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Gentrifying Sex Work

Columbia Heights and sex work

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Originally published in Spring 2017, Issue 21.

Evelyn Hampton, a D.C. middle school teacher, removes condoms, needles and occasionally human feces from the front of her K Street home.

“They don’t care that we have families. They don’t care about what our kids might see,” said the 32-year-old resident.

Hampton is one of many residents in the North of Massachusettes Ave. (NoMa) area in Ward 6 who have begun to demand an end to the nightly activities of sex workers.

K Street has historically been a popular stroll for D.C. sex workers, but the changing neighborhood demographics have created tension between residents and sex workers. As wealthier residents and business owners move into the neighborhood, the new residents are holding meetings to rid the area of sex work.

The increased political attention has led to a dramatic police crackdown against sex workers. According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) 2016 year end crime data, In the last year alone, the area has seen a 35 percent increase in sex work charges and a 20 percent increase in solicitation charges. Solicitation of prostitution refers to the act of requesting sexual engagement in exchange for a fee.

Under the D.C. Code, it is illegal to engage in, propose or solicit sex work. In 2014, MPD declared its increased efforts to combat sex work by doubling the number of undercover officers in neighborhoods where sex work is known to take place. In D.C., those charged with prostitution or solicitation of prostitution for the first time can face up to 90 days in jail. Repeat offenders face more serious punishment. Prostitution in this sense means the actual act of performing sexual acts for a fee. Solicitation of prostitution only requires an agreement or offer to complete a sexual act in exchange for a fee.

It’s my body. I should have the right to do whatever I want with it. I should not have to worry about being arrested for working.”

The records of the prosecution remain publically available. Increased penalties for both prostitution and solicitation have been suggested as a potential deterrent by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and government officials according to an MPD officer in D.C’s third district who has requested anonymity.

Lenny Koffman, a sex worker advocate, says the policing of sex work is discriminatory and traces back to prostitution free zones in 2010, areas where police officers can arrest or tell people to “move along” if they suspect them of engaging in sex work. No longer in effect, the legacy remains.

“The politicization of prostitution in D.C. has contributed to a spike in hate crimes against trans folks,” Koffman said. “Every member of our society has value. Until we stop viewing sex work as evidence of moral depravity and inferiority, members of society will continue to suffer.”

Greater political attention has increased police prioritization of preventing sex work on the streets of Washington. The D.C street sex work industry is predominately women of color and transgender individuals.

Koffman is a part of a larger movement in support of the legalization of sex work, not just in D.C, but across the nation.

Jasmine Delavigne, a D.C. sex worker, described the need for a shift in American attitudes towards sex work.

“No one forced me to do this work,” Delavigne said. “I make good money. I get to choose my own hours. I am not hurting anyone. Just like doctors and hairstylists, I perform a service. I have a job. I would rather be working here than Burger King. I don’t have no college loans. We shouldn’t be arrested for a job.”

This economic argument has been echoed throughout the movement to legalize sex work.

Sex work is a controversial topic. Critics point to a history connected to poverty, gender inequality, racism and violence. Proponents of legalization point to bodily autonomy, safety and racism..

Delavigne represents one group of sex workers: streetwalkers and lower-end sex workers in mixed-income neighborhoods. These sex workers are most at risk of police altercations. Their work requires a high degree of visibility and accessibility to attract clients, however the increased access makes them more vulnerable to both street predators and police. Streetwalkers maintain the lowest social status within the hierarchy of sex work.

There has recently been a dramatic increase in the number of “high-end” sex workers who exclusively cater to upper-class clients. “High-end” sex workers exclusively work indoors. This “high-end” sex work reveals the inequities of the enforcement of prostitution laws. The majority of these “high-end” sex workers, often referred to as “escorts,” extensively screen their clientele and will only work in high-end hotels. These escorts rarely face the discrimination that street-walkers face.

When conducted discreetly, indoor sex work eludes the public attention that generates public complaints to the police. Additionally, the screening mechanisms reduce sew worker victimization. Rates of robbery, rape and assault remain much higher for street-workers, many of whom endure these conditions for economic reasons, according to the book, “Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business.”

Vibha Sardana is a 23 year-old transgender street sex worker shared some of the challenges she faces on the street. Sardana is in law school and engages in sex work to pay her tuition.

“I have been yelled at,” Sardana said. “I have had things thrown at me late at night. I get it, but I don’t get it. I am using my body to earn money. It’s my body. I should have the right to do whatever I want with it. I should not have to worry about being arrested for working.”

Sardana was arrested on prostitution charges last year, but was offered diversion and was required to complete 300 hours of community service.

“They want us to leave the neighborhood but we’re not leaving,” Sardana said. “I will have to explain my arrest record to future employers. This is why I’m in law school. I want to end systemic and overt discrimination against people like me.”

However, significant barriers, such as gentrification, work against the legalization of sex work. The influx of more young, affluent residents coupled with the related increase in property values socially and economically marginalizes established residents and changes the character of a neighborhood. Columbia Heights is a gentrified neighborhood with a complex relationship to sex work.

Ms. Maddie, who would prefer that we did not give her last name, an 82-year-old widow, has been living on 14 Street in Columbia Heights for 52 years. She said she is “saddened by the young girls” in her neighborhood.

“Just next door, at the massage parlor, they have men coming in and out at all hours of the night,” Ms. Maddie said. “I have grandchildren. I fear for their safety. Those people are bringing in the drugs and the crime that we have worked hard to keep out,” she said.

Ms. Maddie’s criticisms reflect a popular narrative: The desire to preserve the integrity of the neighborhood, a widespread sentiment shared across much of the older segment of Columbia Heights. According to MPD officer Richard Morales, many of the sex work complaints come from older residents.

Older residents are not the only ones concerned about sex work in Columbia Heights. Business owners, fearful of losing customers, have also demanded increased law enforcement.

Khan Doan, a restaurant owner in that area said, “I see them when I come into work. Some of them change on the street early in the morning. Who is going to come for breakfast with them around?”

Doan and other local business owners have demanded more of a police presence in order to protect their economic interests.

Columbia Heights is just one of many D.C neighborhoods experiencing neighborhood change. The challenges that exist at the intersection of sex work and gentrification highlight the most important question ahead for developers and city planners: how do we create inclusive urban communities that meets the needs of all residents?      

For Lenny Koffman and sex worker advocates across D.C, the answer is simple: we must make inclusion the central goal. Neighborhood divisions reinforce differences among people. Neighborhoods will only include everyone when they are led by everyone. Local cultural and economic institutions must begin to target specifically excluded populations.

Lexi Ivers is a junior studying law and society.