A groundbreaking campaign to make Washington, DC, the first city in the US to decriminalize sex work is foundering amid clashes between local activists and a national organization whose political director has been accused of sexual misconduct.
The city looked poised to make a change as recently as last October, when a bill to remove criminal penalties for the selling and purchase of sex was set for a public hearing. Since then, those efforts have fallen apart; the bill, which was supported by local grassroots activists, was tabled. More recently, a proposal to include the measure on the November ballot, put forth by a relatively new national organization, was met with opposition from those same activists.
Decriminalize Sex Work, the organization that had planned to pursue the ballot initiative, is now scrapping the project, according to a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. This comes after backlash from local DC activists who cited allegations of sexual misconduct against Decriminalize Sex Work’s political director, Rob Kampia. They also accused the organization of crowding out and whitewashing grassroots efforts.
Kaytlin Bailey, communications director for Decriminalize Sex Work, told BuzzFeed News that she accepted the concerns of sex workers in DC.
“Sex workers in DC asked us with one voice to get out, and we are honoring that,” she said.
“Good,” said Tamika Spellman, an advocate who has been part of the grassroots movement to decriminalize sex work in DC, when BuzzFeed News contacted her about Decriminalize Sex Work’s decision to withdraw the proposal.
But Spellman still felt Kampia's removal was essential.
“If they care about sex workers like they said they did, number one: Remove Rob Kampia. There’s no getting around that," she said.
Instead of pursuing the ballot initiative, Decriminalize Sex Work said it will now offer $100,000 as a grant to qualifying organizations in DC that want to pursue their own decriminalization efforts.
“This would be us stepping back and leaving behind $100,000,” Bailey told BuzzFeed News.
"We would like to work with everyone who wants to decriminalize sex work, and we’re willing to do that on their terms," Bailey added.
The ballot initiative would have given voters the opportunity to weigh in directly. But the decision to withdraw its proposal is the latest in a series of setbacks for the movement to bring sex workers out of the shadows. Initiatives in New York and elsewhere have struggled to make headway despite growing calls to rethink the way the criminal justice system approaches the sex trade.
David Grosso, a member of the DC city council, introduced the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act last June with the support of activists like Spellman and other local groups. The bill also won support from numerous LGBTQ rights and civil liberties organizations — but it was criticized by members of the anti–sex trafficking movement, who argued it would enable exploitation of people in the sex trade. After a contentious 14-hour public hearing, lawmakers in DC declined to bring the bill to a vote.
Decriminalize Sex Work said its now-canned proposal was inspired by Grosso’s bill, though it differs on a few points. After the bill failed to make progress, the group said it decided to pursue the ballot initiative on the basis of polling that showed widespread support for such a vote. According to the organization, 55% of DC voters would have supported the proposed initiative.
At the time that the bill was tabled, Grosso said he thought the initiative should be brought to the ballot box. But he recently told the Washington Blade that he would not support Decriminalize Sex Work’s proposal for a ballot initiative without buy-in from the local coalition.
“Their voice is the most important to me in DC, not the national movement,” he said.
Bailey and a Decriminalize Sex Work staffer involved in the effort told BuzzFeed News that initial conversations with local activists had been largely positive, but the staffer said he was confronted by members of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) on a conference call in January. Despite the coalition's request that Decriminalize Sex Work end its efforts, the organization proceeded to file paperwork for the initiative, saying it had hoped to salvage the project before a looming deadline.
The whole thing exploded into public view in mid-February after the local coalition issued a statement accusing Decriminalize Sex Work of breaking a promise to step back.
“They promised not to move forward with their ballot initiative without our support,” said the statement published on Twitter by DecrimNow DC, a group created by SWAC members. “Yet, in early February, Decriminalize Sex Work reached out to unaffiliated individuals to file the ballot initiative, despite the opposition from our local Sex Worker Advocates Coalition.”
The statement cited allegations of sexual misconduct against Kampia and accused the organization of “disregard for survivors of sexual assault.” It also accused the organization of attempting to co-opt and whitewash the local movement, which is primarily led by queer people of color, saying there were “fundamental ideological differences.”
Kampia, who had been a major player in the marijuana legalization movement, was forced out of positions in two organizations in recent years after allegations of sexual harassment that he had sex with a coworker after a night of drinking resurfaced as part of the #MeToo movement. He founded Decriminalize Sex Work in late 2018, along with Bailey, Melissa Sontag Broudo, and Crystal DeBoise. The organization got off the ground in early 2019, and activists concerned about his jump to the sex work decriminalization movement spoke out shortly afterward; more than 20 organizations wrote a joint statement asking Kampia to resign and stay away from the movement.
“We are demanding Rob Kampia step down from Decriminalize Sex Work, and cease all involvement in any organizing spaces that are survivor-centered and led,” said the March 2019 statement. “Kampia and Decriminalize Sex Work are already ignoring survivor asks and causing more harm. As predicted, opponents of decriminalizing the sex trades (aka End Demand) would seize on Kampia’s public reputation to discredit the rest of the movement for the rights and safety of people who trade sex.”
Bailey defended Decriminalize Sex Work’s approach, saying that the initial conversations had included discussions about boundaries between Kampia and the people working on the ballot initiative in DC, and that “nobody would be expected to share space” with Kampia.
Spellman, who works on policy at a sex worker advocacy organization in DC and is active in SWAC, told BuzzFeed News she felt Kampia’s behavior was impossible to reconcile with the movement and that the organization’s insistence on pushing a measure that local activists had asked them to kill was reminiscent of the behavior of abusers.
“We deal with that in the field, and that’s why we’re asking for decriminalization so we can stop that type of stuff going on,” said Spellman.
“No means no, does it not?” Spellman added, “But somebody that’s a predator, that has white male privilege and money — they think they can just do whatever they want.”
Through a spokesperson, Kampia declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story. He disputed the allegation that he had assaulted a drunk coworker in 2009 in an interview with the Washington City Paper, saying, “It was a relationship dispute.”
Despite the fact that activists have repeatedly raised Kampia’s role in the movement, Bailey, Decriminalize Sex Work’s communications director, said the organization planned to continue working with him, although she acknowledged that questions had been raised about his role.
“Absolutely. That inevitably comes up,” she said.