The Security of Sex: Inaugural Edition

In case any of you may have missed it, January was a big month in the District of Columbia.  A new American President and government were sworn-in to much ado and it was celebrated with a larger than life level of pomp, circumstance and security.  It seemed as if every newscast, article and discussion on the inauguration was incapable of discussing anything else, but what was actually meant by “security”? The obvious security presence involved the area immediately around the National Mall, which was cordoned off, surrounded by thousands and National Guardsmen/women, patrolled from above and regulated.  However, the geography of security expanded far beyond the areas around the mall and affected much more than was necessary for general safety of the Mr. Obama and the invading throngs here to see his inauguration.  Those living and working within the district realized that security was just as, if not more so, concerned with regulation as safety.  The two have actually been conflated; something, which becomes apparent through debates regarding the closing of bridges linking Virginia to DC.

Making this more apparent is actually the exercise of section 104 of the District of Columbia’s Omnibus Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act of 2006, which allows the Chief of Police to designate “Prostitution Free Zones”. The area around 5th and L St, NW was declared a PFZ and heavily regulated by MPD during the inauguration period.  Such a name insinuates that perhaps that when such places have not been designated or any areas beyond “the zones” may be considered legal areas of prostitution. Alas, they are not and the absurdity of this designation has not been lost on commentators including Jay Leno, who seems to be in the minority of people aware of the law.  Prostitution within DC is criminalized; a person receives a $500 fine and 1-90 days imprisonment for the first offense with the punishment graduating in severity from there with each additional arrest. 

So what is a “Prostitution Free Zone”?  Anyplace “where the health or safety of residents is endangered by prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” may be declared a “zone” for up to ten days using taped signs and banners.  This means that “any group of two or more persons congregating on public space for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” who haven’t dispersed after being warned may be arrested on site and be fined $300, imprisoned for up to 180 days, or both (there is a list of acceptable group activities).  While normally one must be caught engaging in the act, these zones require no such proof for individuals to be arrested.

These penalties and targeting seem excessive for an act in which no one is physically harmed; they do after all include mandatory imprisonment.  Yet, DC Chief  of Police Charles Ramsey  justified the institution of the “Prostitution Free Zones” and quickly rebuffed the idea that prostitution may be a “victimless crime” saying, “nothing could be further from the truth for those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods”.  He goes on to congratulate the city in combating “the presence of brazen street walkers in many of our communities” which is a “serious problem”.  While I’m sure that brazenness is in fact quite serious, it hardly seems an argument to justify such restrictions on movement, congregation and labor.  It also seems oddly reminiscent of justifications for “Black Codes” after the Civil War.  Such a comparison, however, seems less odd when you notice that Chief Ramsey seems to be talking solely about street workers, who are primarily woman-identified, low-income and African-American, as opposed to those who work primarily in brothels, massage parlors or out of their homes.  These are the people targeted by “the zone”.  This law and the continued focus on punishing prostitution within DC is yet another way in which the law has been utilized to regulate Othered bodies and continues to regulate black bodies.

Ironically, despite all this talk about extreme security due to the swearing in of the first African-American president in U.S. history: the inauguration of Barack Obama still only utilized half as many security personnel as the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush.  The true irony? These numbers only refer to those personnel who were dealing immediately with those entering the city and the mall, it does not include the task forces sent to “clean-up” the city for the throngs.  While war was being waged on sex workers, as it continues to be, tourists and locals alike gathered in the millions to see hope personified and sworn-in, to physically see their government transition to one which respected basic human and civil rights, one based in the community organizing and that might actually repeal some of the sexual Puritanism of the last eight years.  Yes we can! But why aren’t we, really?

(Photo Credit: The Kojo Nnamdi Show / Daniel Lobo)

About Megan Foster

Megan Foster, an advocate for and ally of formerly incarcerated women, is the Mobile Programs Manager at Friends of Guest House, in northern Virginia.