D.C.’s Punitive Sex Work Laws Endanger Women

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D.C.’s Punitive Sex Work Laws Endanger Women

Aziza Ahmed and Brook Kelly

Washington, DC has created a spectrum of punitive laws that lead to and exacerbate unsafe work environments for sex workers and contribute to the skyrocketing rates of HIV infection among vulnerable populations in the District.

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.

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:

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  • 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

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.