The national organization Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW) has stopped pursuing advocacy in Washington D.C. after local activists criticized the group for not responding to concerns about allegations of sexual misconduct against one of the founding members of the group, Robert Kampia.
One of the most prominent The Sex Workers Advocacy Coalition (SWAC), an advocacy arm of the non-profit Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS), said that Kampia’s continued association with the group demonstrated a disregard for the concerns and rights of sex workers, and the resulting attention of the group in D.C. shifts the conversation away from the actual issue at hand — decriminalization of sex work.
Kampia was accused of sexual misconduct in 2010 for sleeping with a female subordinate, making lewd comments and dating a teenage intern while working as a marijuana legalization activist for an organization he co-founded. In 2017, Kampia left the organization.
According to the Daily Beast, many discouraged him from his move to pursue advocacy in the decriminalization movement after he held a summit on sex work shortly before he formally co-founded DSW in early 2019. Kaitlyn Bailey, DSW’s communications director, confirmed to BUST that the organization was aware there would likely be protests to their presence in D.C. due to the concerns raised after the summit.
“We’ve been aware of the opposition to our work but we were hoping that the fruits of our labor would speak from themselves,” Bailey said to BUST in a phone interview.
Cydnee Clay, the executive director of HIPS, told BUST that the group’s arrival in the region raised many concerns about how local organizations would be involved with the advocacy that it planned on pursuing. HIPS has been working closely with the sex work community since 1993, and did not feel DSW understood how best to approach the issue in D.C..
“We have a very strong coalition in D.C. that has done a lot of work without needing a national organization’s help,” Clay said. “For me, when they came in and approached both HIPS and SWAC, it was, I made it very clear that they really needed to do a lot of work to convince us that they were going to be a good partner and they didn't do that.”
Clay’s biggest concern is DSW’s lack of response to a March 2019 letter signed by sex work advocacy groups from across the nation denouncing Kampia’s involvement in the movement.
In March 2019, sex worker rights activists and organizers demanded accountability for the predatory behavior of Rob Kampia via @DecrimSex and were met with silence. Months later @DecrimSex has tried to AstroTurf our local movement. Read our statement https://t.co/6n9krvIOyB pic.twitter.com/bO0VEvk3pe— DECRIMNOW DC (@DecrimNowDC) February 13, 2020
“Our work is rooted in transformative justice, survivor-centered values and informed by the leadership of directly impacted people in the sex trades working on the grassroots level,” the statement reads. “As such, we urge our allies to call for Rob Kampia to resign from the organization Decriminalize Sex Work and to reject his participation in this movement.”
Bailey maintains that DSW also believes the issue of decriminalization should be the focus, pointing out that Kampia lives in Texas.
“I think the real problem here is police officers raping sex workers in custody,” Bailey said. “Rob Kampia is weird and uncomfortable to work with, and a terrible, terrible spokesperson for the topic. But he’s not a predator.”
Local D.C. advocate and HIPS member Tamika Spellman told The Washington Post that Kampia’s involvement, even if it was just limited to fundraising, deterred her and other activists from wanting to work with DSW.
“I want the money, don’t get me wrong,” Spellman said. “It could do some magnificent things for this movement. But so long as something is attached with Mr. Kampia, it’s going to be a no-go.”
Clay echoes this sentiment, reiterating that the movement is bigger than the individual people involved.
“I think the challenge, as well, is individual members of DSW are folks who are trying to do something good,” Clay said. “t's still an organization that won’t respond effectively to community concerns. It’s not an organization that we trust to work effectively with local populations afterward.”
On leaving D.C., DSW released a statement stating that while it believed local organizations mischaracterized the work it was doing, it would only continue to pursue policy changes and getting decriminalization on the ballot if it was welcome in the area.
“We know that this ballot initiative can be won, but we cannot and do not want to do it when local activists are not interested in collaborating with our organization,” the statement reads. “Divided in this way, we all lose.”
Clay said the pursual of a ballot initiative demonstrated that DSW expected a quick turn around on an issue that HIPS has been fighting for for the past 23 years. Polling conducted by DSW found that 55 percent of voters supported decriminalization. However, a bill to decriminalize sex work introduced in late 2019 stalled after council members decided not to bring it to a vote after a 14-hour long hearing.
Local groups also noted that they had an understanding of the diverse population in D.C. that they feared DSW did not seem to have, especially with a majority white team. Concerns about race are especially poignant in examining how black and brown populations are disproportionally affected as sex workers. An Amnesty International report called sex work a racial justice issue, citing that black women, and particularly black trans women experience more violence, death and arrests as sex workers. Bailey says that DSW made an effort to reach out to black and brown leaders.
Although DSW has left D.C., it is offering a $100,000 grant to a qualifying local organization to run the ballot initiative.
Whether or not a group will apply for the money remains to be seen. In the meantime, Clay points out that decriminalization extends beyond the legality of sex work.
“I think that there are national conversations about how decriminalization is a women’s issue, it’s an LGBTQ issue, it’s a civil rights issue,” she said. “And that’s the conversation we need to keep having because laws alone aren’t going to reduce stigma.”
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