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

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:

  • 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.  

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  • andrew-bell

    Why don’t we make prostitution legal? Why are we making this so complicated? Let’s collect taxes and put sex workers and clients on a safe side.

  • wildthing

    So it is ok for prostitutes to hang out with George Washington in the Capitol Rotunda but not out on the streets??? How come the city wants to limit it’s charms.

  • faultroy

    Well written but extremely obtuse. For instance half your article talks about Gays and Transgender, but according to your title all you care about is women. Secondly you define– quite wrongfully–a "sex worker" with a prostitute. Please note they are not the same. A sex worker is a "legal" prostitute. A "prostitute" is someone selling sex illegally. Don’t you think a little bit of honesty and a modicum of fairness requires that you call it the way it is? Thirdly, you talk about "sex workers," and the city of D.C. endangering their health when the reality is what you are talking about is the total lack of self control on a prostitute’s part and the rampant concommitant drug use that goes along with said trade–prostitution–not sex workers. The only place that I know of that has "sex workers," is Nevada. And, these (almost all women) are inspected, regularly seen by medcial personnel and protected by state mandated interventions. Calling a Prostitute a "sex worker" would be the equivalent of calling all wives "whores," because they engage in sex with men. But as you are well aware, Society makes quite a distinction between a "whore": and a "wife."–One is legal and possess both rights and responsibilities, the other has no rights and bears no responsibilities.

  • mariekw

    OUTRAGEOUS! I typically carry more than 3 condoms… for the use of myself with my man, and because I carry some for my less-prepared friends!!! And if I’m on the way home from the store where I buy them, I’ll be carrying a whole box!!! The fact that I plan ahead to keep from getting pregnant or STD’s even though my friends don’t have the same forethought makes me a sex-worker in the eyes of DC’s local government?????? WHAT THE HECK!!! In these days of rising teenage pregnancy and skyrocketing rates of preventable STD’s, these laws are completely outrageous and don’t leave room for people who just enjoy sex as part of their normal healthy dating or marriage relationship, to plan ahead to take reasonable precautions for their own health and safety. I hope every one of the idiots who made these stupid laws catches an STD! Maybe then they would realize how important condoms are for EVERYONE, not just sex-workers!

  • crowepps

    It does seem kind of ridiculous to be suspicious of condoms in the city with the highest HIV rate in the country.  IMO, they ought to have vending machines distributing free ones at every intersection.

  • dr-yasmina-katsulis

    Thank you for getting the word out about how local law and policy impacts the health and well-being of sex workers in DC. This is a human rights issue which all of us should take notice of, and do something about! I have recently published a book on that exact topic, but with respect to Tijuana, Mexico. You can visit my website to learn more.

    Dr. Yasmina Katsulis

    Arizona State University