D.C.’s Punitive Sex Work Laws Endanger Women By Aziza Ahmed and Brook Kelly January 7, 2010 – 7:00am
Sex workers around the world face numerous violations of their human rights, many of which are rooted in the law. Laws justify and enable discrimination against sex workers by state agents including the police. These violations contribute to a lack of access to health services for sex workers, particularly for women and transgender women who are already HIV- positive. The International Community of Women Living with HIV AND AIDS and The Women’s Collective analyzed the legal barriers faced by sex workers seeking access to health services in Washington, DC, and the ways in which these barriers exacerbate the modern HIV epidemic in the District, which has one of the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country. (At the time of this research we were both legal fellows at our respective organizations). Sex workers are highly vulnerable to contracting HIV in Washington, DC. There are many factors contributing to this vulnerability: Sex work being criminalized means that it is often practiced under the radar, and without the protection of the law. This makes it difficult for health service providers to access sex workers and build the necessary relationships to provide important information and services. Sex workers are stigmatized for being sex workers by public health agencies, providers, and police. Therefore there is often discomfort and distrust in accessing services and service providers and many health concerns like sexually transmitted infections go undetected, and untreated. High rates of sexual violence and coercion, which make sex workers vulnerable to contracting HIV through coerced unprotected sex. Violence often means an inability to negotiate condom use. When sex workers experience violence they may not be taken seriously by the police and may be unable to access legal protections and remedies, and necessary health services. Police often harass service providers who are providing care to sex workers particularly where there is also a provision for clean needles. Sex workers are not able to collect employment based health insurance, this means that many individuals may be without insurance and unable to receive the care that they need. Safe sex materials can be considered indicators for being a sex worker and police harassment creates a disincentive for carrying condoms. Given the treatment of sex workers generally, it was no surprise to find in our research that like many other parts of the world, Washington, DC has created a spectrum of punitive laws that lead to and exacerbate unsafe work environments for sex workers and contribute to pushing women already vulnerable to contracting HIV further underground. One such law is the DC Prostitution Free Zone. The District of Columbia enacted the Prostitution Free Zones law in April 2007. By this time D.C. was well aware of the seriousness of their HIV and AIDS epidemic and the disparate impact oh HIV on women of color, gay men, and other marginalized communities. The law allows the Chief of Police to declare a public area a Prostitution Free Zone (Zone) for a period of ten days during which police may clear the area and make arrests of any people who are believed to be “congregating for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” and who refuse to leave the Zone. Zones are often erected to push sex workers out of commercial and populated parts of the District; areas that tend to provide more safety for sex workers because they are not isolated, dark, and void of foot and car traffic. Normally the police must have probable cause to make any arrest. Within the Zone, the probable cause standard, used to protect citizens’ rights, is circumvented and police may arrest anyone they merely believe to be engaged in prostitution. In the process of lowering the standards for arrest, the health of sex workers is placed in grave danger by procedures used by the D.C. police to determine who is a sex worker. Police confiscation of safer sex tools like condoms for use as evidence of intent to engage in prostitution is not uncommon. Anecdotal evidence suggests that having three or more condoms is considered a proxy for being a sex worker. Practices like these that discourage the procurement and use of condoms by sex workers, undermine the efforts of non-profit groups who do outreach with sex workers, and is an outrageous policy in a city that has the highest HIV rates in the country. Prostitution Free Zone laws, like most punitive approaches to commercial sex work, do further damage by disproportionately affecting the health and safety of the District’s most vulnerable sex workers – those who work on the street. Sex workers are already marginalized and discriminated against by both the larger community and the police due to their race, ethnicity, and/or gender. The District of Columbia currently has an HIV AND AIDS rate of epidemic proportions, affecting people of color and sexual minorities at shockingly disproportionate rates. The Prostitution Free Zones law increases the difficulty of survival and decreases the safety of street based sex workers by pushing sex workers into darker and more isolated areas where they feel unsafe and more vulnerable to harassment, assault, and robbery. The combination of police harassment; being pushed into darker and less safe areas; and the confiscation and utilization of safer sex tools as evidence against sex workers makes the already daunting, but life-saving negotiation by sex workers with clients on safer sex practices more difficult. Currently, some of the populations hardest hit by both HIV and AIDS and the District’s prostitution laws–including transgender women and Latinos–are also either entirely absent from, or highly underreported in the current epidemiology surveys. Consequently, public health responses have been untargeted, inappropriate, or underfunded. For example, neither the Washington DC HIV and AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration (formerly the HIV and AIDS Administration), nor the Center for Disease Control currently keep data on the HIV and AIDS rates of transgender women even though this population is most vulnerable to HIV AND AIDS due to limited economic opportunities, gender and appearance discrimination, and discrimination in health care and other services. Reducing HIV prevalence in the District of Columbia requires building trust between vulnerable communities and public health agencies, providers, and police; it requires synthesizing laws and policies to promote public health outcomes that improve people’s rights and quality of life. Instead, retrogressive policies perpetuate rights violations, harassment and fear. Laws like the Prostitution Free Zones that put any member of the DC community at greater risk for contracting HIV must be amended or eliminated as a matter of human rights and sound public health policy. Eliminating punitive and ineffective laws allows sex workers to not only access the health services they need but also help participate in the design and implementation of programs leading to greater success in alleviating the HIV epidemic in Washington D.C. Making these changes are crucial to curtailing the skyrocketing rates of HIV in the District especially among women of color, including transgender women, some of the most underserved populations in the nation’s capitol.