Night Shifts Newsletter No. 17

Can Washington, D.C. achieve a more successful push for decriminalization of sex work a second time around?

Chibundo Egwuatu is the coordinator of the Advocacy Department and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC) for HIPS, a harm reduction agency that works towards ensuring the health and safety of sex workers in DC. HIPS focuses primarily on marginalized people who have a history of or are currently using drugs and/or doing sex work. They are also funding and organizing a major new campaign to obtain sex work decriminalization in DC. The last drive in 2019, a two-year campaign, failed to pass in DC’s City Council.

After pursuing a PhD in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Egwuatu came to DC to do her preliminary fieldwork, when expenses and the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from conducting it in Brazil. HIPS hired her in 2020. She wanted to work with HIPS because they were one of, if not the only decrim campaign she saw in the US led by black people, other than Women With A Vision in New Orleans.

“My work has been around black sex workers organizing as part of the tradition of black liberation practices,” explains Chibundo, who says any pronouns will do. “I’ve also been looking at the possibilities of undoing some integral tenets of empire with sex workers, black folks, especially those of marginalized genders being used to create and maintain borders or immigration status, people who have been so important to the maintenance and production of empire.”

We discussed how she and her organization are implementing a revised strategy to the DC decriminalization campaign this time around. For starters, they acquired grant funding to hire sex workers part-time to organize instead of giving free labor. Additionally, other sex workers will be given a stipend to serve as a steering committee to attend meetings and provide feedback.

Much of the effort has been around reviewing the 2019 effort to learn how to change the minds of naysayers from international anti-trafficking organizations and child protection agencies. Chibundo and her team have spent a lot of time re-listening to the hearings and re-reading negative comments. They are also actively reaching out to those folks who said they felt neglected to ensure that they are “at the table” this time. It’s all part of a more assiduous community outreach effort to engage sex workers and citizens and ultimately recruit more people to be interested and involved.

“One thing we saw last time was that not everyone in DC, of course, was even aware that this was happening,” Chibundo says. “People who did hear about it were excited and thought it was cool, but they didn’t know how to get involved. We didn’t encourage or enlist people to be organizers themselves in our communities. So folks shared the tweets sometimes, but I would love for folks, if they are interested, to get involved this time.”

Another significant thrust has been shaping a novel legal strategy. The ACLU DC was involved in 2019 but chose not to this time because their new policy director said it was not a priority. Their recent fundraising efforts will enable HIPS to pay a policy consultant to build a more impactful legal strategy and, if possible, assemble a team of A-list lawyers and policy thinkers to guide and implement their strategy. They seek an up-and-comer who is passionate enough about the decrim movement to catalyze the campaign.

“There are a lot of people with law degrees, but as for experienced legal experts, only two or three right now seem to be interested in our work,” she says. “We’ve also had some new conversations with a firm in town about doing some pro bono work with us, but more around contracts, especially digital contracts for cam girls.”

The latter pertains to the work Chibundo and HIPS do around the safety and well-being of sex workers. While decrim is their major goal, a lot of their work involves looking at contracts for sex workers in the digital space or doing things like a recent “Know Your Rights” training session with the Washington Lawyers Committee for strippers in DC.

While she is comfortable with where they are in terms of the funds they’ve raised to keep their decrim-in-the-district efforts rolling, she knows they will continue to seek additional funding as they add staff to write grant proposals. She would also like HIPS to merge their sex work decrim campaign with its decriminalization of drug possession campaign into one Decrim DC movement.

“That’s where our discourse is now, because people are talking about bodily autonomy, not just in the reproductive justice sense, but more broadly,” Chibundo says. “Like in what ways is how you engage with your body criminalized or how are your bodily expressions constrained specifically by the government? We need sex workers, drug users, reproductive justice advocates all in one big tent. I want to bring us back to a similar place to the HIV/AIDS crisis that brought all of those people together to talk about the body and criminalization of the body.”

Right now, Chibundo believes they may be a couple years away from resubmitting the idea of legislation for decriminalization to the DC City Council for consideration. Identifying that premier legal strategist stands at the center of their priorities to initiate a formal, significant effort to put the issue before City Council once more.

When she reflected on the liberation work she’s been doing, she informs that it’s ultimately all that she cares most about in her life.

“Obviously, the things I’ve been doing are not things that you get a lot of money for or a lot of accolades,” she says, adding with a laugh: “And I’m not saying that to be humble. I would love money. If I could do it and make $100,000 – and $100,000 a year is not much in DC – that would be great. I just need enough money to live and do what I think is important, and when I really think about it, I haven’t found anything more important.”

Already a young force of nature, Chibundo works closely with her mentor and inspiration, Tamika Spellman, policy and community engagement manager for HIPS.

“I only came here to work with Tamika, because she definitely has a clarity of vision that I‘ve not seen anywhere else,” she says. “I was not getting that at the university. I was not getting that in the church. [She grew up Catholic and a one point considered becoming a nun.] I wasn’t getting it in other organizing spaces I was involved with. There’s this lack of doubt, this lack of fear. It’s just so exciting. That I will get out of bed for. That will keep me off the fucking ledge. That will keep me in this, and if I work with someone who is that clear and that willing, it can change everything. There’s just so much possibility.”

Sometimes when she talks with sex workers about decrim, they tell her they’re not even thinking about that. They’re worried about how much they can earn in the next hour to see if they can pay for a hotel room, buy food, take care of their child. 

“A lot of the sex workers I meet, even the really young ones that got kicked out of their parent’s house or started working the streets because that was the only way they could make money because they’re trans are super clear about what works and what doesn’t,” she observes. “That can be very intimidating because I don’t have any answers to offer them. I’m only offering collaboration. That’s all I got.”

She’s also found that if she doesn’t bullshit anybody but tells them the truth, they are more willing to collaborate than other people she’s worked with. She finds that exciting and encouraging, and it drives her to continue working hard to help sex workers and others who are marginalized because of their chosen profession or drug use.

“I tell them maybe we can work together, maybe change everything,” she says. “Folks might say, ‘Okay. I’ll try for a little bit.’ There’s no disappointment, no mysteries, no secrets, and that’s fine.”

Next Up: Andrea Heinz, a commercial sexual exploitation activist who had worked as a prostitute for seven years in Canada. She is also the Executive Producer of Labeled Docuseries, an 8-episode documentary following a former sex seller banned from the U.S., as she attempts to get her ban lifted.