, DC would have been the first US jurisdiction to decriminalize sex work.   The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act has not been enacted, but it remains a legislative framework for DC to consider.


Our Solutions

DC should:

  • Reintroduce the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act and repeal current solicitation laws.


  • When enacting the new law, include new funding targeting the underlying reasons why individuals turn to sex work – housing and employment.


  • Direct police officers to explain to sex workers their rights when an encounter occurs.

Contact us about this topic

special thanks

Darby Hickey ★ Sex Worker Advocates Coalition ★ HIPS 

Last Updated on June 7, 2024.