DC: Serving on the Street

Christina Cauterucci
Issue date: 6/29/09 Section: Commentary

Hooker. Whore. Trick. You’ve probably heard a multitude of such less-than-respectful terms for individuals who sell sex for money or drugs. They are rarely represented in political proceedings, seldom mentioned favorably in popular media and often condemned for engaging in what society considers to be immoral and illegal behavior that causes high crime rates and the degradation of urban society. In Washington DC, however, one small non-profit organization is swimming upstream against a current of social stigma to provide non-judgmental service and promote the fair treatment of those working in the sex industry.

The name is playful and sexy: HIPS, an acronym for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. When HIPS was founded in 1993, “prostitute” was the most recognized term for a person who engages in sex acts for gain. Now, HIPS encourages the term “sex worker,” which they say frames the individual as a complete person who happens to make his or her living in the sex industry, rather than “prostitute,” which characterizes a person by his or her sex work. The HIPS staff embodies their holistic approach to serving sex workers in the community by insisting upon this distinction of language. Every interaction is deliberately focused on the physical, mental and emotional health of the client. HIPS provides a multitude of services that address the unique and sometimes neglected needs of sex workers in DC, ranging from safe sex instruction and HIV testing to counseling and advocacy. When Congress lifted its ban on using government funding for DC needle exchange programs in 2007, HIPS also added a fledgling syringe exchange initiative to its list of services.

Tucked away in an aging office building in the heart of trendy Adams Morgan, the HIPS headquarters is anything but a traditional workplace. Neon pink upholstery abounds. Bowls of tiny lubricant tubes line the bathroom shelves. Every wall displays a handful of posters illustrating safe sex techniques and slogans empowering women, transgendered individuals, people of color and sex workers in general. Even HIPS’ Executive Director Cyndee Clay looks like an unconventional administrator; she strolls into her office sporting combat boots and tight black jeans, her halter top baring a navel ring and multiple abstract tattoos. Her crimped hair is a retina-searing blue, though photographs around the office document its history of varying unnatural hues.

While the majority of DC’s residents are sleeping or partying between 11pm and 5am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, unpaid volunteers are in the HIPS Outreach Van making new contacts and providing free condoms, lubricant, candy, vitamins, hot chocolate and safe sex tips to sex workers on the streets of DC. HIPS volunteers, who have been consistently “amazing” by Cyndee’s standards, undergo training in HIV and STI (sexually transmitted infection) prevention, specific issues that affect those in the sex industry and protocol for safety and client confidentiality.

I initially became acquainted with HIPS as a participant in Georgetown’s First-year Orientation to Community Involvement during my first week at college. HIPS representatives gave a presentation about their unique type of service to the community, and I immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of their Outreach volunteer program. I’ve always been attracted to working with marginalized populations, people who society scorns and considers to be unworthy of care or concern. Sex workers, the HIPS presentation helped me to realize, struggle against some of the most severe effects of marginalization. Not only are sex workers regularly lampooned and degraded in every public space from popular media to casual conversation, but they are often denied basic social services due to the general public’s moral superiority complex and fear of anything that strays from Puritanical sexual norms.

On a steamy Sunday afternoon, Cyndee addresses a group of rookie volunteers, including me, at our first orientation session. She begins by debunking some common stereotypes and myths about sex workers. “According to the Center for Disease Control, you’re more likely to contract an STI from a typical college student than from a sex worker,” Cyndee tells the group. Already, my mind is slightly blown. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that a sex worker is a “dangerous” sexual partner, unlike innocent little Johnnie from IR class who looks virginal and clean as a whistle.

After conducting a role-playing activity wherein volunteers act the part of a sex worker facing obstacles in seeking social services, Cyndee introduces Director of Outreach Jeff Chubb, a poised twenty-nine-year-old with shaggy hair and a good-natured smile. He scrawls the words “harm reduction” on an oversized white easel at the front of the room. “Who can tell me something about harm reduction?” At HIPS, this expression is more than a catchphrase; it’s the philosophy, foundation and mission of the organization. The basic concept of harm reduction involves meeting sex workers “where they’re at” in terms of sex work, drug use, and other lifestyle choices. After providing credible information about the positive and negative consequences of any choice, “we put the impetus for change on the client, where it belongs, not on the caregiver. They make the decisions and changes that are right for them, when they want,” says Jeff. In other words, HIPS is not out to get sex workers off the street, but to give them information and assistance in making healthy choices for themselves.

At the volunteer training session, Jeff uses an accessible analogy to illustrate the practical application of harm reduction. “Take any dangerous activity…say, crossing the street. What are some negative impacts of crossing the street?” Volunteers shout out, “Getting hit by a bus!” “Tripping!” “Being arrested for jaywalking!” A ripple of laughter flutters through the room. Jeff scribbles these examples on the easel and calls for suggestions of ways to reduce the harm of crossing the street. “Wear a helmet!” “Use the crosswalk!” “Look both ways!”

