Some may wonder at the headline, having seen plenty of prostitution take place on Capitol Hill, the White House, and K Street, a tradition that goes back at least decades. In this case, though, we’re talking about literal prostitution, especially streetwalkers in the nation’s capital. Council member David Grosso wants to decriminalize the sex trade in Washington DC to protect its workers from exploitation, but the police department isn’t quite as sanguine that they are the only victims of this industry:

“It is something that my staff and I have been working on and thinking about for a few months now,” Grosso (I-At Large) said Wednesday. “Once the Amnesty report came out, it validated a lot of the concerns that I have of how we handle this in the District.”

Amnesty argued that decriminalizing sex work is the most effective way to defend sex workers’ human rights. Grosso similarly said this policy move would “respect the fact that sex workers are human beings, too.”

“The only way we can solve this is to work closely with the folks that are in this type of environment and get them what they need,” Grosso said. “We don’t want this on the streets, and it’s not going to necessarily go away if we continue to criminalize it.”

This is not a new argument. Libertarians, both large-L and small-l, have argued for many years that laws against prostitution interfere with interpersonal relations and free association in commerce. That position usually includes the same points made in the Amnesty International report, which is that criminalizing the sex trade forces it into the shadows and leaves workers with no recourse when they are attacked and exploited. Advocates point to counties in Nevada that allow brothels to operate openly as success stories.

Don’t count Chief Cathy Lanier among the enthusiastic about this proposal:

“Many of our communities dealing with the disorder associated with street-level prostitution certainly do not agree that sex work is a victimless crime,” Lanier wrote in an e-mail. “Moreover, I know that Council member Grosso is equally concerned with the risk to victims of human trafficking.

“Ultimately, the police will enforce whatever laws the District enacts,” Lanier continued, “but this should not be changed without a thorough debate about its potential merits and risks.”

Don’t expect Congress to be enthusiastic about it, either. DC has its city government, but it answers directly to Congress. While there have been more than a few sex scandals involving elected officials on Capitol Hill, they aren’t going to worry too much about looking hypocritical when their constituents get wind of a plan to turn DC into a European-style red-light district. Instead, they will want their nation’s capital to enforce the law rather than shrug it off — and at least for now, that’s what Lanier’s department is doing:

D.C.’s summer crackdown on johns has netted 157 men since the middle of July, D.C. Police announced Wednesday.

It reported eight new arrests in recent days.

“What we’ve seen is a resurgence of the showgirl prostitution, where the girls are out on the streets cruising, getting picked up and going into alleys,” says D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2, who represents an area targeted by the crackdown.

Evans calls streetwalking “showgirl prostitution,” and notes that the rise in this market comes from enhanced undercover efforts to nab escorts at hotels. That in itself might be an argument in Grosso’s favor, showing that law enforcement is just shifting markets rather than reducing prostitution, and in this case in a direction that makes it less safe for the prostitutes.

However, the question seems to be whether we actually want to oppose exploitation or to simply find ways to ignore it. A column in today’s New York Times by an exotic dancer from Cathedral City, California shows that even legal sex work results in exploitation, and that the solution demanded for it is … government intervention:

Whatever we bring home (and there is a lot of under-the-table money here), a pervasive, and frustrating, myth is that dancing pays enough for us to stop complaining — that we get paid enough to be cool with however we’re treated. But that’s not true. One day a dancer could do 20 lapdances — or she could do only one dance and make a couple hundred bucks on her stage show. No matter how large the money wad is, the establishment finds a way to skim from it.

After we’ve played therapist and plaything for pushy, often drunk customers, and the club sees us doing well in spite of these challenges, the “stage fee” that dancers pay can be raised capriciously. When we speak up, we may be intimidated behind closed doors, told to keep quiet or go elsewhere.

We have seen some gains, like a groundbreaking 2012 class-action lawsuit in which dancers asked for $13 million in lost wages and also contested their statuses as contractors. The federal court ruled in the dancers’ favor and ordered that club (a chain called Spearmint Rhino) to stop charging “stage fees,” as well as count dancers as employees. More recently, others have tried working directly with state lawmakers and lobbyists to improve conditions. …

Strip clubs have provided me and many other dancers with steady income for our entire adult lives. I’m thankful to have enjoyed decades as a paid entertainer. But we deserve the same protections and respect given to any employee in any other work force. We are night laborers who have found a way to offer fantasy, entertainment, intrigue and human contact in an impersonal culture. We want to see a safe and sexy dance floor in every strip club in America. And we deserve to keep our tips.

It’s not a very large leap from libertarian laissez-faire to government-mandated employment relationships, it seems. Legalizing prostitution would in the end be an exchange of government mandates, from one set designed however imperfectly to prevent exploitation to another that merely manages it. Given the nature of these choices, most will continue to opt for the former over the latter.