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D.C.’s Murderous Anti-Prostitution Policy

Apparently all you need to do to be arrested for prostitution in D.C. is carry three or more condoms. Seriously.

Think you might get lucky tonight? Well, if you’re in D.C., don’t bring more than two condoms in your purse, or you could be arrested as a prostitute.

In D.C., police can declare “Prostitution Free Zones” where officers can pick up (I mean, arrest) anyone suspected of sex work. And they’ve been accused of using carrying three or more condoms as proof of intent to sell sex — rather than intent to spend the weekend getting jiggy with a guy.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard so far this year.

Anti-prostitution policies in D.C. pose serious threats to health and safety of community members identified or otherwise targeted as sex workers. Two policies stand out in particular: first, “move along” polices geared at cleansing certain neighborhoods of sex workers; and second, the use of condoms and safe sex as evidence to arrest or prosecute someone for prosecution and the related practice of confiscating and destroying condoms and other safe sex materials. Our research reveals that being told to move along by police is a common experience for people presumed to be engaging in commercial sex, and that it is not limited to areas covered by prostitution free zones. Most people reported moving into areas or neighborhoods where they feel less safe, potentially making themselves vulnerable to violence, robbery and even more police abuse. The “move along” policy also makes it more difficult for those conducting outreach work, who are sometimes themselves targets of unlawful police treatment, to provide information and related services to sex workers. Furthermore, shrouding a population in suspicion ultimately suppresses their ability to take actions to keep themselves safe, including by garnering police assistance when they need it.

I hardly know where to begin. For starters, as a former HIV/AIDS prevention educator, I think carrying condoms and having them on hand is a terrific idea for anyone who’s sexually active. Period. When my boys are old enough I plan to tell them “the facts of life,” right down to how to protect themselves and their partners from STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, etc.

Sure, as a parent, I’d prefer that they abstain from having having sex until they are old enough and mature enough to deal with all the potential consequences and outcomes. But at the same time, if they’re going to be sexually active, I’d want them to use condoms. I’d want them to have condoms with them. I’d make sure they know how to use them. I’d even go to the drug store and buy condoms, and give them to my boys myself, to make sure they have them.

(I’d do the exact same thing for a daughter, if I had one, because I’d want her to have her own on hand.)

Because I’m a parent, but I’m also a realist. I don’t imagine that not teaching them about condoms, and not they have them is somehow going to stop them from having sex. They’re people. People have sex. People have sex with or without condoms, birth control, etc. People have sex without regard for the consequences, sometimes. And I don’t think my kids should have their lives unalterably changed by an STD or unplanned pregnancies, just for having sex. I don’t think they should sacrifice their lives for having sex. I don’t think anyone should. People have sex. There’s little you can do to stop them.

And so, I’m somewhat perplexed by what the D.C. police think they’re trying to accomplish here. As Jaclyn Friedman pointed out, it’s not going to do much good.

…You know what that’s going to do? It’s not going to reduce sex trafficking. It’s not going to improve the lives or working conditions of sex workers. It’s not going to lock up abusers or pimps. It’s going to spread disease. It’s going to increase the spread of STIs (including HIV) among sex workers and their clients. And those clients will spread it even further out into the general population. And those of us who aren’t sex workers but don’t feel like risking arrest en route to a hot date? Some of us are going to carry fewer condoms and catch and spread more disease, too. And those of us who carry lots of condoms so we can distribute them and help other people stay safe? Well, we’re obviously a criminal element, aren’t we?

I’ve written about prostitution before, about the various ways and reasons women enter into sex work, the issue of decriminalizing sex work, and the suicide of Deborah Jeane-Palfrey. And, I’ve written about numerous transgender women — Nizah Morris, Bella Evangelista, Emonie Spaulding, Chanelle Pickett, Duanna Johnson, and Ebony Whitaker — who turned to sex work as a means of survival.

What all of these women have in common is that they were transgender, they were murdered, and were murdered by men who discovered they were transgender. What they also have in common is that each of them turned to sex work at least part time in order to support themselves, because of difficulty getting legal employment, a direct result of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender presentation. In the wake of the murders of three transgender women – including Evangelista and Spaulding – transgender activist spoke out about how gender identity discrimination places transgender women in danger.

Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista’s or Emonie Spaulding’s often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it’s a form of blaming the victim.

“The implication is that it’s your fault for being beaten or killed,” says Jessica Xavier. “But a lack of privilege means you don’t have a choice.” Or as Mottet puts it, “Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living.”

“The classic profile,” says Mara Kiesling, “is a 13-year-old who’s thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She’s kicked out of school for wearing girls’ clothes. She can’t get a job because her says ‘Andre’ but she looks like a girl.

“What’s going to happen? Most likely, she’ll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable – living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival.”

Some D.C. activists made a relevant distinction between sex work and “survival sex work.”

During a press conference following Evengelista’s murder, Budd told how transgendered women informed her that they turned to prostitution only after they had been denied jobs because of their appearance.

“It’s a matter of simple survival,” Budd said. “Some of the girls have no other choice but to turn to the streets for survival.”

… Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said about 50 people attending a transgender “speakout” meeting in the District on Sept. 9, discussed a wide range of issues and problems faced by transgendered people, including the issue of prostitution.

“It’s about economic opportunity or the lack of opportunity,” Keisling said. “I call it survival sex work, which is not the same as commercial sex work,” she said.

“If you were thrown out of your house at 10 and you didn’t finish school, what are your chances of going to college at Georgetown?” she said.

