Confiscating Condoms? The Dumbfounding Ways Police Deal With Prostitution
Sign up to stay up to date on the latest Sex & Relationships headlines via email.
It's not enough for some lawmakers that for the better part of a century, selling and buying sex has been illegal in every state of the union. (The exception is the system of legalized brothels dotting a handful of low-population counties in Nevada, the existence of which has done little to deter an underground, illegal sex trade.) Each year, scores of new laws are proposed to make prostitution somehow even more illegal than it already is.
These laws against prostitution don't simply increase penalties for buying or selling sex; they extend to creating criminal consequences for every aspect of sex workers' lives. After just one prostitution arrest, a person can be denied a job, an apartment, or the right to parent her children. She could find herself followed by police just for leaving her home.
Though it's now fashionable for some anti-prostitution activists and lawmakers to position these laws as being of aid to prostitutes, there is absolutely no moral or legal basis for arresting and jailing a person “for her own good.” Yet this is what we have been told about sex workers: that the conditions of prostitution are so horrific that a jail cell is preferable. For sex workers who escape that cell, they still must face the consequences of their prostitution arrest, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. Today's new anti-prostitution laws don't stop anyone from buying or selling sex – instead, they serve as tools for chipping away at people's rights through profiling and surveillance, a 21st-century continuation of the Scarlet Letter, establishing an entire underclass of people.
Across the United States, sex workers and people who have been profiled as sex workers report being followed and stopped by police under the pretense that anywhere a sex worker might go and anything a sex worker might do in public will lead to a criminal act. The District of Columbia has formalized this system of profiling and surveillance through establishing “prostitution-free zones.” Under this law, the DC chief of police may declare any area a prostitution-free zone for up to 10 days. This empowers officers to arrest “two or more persons congregating in a public space or property in that area for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses,” whether or not they have actually engaged in a crime. A prostitution-related offense includes loitering for the purposes of prostitution – in other words, a vague crime made only more criminal by the creation of a zone where it is even more easy to accuse and arrest you for it. Consequences include up to 180 days in jail and a $300 fine, or both.
In practice, these zones are used to give police the power to sweep entire blocks of people into jail, and overwhelmingly, it is women – women of color and transgender women in particular – who are arrested and fined. The zones end up driving sex workers even further underground, both to live and to work, into yet more dangerous and outlying areas, so as to avoid police harassment. In order to make prostitution invisible, sex workers' lives are made more dangerous. When a local human rights organization, Different Avenues, surveyed DC residents impacted by the zones in the years following their adoption, they found that 80 percent of their respondents had been refused assistance by the police even when they sought it out. Transgender and Latino residents faced the worst treatment from police. Street outreach workers attempting to provide free healthcare were harassed by police in the zones.
DC police can't answer who exactly this law is aimed to serve and protect, as it so clearly pits the health and welfare of some of DC's most vulnerable residents against assumptive notions of “public safety.” How would they explain that being in public as a sex worker is now so potentially disruptive or dangerous that it must be classified as a crime? The threat of people who appear to be prostitutes congregating is apparently so great that even presidents are at risk; in January 2009, a prostitution-free zone was declared in honor of the Obama inauguration.