Prostitution Free Zones in D.C.: The Sequel

Some activists in Washington, D.C. have been having a sense of dejá vù lately as politicians debate strengthening the city’s anti-prostitution laws. But constitutional concerns may keep the District from making “Prostitution Free Zones” permanent. Several years ago, communities fought a proposal to create “Prostitution Free Zones” (PFZs) – areas declared by the police chief where officers could order people to move along and/or arrest them if the officers believed the individuals were “congregating for the purposes of prostitution.” Despite a robust organizing effort that brought together groups in new ways, the law was passed, and legitimized long-standing police tactics of arresting people for looking a certain way or being in a certain area in the name of enforcing prostitution laws.

At the end of 2011, a member of the D.C. Council proposed a bill to make the PFZs – originally temporary – permanent. Local and national groups worked together to present a united response denouncing the idea. Activists took advantage of relationships with journalists to get media coverage of the problematic nature of the legislation in the run up to a hearing in January. A coalition of organizations – including sex worker groups, HIV service providers, trans and LGBT political groups, human rights organizations and others – began to raise awareness about the proposal and its negative implications. The groups also established a website and an online petition that garnered hundreds of signatures.

More than a dozen witnesses at the hearing testified against the bill, with only a handful in favor. Even the police and prosecutor’s office witnesses expressed concerns about the legislation. The sponsor of the bill recognized during the hearing that her proposal was not likely to advance, largely because of constitutional concerns and the probability that the law would not do much for the perceived problem. Sadly, the Council did not address issues of violence against marginalized communities or police profiling and abuse, raised by activists opposed to the law.

While it appears the PFZs will not become permanent, the series of events still begs the question — is the District’s approach to policing of prostitution effective? Community members urged the Council to not only reject the proposal, but to take a comprehensive and evidence-based look at the city’s current strategy in order to calibrate policies to promote safety for all, public health, and human rights.