I can’t imagine that the “three Condom policy” will make the lives of these women any better — certianly not by making them healthier or safer — because it won’t address the reasons they turned to sex work in the first place. Granted, women (and men) do sex work for a number of reasons. Some may do it to pay their way through grad school or help with other expenses. Some may turn to sex work due to a lack of education and other economic opportunities due to discrimination, as is the case with some transgender women who do sex work. Some may turn to sex work to support a drug or alcohol addiction. Some may be forced into it, by people who control them through violence and coercion. Some may be trafficked, forced to do sex work, and held as virtual slaves.

Whatever the reason, how is arresting them for having a certain number of condoms on them? The women who have few other choices and turn to sex work for survival aren’t going to stop working because they risk arrest for carrying condoms. They will still work, and they will work without condoms if that’s what they have to do in order to survive. The women who are forced into sex work, and controlled by pimps who profit from them, won’t stop working just because they risk arrest for carrying condoms. The pimps who control and depend upon them will force them to work anyway, because they want the profits. The women who are trafficked into sex work will not stop working either, because they simply won’t be given a choice.

Of these women, the enforcement of the policy above will have less impact on the “high class call-girl” paying her way through grad school than it will the women who are economically disadvantaged, and who are compelled to do sex work because they need the money and have few other options, and who are exploited or controlled by people who use violence and coercion to force them to work.

They will work anyway, because they have to. They will, thus, be exposed to disease. Many of them will become infected, and thus infection will spread — from their clients to them, from them to their clients, and from their clients to any number of others (spouses, partners, girlfriends, etc.).

It simply doesn’t work. And it doesn’t matter if, as San Francisco Police point out, carrying condoms alone is not a basis for arrest. As Friedman says, it’s a health disaster.

Knowing that planning ahead for a night out could be used as evidence against you is enough to make anyone uncomfortable, but most people needn’t worry about getting randomly arrested for condoms. The major problem is the impact of discouraging sex workers — which do include men, though women are the majority — from using protection. (Although the Urban Justice Center states that many transgender women, even those who aren’t sex workers, fear carrying condoms because they are frequently profiled by police.)

San Francisco police defend the practice by claiming that “a pocket full of condoms alone is not a basis for arrest.” Guess what: condoms shouldn’t factor at all into potential arrest for sex work. It’s a health disaster.

The mere possibility that condoms could be used against them in a court of law deters sex workers from protecting themselves, putting their own lives in danger and contributing to the spread of STDs — furthering epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS. With enforcement practices like this one, it’s no wonder a UCSF study found that only half of sex workers use condoms with first-time clients, and fewer with repeat customers.

In D.C., San Francisco, and New York, the use of condoms as evidence is not specified under law as either acceptable or unacceptable, so the practice has been left to the discretion of cops and prosecutors.

And this in D.C., where the HIV/AIDS epidemic has itself became a disaster.

One disaster has been quietly underway for some time now, with help conservative hostility to the very idea that government should (not can, but should) help and protect the most vulnerable citizens. Late last year, the first ever statistical report on HIV/AIDS in D.C. revealed a “modern epidemic,” according to The Washington Post. It also revealed the nature of the epidemic and its spread.

The numbers most starkly illustrate HIV’s impact on the African American community. More than 80 percent of the 3,269 HIV cases identified between 2001 and 2006 were among black men, women and adolescents. Among women who tested positive, a rising percentage of local cases, nine of 10 were African American.

The 120-page report, which includes the city’s first AIDS update since 2000, shows how a condition once considered a gay disease has moved into the general population. HIV was spread through heterosexual contact in more than 37 percent of the District’s cases detected in that time period, in contrast to the 25 percent of cases attributable to men having sex with men.

When the report came out, Jayne Lyn Stahl aptly labeled the epidemic “the Katrina of public health” in a piece at The Huffington Post.

The presence of an epidemic of this magnitude so close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can’t help but make one wonder if federal policy, or non-policy is at the nucleus of this health catastrophe. Yet, where is the public outrage that a campaign of misinformation, disinformation, or information/education blockade should claim the same demographic casualties as that of Hurricane Katrina.

…On this administration’s watch, more than $100 million in grants have been allocated for abstinence-only education programs. The president pressured the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to eliminate, from its Web site, anything that might promote the efficacy of using condoms to prevent STDs, and AIDS. Roughly 90 percent of the $15 billion set aside for fighting HIV globally has been made available to domestic groups for use in their ongoing worldwide campaign to promote abstinence, and to discourage the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Is it any wonder then that the spread of HIV/AIDS of this magnitude among the largest minority population of any American city should strike this close to home for a president who, as his response to Hurricane Katrina has clearly shown, is one of devout neglect.

In a Post article after the report was published, Jose Antonio Vargas told a personal story that illustrated the reality of “two Washingtons” when it comes to HIV/AIDS, and placed a significant amount of blame on the federal government and its policies.

For nearly a decade, congressional opponents of needle-exchange programs have prevented the city from spending its own tax money on funding one, even though a third of all new AIDS cases can be traced to a reused needle. About 210 such programs are in place in 36 cities nationwide. The new Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill says the District’s ban could be lifted by next fall-almost a year away.

(The needle exchange ban was finally lifted early this year.)

As Stahl pointed out at the end of her post:

The platform of “compassionate conservatism” on which this president ran is no more to be found in these statistics than in the waving hands of those drowning as a result of a monstrous hurricane in New Orleans. Once again, it becomes crystal clear that survival, too, is a matter of privilege.

Survival shouldn’t be a matter of privilege. A policy like isn’t just wrongheaded. It borders on murderous. It needs to end.

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