“Anti-Prostitution Zones”, “Loitering With Intent”, and the Problem of Gendered Profiling

The first time someone told me that you can be arrested in an “anti-prostitution zone” in DC for wearing tight clothes and carrying a condom, I thought they were kidding.  They weren’t.  In the years that have elapsed, I have looked at the research on cops profiling women in this way in DC, Chicago, New Haven, and New York, attempting to crack down on prostitution.  I’ve read newspaper articles, and I’ve listened to the stories, and there’s really only one conclusion to come to: this policy doesn’t get you less prostitution.  It gets you more HIV.

In places like the cities just mentioned, condom possession is frequently used as evidence of intent for prostitution cases.  Given that a large number of women carry condoms simply because they, you know, are one of the most common forms of protection during sexual intercourse, I find it hard to believe that this could be considered substantiated or compelling evidence for these cases.  In one of my public health classes last semester, a presenter asked us if anyone had a condom-~-at least five girls started rummaging around in their bags.  The fact that they had condoms on their persons is not necessarily indicative of an intent to engage in sex work.

But if those women were standing on the street, in short skirts or tight clothes, lingering-~-as people often do in the spring and summer months-~-on the sidewalk, they may well be arrested for “loitering with the intent to prostitute”.  That’s the correct legal term for the reason for arrest.  The PROS report on the public health crisis of using condoms as evidence, which can be found here, also notes that there are, unsurprisingly, racial and class components to this profiling.  Middle and upper class white women are substantially less likely to get arrested than lower-class women or women of color.

Transwomen are also much more likely to be stopped by police, according to reports.  Police are likely to accuse trans women’s boyfriends of being their clients, to insist on searching them, and to arrest them for prostitution.  They are more likely to accuse them of being sex workers because of their gender identity and gender expression.  This also has pretty clear negative ramifications, and needs to end.

What do we get from policies like this?  First, we get the perpetuation of negative stereotypes regarding women who dress a certain way.  We get men using women’s clothes as justifications for assumptions about their behavior that result in instant consequences for them.  Never mind that women dress in clothes as the fashion industry sees fit to produce them; never mind that clothing standards are ultimately social constructions and we engage in personal choice only within the context of the options available to us: the way that women are dressed is used as probable cause to search them for condoms, and then those condoms are interpreted as signs of wrongdoing.  This further stigmatizes female sexual behavior, and undermines women’s ability to ensure access to protection if they choose to use condoms for that purpose.

Those are the gendered consequences.  What about the health consequences?

The reality is that when condoms become evidence of prostitution, you don’t get less prostitution, you just make it less likely that prostitutes will want to carry condoms on their persons, for fear that if they are picked up, this will be used as evidence against them.  That’s particularly pernicious for sex workers, because they are considered to be a particularly high risk demographic.  Sex workers already have to contend with clients’ opinions of condoms in insisting on or pushing for condom usage, but by disincentivizing them from carry condoms, the police make it more likely that women engaging in prostitution will do so in even riskier ways.

But it’s not just sex workers who are necessarily harmed by this.  Young women are discincentivized to carry condoms if they think that it may potentially get them into trouble.  Even though condom possession is obviously not illegal, communities which have been impacted by this profiling may discourage young women from carrying condoms.  Given that young women are ALREADY pitted against various barriers to maintaining sexual health, and already contend with issues like stigma in acquiring protection like condoms, this just adds kerosene to the fire.

There’s not much good that we can actually see coming out of this policy.  Profiling women based on their race, gender identity, and the way they dress is incredibly harmful, not to mention a waste of police resources.  And it’s the result of policies and social attitudes that say that women who are perceived as promiscuous are bad, and sex workers don’t matter.  These are ridiculous sentiments for a society supposedly based on the ideas of freedom and equality to espouse, but there you have it.

This practice needs to stop.  Organizations in DC like HIPS go out of their way to help sex workers who are in need.  If you live in New York, you can contact your state senator about a new bill proposing an end to this policy-~-information can be found here.  For more information on advocacy efforts on behalf of sex workers, please check out the Red Umbrella Project.  Feminists can’t afford to forget that the war on sex workers-~-the war on so-called whores-~-is fundamentally a part of the war on women.  And no one should be arrested just for carrying condoms.




~ by Randi Saunders on March 6, 2013.

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