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D.C. Councilmember Discusses Bill To Decriminalize Sex Work


Here in Washington, D.C., local lawmakers are debating a bill that would remove all criminal penalties for buying or selling sex between consenting adults. If it passes, it would make the district the only jurisdiction to allow sex work - or prostitution, as many still call it - outside of some counties in Nevada. As you would imagine, this has been tremendously controversial, including among sex workers or former sex workers themselves. Some say this would allow them to seek help from authorities when they need it, to protect them from violence, for example. But others say this would only open the door to even more trafficking. To help us better understand what's at stake, we're joined by one of the co-sponsors of the bill, council member Anita Bonds. She's with us now in studio in Washington, D.C. Council member, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANITA BONDS: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that we called you is that you're not one of the original sponsors of the bill. I mean, the bill had been introduced a couple of years ago by two of your colleagues. And you just joined this more recently. And so I'm wondering, did your mind change about this? What happened to make you want to co-sponsor this bill?

BONDS: Well, firstly, by co-sponsoring it, I'm really saying to the public this is a subject matter that we really need to explore. We are an urban community where a number of transgender sex workers have died. They've been murdered. And so it becomes an issue particularly for that community. It also is an issue for some of the neighboring jurisdictions, as well as the district where we know that there is child trafficking.

MARTIN: Well, it turns out that the hearing on the bill was quite lengthy and heated. It was, as I understand it, some 14 hours long. What did you learn from that hearing? Was it - what was some of the arguments that people presented?

BONDS: Well, interestingly enough, I thought that the majority of the comments were against it because of, you know, societal judgment, et cetera. But, you know, when we look at the pieces of testimony and go through the tapes, we discover it's not even, but it's very close. And I think that's because many who are in the trade actually showed up. So I think we really don't know. I think that the community is unsettled on this issue. And so we've got many parts to this issue.

MARTIN: It sounds like you're unsettled yourself, to be honest.

BONDS: Oh, yes, definitely.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about you. What's going on in your mind? Like, what are the sides - what debate are you having in your own head about this?

BONDS: Well, I'm having a debate as to whether or not - one, I certainly do not want to decriminalize the johns for any reason.

MARTIN: People who are buying sex. You don't want to decriminalize that.

BONDS: People who are buying and people who are pushing individuals to be involved in the sex trade. Although I heard from many that are in the trade, and they talk about this as work like any other work. And that's a very interesting concept because I think as a society we haven't looked at it from that perspective. But I'm very torn on this issue.

MARTIN: There was a letter signed by more than 200 people opposing the bill, some of whom are themselves former sex workers. And they say that while those selling sex should not be prosecuted, those buying sex should be. And their argument is that decriminalizing this will just increase the opportunities for people to bring more people into the trade, even by coercion that isn't always overt. And so I guess what I'm hearing from you is you still aren't sure which argument you found more persuasive.

BONDS: I think the most persuasive argument is the one related to issues with our children. Many children become involved in this, you know, sexually. They're sex slaves, and we know that. And this bill as written doesn't help us to distinguish our young people from the so-called adults. And I think that's why this bill will not fly.

MARTIN: Were you surprised, though, by how many people who were - are involved in the sex trade? I mean, as you said, one of the things that struck you is just how many people who are involved in sex work came out to testify or people who had been. And I'm just wondering if that surprised you, how many people there were who'd been involved in sex work.

BONDS: Yeah. I was surprised at the number that testified. To have as many come out and to spend that amount of time waiting to have their say was very significant. It tells me that there are elements of this community that are hurting deeply.

MARTIN: That was D.C. council member Anita Bonds. She's a co-sponsor of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. For another take on this issue, we point you to a conversation we had on this program yesterday with Cyntoia Brown Long. Her life sentence at 16 for killing a much older man raised national awareness of the issue of sex trafficking of minors. And you can hear that conversation at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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