After the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) told city lawmakers in Washington, DC, that “all chapters” of the group are opposed to the full decriminalization of sex work, the organization’s DC-based chapter — which supports full decriminalization — fired back saying the national group does not speak for them, exposing a major divide over the issue.
The rift, which centers on a sweeping DC City Council bill that would decriminalize the sex trade for workers, consumers, and those who facilitate the work, extends beyond DC, as evident in emails provided to Gay City News in which the DC chapter and numerous other NOW branches from around the nation expressed concern with an October 17 statement by NOW president Toni Van Pelt where she criticized the full decriminalization of sex work in DC and used terms that sex workers have long considered to be offensive.
The bill, dubbed the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, has gained widespread support from hundreds of advocacy groups, LGBTQ organizations, and folks who argue that decriminalization is the best way to reduce stigma and violence and stop the over-policing of sex workers, many of whom are queer and transgender women of color. Advocacy on the issue has put considerable focus on reducing the risks facing sex workers by giving them greater control over how they conduct their business — and on curbing violence, in particular, against trans women of color at a time when they are facing an epidemic of deadly violence nationwide.
Van Pelt voiced strong opposition to the DC bill during an October 17 hearing, expressing support instead for ending criminal penalties only for the sex workers themselves — an approach known as the Nordic Model or the Equality Model.
The NOW national office has mounted an aggressive social media campaign against the DC bill, stoking fears that it could turn the city into a “sex tourism destination” where “traffickers will bring women and girls from other jurisdictions.”
When DC Councilmember Charles Allen, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and chairs the committee overseeing it, asked during that hearing whether the local NOW chapter in DC has taken a position on the bill, Van Pelt said, “I’m the spokeswoman for all chapters. All chapters take the position of the National Organization for Women.”
Allen, recognizing that Van Pelt did not give a direct response to the question about the local DC chapter’s position, looked on with suspicion and said he would instead ask the local chapter himself.
Meanwhile, the DC chapter submitted testimony to the Council offering support for the DC bill and calling for additional resources and action to protect sex workers should the bill be enacted. Arguing that they arrived at their position after careful consideration and thorough research, the DC team said they met with parties ranging from decriminalization advocates to victims of child sex trafficking.
When contacted by Gay City News on October 29, NOW’s DC chapter made it clear they wanted nothing to do with Van Pelt’s take on decriminalization. Monica Weeks, who heads up NOW’s DC chapter, told Gay City News that NOW’s statement amounted to an “encroachment of our chapter’s DC jurisdiction.”
“I think this has become a generational and cultural divide,” Weeks said. “The way in which [NOW’s national group] says things is totally derogatory. For you to be telling trans women why they choose what they do and why they do it? You can’t talk about bodily autonomy and then say sex workers have no autonomy.”
Like many advocates of sex work decriminalization, Weeks pushed back on the notion that decriminalization would foster dangerous conditions for sex workers, saying that the national group “keeps conflating trafficking with decriminalization.”
The following day, Gay City News obtained a letter that Weeks and the rest of the DC NOW executive board delivered to the national office expressing discontent over the way in which the national team conveyed their position on the bill.
“National NOW should not posit that they represent the policy views of all NOW chapters,” DC chapter members stated in the letter, which went on to criticize the national team for suggesting that the bill would decriminalize non-consensual sex, among other issues. “While sex traffickers can force or coerce individuals into the sex industry, and others — deprived of viable alternatives — engage in survival sex, some adults engage in sex work by choice… Referring to all sex workers as ‘prostituted’ completely deprives them of their autonomy and disregards the reality that not all sex work is coerced.”
Illustrating the deep divide over the issue, Weeks also provided Gay City News with numerous emails from leaders of other chapters across the nation expressing outrage over the national group’s use of the words “prostitution” and “sexploitation” and blanket statements about NOW’s position on decriminalization.
During the October 17 hearing on the bill, several black LGBTQ sex workers — including gay men and transgender women — testified in favor of the legislation and elaborated on their lived experiences in the sex trade. Tiara, a trans woman supporting the bill, passionately explained that she and her colleagues in the sex trade go to great measure to ensure safety — both in terms of preventing violence and promoting safe sex practices — for all of their fellow workers.
“We are educated females, so not only are we providing a service for a living, but we’re also providing a service by protecting the people we are with,” she said. “This ‘let’s go ahead and protect the girls, but capture the customers,’ that makes no sense to me… Here I am, 18 years old, with my own car, in college, with an apartment — and I do sex work. And I’m fine.”
Referring to the Nordic Model, she added, “I’m not going to sit back and let these people continue to say, ‘Oh, we’ll just give you half of what you want.’ I’m tired of getting half of what I want. I’ve been getting half of what I want my whole life. That’s not fair to me, that’s not fair to the people who might be paying us and giving us the money we need to keep ourselves up.”
Another sex worker, a black gay male named Skye, said he grew up in New York but moved to DC five years ago. He said in his testimony that he has lost friends due to the stigma attached to his career as a sex worker, and he elaborated on the struggles he faces as a gay male in the sex trade.
“It would be very nice to be able to be comfortable without being harassed by Metropolitan Police,” he said. “There’s a lot of rudeness with them and I would have to say that it would be so much better if they can meet eye to eye [because] I’m just trying to make it just like the next person.”
The fate of the bill remains uncertain. Eric Salmi, a spokesperson for Councilmember Allen, told Gay City News on October 31 that it could be “a pretty decent amount of time” before his Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety votes on the legislation. He expressed some hesitation about whether there are currently enough votes for the legislation in the five-person committee, but still offered optimism on the question. Should the bill clear the committee, it would then face a full Council vote.
NOW’s national team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.