D.C. police can declare "prostitution-free zones," where the burden of proof for arrests is lower.
A new study from the Urban Institute comparing the underground sex economy in eight major U.S. cities found that residents and visitors in and around D.C. spent $103 million on prostitution, erotic massages and escort services in 2007, down substantially from $155 million in 2003.
The study, which relied on interviews with pimps, sex workers, police, and prosecutors, along with analysis of national and local datasets, is "aimed to close the gap in our understanding about the nature and extent of these activities."
"The underground commercial sex economy is still unsettlingly murky, but by shining more light on it we can help more victims to escape the shadows," write the report's authors.
Compared to other cities in 2007, D.C.'s sex industry was dwarfed by Miami and Atlanta's ($235 and $290 million, respectively) while staying on par with Seattle ($112 million), San Diego ($124 million) and Dallas ($98 million). From 2003 to 2007, the underground sex economy encountered a recession of sorts, dropping in D.C., San Diego, Miami, Denver, and Dallas. In Seattle, though, it more than doubled.
The study also put the trade in guns in D.C. at $160 million in 2007, and the market for drugs at $103 million.
A profile of the underground sex economy in and around D.C. states that it includes online and street prostitution, erotic Asian massage parlors, and Latino brothels, and that the city's location along the Northeast corridor is "a significant part of East Coast sex trafficking circuits."
In recent years, local and federal authorities have been cracking down on sex trafficking rings run by Central American gangs. They have also focused in on Asian massage parlors, some of which serve as fronts for prostitution.
D.C. sex workers have over the years served high-powered clients, including Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Randall Tobias, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
For Cyndee Clay, the executive director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS), a group that addresses challenges faced by sex workers, the report brings important context to the discussion, but falls short by emphasizing the role of law enforcement.
"Law enforcement being our primary tool for dealing with this has created this vicious cycle where people are who are the most abused can't reach out to the people who want to help them, which are cops, because cops are charged with criminalizing them," she says.
D.C. police are allowed to declare "prostitution-free zones," where the burden of proof for arrests is lower. In late 2011 the D.C. Council debated a bill that would have extended the size and scope of the zones.
In 2012, a report by Human Rights Watch claimed that police in D.C. and other cities confiscated condoms from sex workers and used the amount of condoms being carried as evidence of prostitution.
Instead of relying on police, says Clay, local authorities should focus on using existing laws to protect sex workers.
"If we can look at sex work and the sex economy as a business, which it is to many people, then we can address the bad things that happen in that business through existing laws, as we do with any other employer whose abusive," she says.