The commercial sexual exploitation of women is a form of gender-based violence. It is an extreme version of the violent oppression of women, including widespread sexual harassment and high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. These abuses are all connected; they serve to reinforce and perpetuate women’s inequality.

–NOW President Toni Van Pelt in testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council

The majority of prostituted women, men, girls, boys and trans people become involved due to a systemic pattern of sexual exploitation and violence against those who are the most vulnerable. They are usually trafficked into “the life” from an early age and then face violence, rape, coercion, and other crimes against them daily. Yet there are efforts in Washington, D.C., New Hampshire and other states and localities to fully decriminalize prostitution. 

With full decriminalization, pimps, johns, brothel owners, property owners, taxi drivers, landlords, and others who profit from the sale of sex acts would be further empowered to inflict violence and coercion on women and others. Such efforts would also increase demand — overwhelmingly by men — leading to even higher rates of human trafficking and perpetuating an already vicious cycle of oppression for women.  

NOW supports legislation that would decriminalize people who are prostituted and provide programs that would help them to successfully exit the trade and access counseling, health care, housing, training and employment.  

NOW is opposed to the commodification and the dehumanization of women, children and individuals of the transgender community. NOW’s goal is to end the demand, to criminalize purchasers of sex acts and the pimps, madams, hotel/motel owners, landlords, property owners and all those who benefit financially from the sale of other people for sex.

What is NOW’s position on decriminalization?

NOW calls for the decriminalization of prostituted women, men, girls, boys and transgender people and the expungement of their records. In a resolution passed at the 2016 conference, Dismantling the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: Child Survivors of Sex Trafficking our grassroots called for support of Nordic or Equality Model legislation, successfully adopted by Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Israel and Canada.  

Under the Equality Model, the demand for sex acts continues to be criminalized; however prostituted women and others are offered much-needed and much-desired support in exiting the trade and creating a life of real choices.

Prostitution is comingled with 100,000’s of sex trafficking victims forced into prostitution.  It is impossible to protect these victims if we create avenues that increase demand.

–NOW Vice Christian F. Nunes in testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council

Research shows that the acts that occur in the sex trade are usually coerced. If these acts are not coerced through actual human trafficking, then they are coerced through the forces of poverty, racism, transphobia and discrimination that do not allow women, children, and transgender people to make choices of self-determination in their search for work that will actually allow them to support themselves and their families. 

Why does NOW oppose the so-called Community Safety and Health Amendment Act?

This misleadingly named bill would entice and embolden a criminal industry and bring it into the family of social acceptance, while collecting substantial amounts in taxes. If it passes, Washington, D.C. would become the sex tourism capital of the world. 

The bill is based on inequality, profits and patriarchy.  At a recent Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council, survivor after survivor came forward and told their heartbreaking stories of the trafficking and abuse they suffered. 

“Janet,” a survivor of trafficking in Mexico and the U.S. explained how this bill would harm women’s health and safety and give organized crime a business opportunity.  

It is hard for me to say these men had sex with me, I never once consented. What I suffered was rape for money, a lot of money. Prostitution is a big business for pimps and bordellos. It’s women like me who suffer, sold to men against my will. During nine years, clients raped me, strangled me, hit me, and bit me until I was finally able to escape and receive protection from authorities… To separate human trafficking from prostitution is impossible.

— “Janet,” Trafficking Survivor in testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council

“Janet’s” pimp had forced her to register as a prostitute in Mexico. There, prostitution is legal so long as you have a health card – a system meant to protect “buyers.”  Women had to say they were not under duress to get the health cards, but they all actually were. “If we didn’t meet quotas, we were beaten.” This is the type of situation that would flourish if D.C. passes such a bill, according to Janet.  

Only by ending the demand can we promote the health and safety of all women and children. To think that violent acts in the sex trade will end because the buying and selling of those acts has become fully decriminalized is a false hope.  

Council of the District of Columbia-Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Hearing 

NOW President Toni Van Pelt; Testimony starting at 1:22;18

You can’t legislate the violence from the industry of sex work. It is an inevitable outcome of the industry. What [full decriminalization] will do is create a false narrative of acceptance and more significant barriers to exit the lifestyle.

— LaRuby May, attorney and a former D.C. Council member in testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council
NOW Vice President Christian F. Nunes ; Testimony starting at 1:51:47

Bill 23-0318, the “Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019”  Webcast of Oct. 17, 2019 Hearing 

You will never have as many consenting participants as unchecked demand requires, traffickers will always seek to capitalize on increased demand by targeting the most vulnerable…and buyers don’t care, they don’t check IDs.

— Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director, Rights for Girls, in testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety hearing at the D.C. Council

Must Reads

Research Supporting NOW’s Position

Media Coverage

In Washington, a Fight to Decriminalize Prostitution Divides Allies, 

New York Times (Oct. 17, 2019)  

D.C. leaders hear from public over proposal to decriminalize sex work,   

Washington Post (Oct. 18, 2019) 

The District of Columbia Considers Decriminalizing Prostitution 

US News (Oct. 18, 2019)