“How you dress shouldn’t be cause for arrest”

By Penelope Saunders

In late 2004 and early 2005, the Mayor of Washington, D.C. proposed several new laws to augment the city’s already stringent anti-prostitution policies. Draft legislation included measures that would allow the chief of police to designate areas of D.C. as “prostitution-free zones,” provide the police and other government agencies with greater powers to investigate venues such as massage parlors thought to be brothels, and criminalize the actual act of having sex for money (in addition to the already criminalized solicitation of sex for money).

Sex workers, transgenders, homeless, immigrants and allied community groups working with them, such as Different Avenues and HIPS, mobilized as the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. The Alliance educated City Council Members and the public about the real needs of their communities and the harm that the new laws would inflict on marginalized people.

Despite these efforts in 2006 all initiatives proposed by the mayor passed into law.

One detail from the campaign about the legislation stayed with the community activists. City Council Members repeatedly asked, “What evidence do you have that the laws harm sex workers and other communities?”

Community-Based Research Answers Questions

In 2007, the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. developed a community based research project to answer this question. Representatives of sex worker and allied communities trained themselves in research techniques and investigated the effect of anti-prostitution policing in the District of Columbia.

The resulting report, Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington D.C., released in May 2008, reveals the treatment of police of those they assume to be sex workers: the police confiscate condoms and other safe sex supplies from them; assault, strip search, and verbally abuse them; and, subject them to false arrest. Almost one in five people surveyed said that officers asked them for sex. An interviewee explained that, “[I was] made to perform sexual favors to avoid being charged with prostitution.”

The community researchers also found that “move along” policies utilized by police to “cleanse” certain neighborhoods of people presumed to be sex workers also have an effect on the community, forcing community members to go into areas where they feel less safe and are vulnerable to violence and robbery. The new laws in D.C., such as the prostitution-free zones, legitimize police profiling of community members on the basis of appearance. Community members interviewed clearly understand the injustice of this. “How you dress shouldn’t be cause for arrest,” noted a transgender woman during a community forum discussion about the report.

What the Campaign Says About the ‘Feminist Divide’

Since the release of the Move Along report, organizing efforts have intensified as the Alliance seeks to promote safety and justice for everyone in D.C. — including sex workers and allied communities. Communities of sex workers, migrants, transgenders and others who are affected by the ham-fisted anti-prostitution policies in D.C. feel that change will come.

The campaigns in D.C., and similar efforts emerging all across the United States, should (and I hope do) provoke debate in activist circles about the “feminist divide” on prostitution/sex work.

The reality is that sex-worker organizing in the United States is one of the most vibrant social movements of our time. Today, sex-worker organizing is linked to, and embraced by, many other progressive movements for change such as campaigns against the prison industrial complex and actions for sexual and reproductive rights. Many third-wave feminists, younger feminists reacting to some of the limitations of previous forms of feminism, are part of these newer social movements and consider themselves allies to sex workers. Some of them are sex workers themselves.

Older debates centering on the morality of prostitution have no relevance in these struggles and prohibitionist/anti-prostitution feminists who espouse views that ultimately originate from such antiquated thinking have sidelined themselves. They have not been able to hear the voices of the people in these struggles, nor have they understood the perspectives of sex workers who come from varied life style, races, genders and cultures.

Yet, sex-worker-rights activists and their allies continue to hope that feminists who have not yet become fully aware about the debates over sex work will look at current campaigns with open minds. After all, policies that allow police to profile and target people because of the way they are dressed or because of their presumed sexual behavior, echo discriminatory policies that feminists in general have opposed for decades.

Penelope Saunders is a board member of the Desiree Alliance and the coordinator of the Best Practice Policy Project. She is the former executive director of Different Avenues and maintains a close working relationship with the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C.

Also See: Nothing About Us, Without Us by Ann Jordan in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also See: Divide, Conquer and Sell by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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