Image by Caroline Angelo used with permission.

This week, the Senate will debate the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — legislation that makes websites liable for “facilitating sex trafficking.” In many ways, the policy reflects a recently proposed DC bill, the Drug-Related Nuisance Abatement Amendment Act, that would make tenants liable for allowing “prostitution” in their homes or businesses. While the intended impact of both policies is to increase public safety, the actual impact will be to push people in the sex trade into the street, exacerbating safety issues for everyone in the community while ignoring the roots of the problem — lack of housing.

DC residents who support measures like the “No Nuisance” bill have real concerns: Neighbors want to walk down the street without being hit by gunfire. Parents don’t want their children finding used condoms in the park. Community members simply want to be safe in public spaces.

As a mother and an advocate for safe public spaces, I have these concerns, too. How do I explain to my young child that 8,350 people in DC are experiencing homelessness, and yet local policies to solve homelessness are being used to put people in jail cells rather than into housing? How do we build public safety in a way that recognizes that those most vulnerable to physical and sexual violence in public spaces are the same unhoused neighbors that we keep pushing further into the margins instead of developing real, comprehensive solutions?

Policies like SESTA and the “No Nuisance” bill drive sex workers — including those who are trafficked — out of the spaces that keep them safe and into street-based sex work, putting them at even greater risk of violence. It also exacerbates the problem for parents and community members who don’t want their children to see sex work or to find condoms outside.

Activists speak out about sex worker rights and safety in San Francisco. Image by Steve Rhodes licensed under Creative Commons.

SESTA’s proponents argue that the bill will help prevent online child sex trafficking. According to a WUSA9 story, “ordering a child for sex online can be as easy as ordering pizza.” But in most cases, sex trafficking doesn’t happen the way that it does in the movie Taken, with an unsuspecting victim being snatched and forced into the sex trade. The term “child sex trafficking” is very broadly defined in the law to include all youth under the age of 18 who are trading sex for money, food, housing, or other needs — also known as survival sex. Most teens engaging in survival sex don’t have a trafficker; these are often youth, many already in the foster system, who have either run away or been kicked out of unsafe or unwelcoming homes, becoming homeless.

While there isn’t a lot of good local data on youth homelessness, we know that it’s a problem in DC. Just last year, news headlines blared with misinformation about the “missing DC girls” — hundreds of Black and Latinx youth who had gone missing in the first three months of the year after a social media post went viral. Local officials attempted to allay concerns by sharing that the number of missing teens hadn’t increased but that the method for publicizing missing children had changed. Still, it highlighted a crisis: at least 1,100 youth (and as many as 6,000) are experiencing homelessness in DC, and there are only 199 shelter beds in the city specifically designated for homeless youth between the ages of 12 and 24.

“I left because my foster mother was mistreating me,” one of DC’s missing girls told WUSA9. Having no safe alternatives, she opted to sleep in the laundry room of an apartment building next to her sister’s place rather than return to foster care. Other “missing girls” shared similar stories.

Image by Jessica Raven used with permission.

Advocates argue that survival sex working youth are “victims, not criminals” and therefore should be defined in the law as child sex trafficking victims. However, anti-trafficking advocates often focus on limiting their participation in the sex trade through arrest and website shutdowns, rather than solving the problems that lead youth to engage in survival sex in the first place.

Most efforts to address this problem focus on the sex exchange rather than the lack of housing, misguidedly cracking down on survival means while ignoring survival needs.

Similar to youth in the sex trade, many adults work in the sex trade because they have few alternatives. This is especially true for transgender adults who face high rates of employment discrimination and high rates of homelessness. In 2015, a DC Office of Human Rights study showed that 48 percent of DC employers preferred a less qualified applicant over a more qualified transgender applicant. Employment discrimination disproportionately impacts trans people of color, and as a result, 55 percent of Black trans adults in DC are unemployed, leaving many to engage in sex work to survive.

Facing discrimination in accessing housing and jobs, 37 percent of trans sex workers in DC are homeless and have few alternatives to engaging in sex work in public spaces like streets and alleys. Engaging in sex work in the street puts sex workers at increased risk of violence. One study showed that more than 80 percent of street-based sex workers experienced violence over the course of their work. Sex workers are especially vulnerable to police violence because their work is criminalized, including in DC.

Black trans adults are jailed for what they do to survive, and the “No Nuisance” legislation takes this a step further by putting sex workers’ housing at greater risk.

The problems facing sex workers, sex trafficking victims, and community members who don’t want to find condoms on their lawn are all rooted in the same thing — homelessness. If we want to make DC’s public spaces safer, especially for those most likely to experience physical and sexual violence, we need to make sure that everyone in our city is housed first.