“Great,” smiles Jeff. He smoothly transitions to a more topical discussion. “Our clients engage in another common and risky behavior: sex.” Jeff repeats the exercise, and the volunteers conclude that using a condom, getting tested frequently for diseases, and scrutinizing the safety of each situation can reduce the harm and risk of STIs, HIV and sexual violence. Jeff explains that HIPS provides sex workers with options and resources to reduce the harm incurred by their work and lifestyle choices. “If using a condom isn’t a viable option for a client, repeatedly telling them to use a condom won’t do any good. Instead, we suggest reducing harm by negotiating for a lower risk activity such as oral sex or using lubricant to prevent abrasions.” When discussing the volunteers’ responsibilities on the van, Jeff declares, “Outreach is where harm reduction begins. By meeting the clients where they’re at physically, we can build trusting relationships.”

It’s 11:30pm on an icy Thursday night. I’m in the HIPS Outreach Van with Jeff and two other volunteers, roaming DC and searching for new and familiar faces of sex workers on the street. Soon after leaving Adams Morgan, the van rolls up next to a favorite client bundled in black sweats on the side of the road. She immediately recognizes Jeff in the driver’s seat and gives him a coy but visibly excited greeting. “How you doin’ baby?” she asks with a grin.

Perched in the backseat, my duty is to record the demographic information of each contact we make and take brief note of any significant encounters. I’m a bit nervous; this is my first night on the van, and I’m already responsible for filing the records that HIPS will use to apply for grants and government funding. I grab my pen: African-American, female, 30-40 years old, drug use not apparent.

I gather from her conversation with Jeff that she has been HIV positive for several years. “HIPS has been great for me,” she murmurs, “I never knew about condoms, but HIPS taught me how they’re so important, especially with HIV. I would have never survived out here without you guys.” She mentions that there is an abundance of young women on the street who aren’t well-informed about safe sex or street survival. “I tell them, ‘Look, you gotta use condoms. You’re just stupid if you don’t.’ I tell them HIPS gives ’em out for free.”

After hugs and goodbyes, we present her with a condom-filled goodie bag and pull away. “Did you write that down?” Jeff asks eagerly. “She’s a great influence for the other girls out there. She’s a leader in their community, like a mother hen.”

Meeting this warm and vibrant HIV-positive woman on my first night on the van reminds me of what I find so gratifying about this type of work: sharing brief moments of humanity with someone seemingly unlike myself and finding a connection on a deeper level.

A few hours later, we approach a client who promptly reveals that she was recently roughed up and robbed by a “john,” or an individual who solicits sex work. She asks for a copy of HIPS’ “Bad Date Sheet.” Barbara, a motherly thirty-something volunteer in the front seat, passes her a hot pink sheet of paper filled with descriptions of johns to avoid, ones who have been violent or deceitful toward sex workers. The list is updated each week to include new reports from clients like the one we’ve just encountered, to whom Barbara offers a cup of hot chocolate and a few choice comforting words before the van rolls on.

EEEEEE! A police siren interrupts the blasting tunes (tonight it’s Prince’s Purple Rain album) and jolts us out of our casual conversation while cruising along one of HIPS’ regular routes. The flash of blue lights in the rearview mirror is an unsettling sight for anyone behind the wheel, and HIPS drivers are no exception. Jeff tries to calm his nerves as he pulls to the curb and a stern police officer looms in the van window. Our crime? “I saw you guys circling around the block.” Jeff civilly describes our purpose, emphasizing that HIPS is a government funded organization that focuses on HIV prevention. When Jeff drops the name of Brett Parson, a HIPS-friendly member of the Metropolitan Police Department, our officer snarls, “So if I called Brett right now, he’d vouch for you?” “Yes sir,” replies Jeff. The officer eventually releases us against his wishes, unable to catch us at any illegal behavior.

“We’ve historically had an antagonistic relationship with the police force, and our vans often get stopped,” Jeff later explains. “They think we’re ‘contributing to a problem.’ Some officers work well with HIPS, mostly ones who are part of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, like Parson. Our populations face similar risks since HIPS serves a lot of men who have sex with men [but do not identify as gay], transgender individuals and lesbians.”

Because prostitution is illegal in the District, Jeff has observed numerous consequences brought upon sex workers by their fear of incarceration. The heavy policing of prostitution has forced sex workers to work “in the shadows,” according to Jeff. “They’re more likely to take the first person to come along instead of using caution, since they don’t know when they’ll get more work, or they’ll perform riskier sexual acts because they need the money. Well-meaning johns are more likely to stay home, and those seeking out sex workers because no one cares are more likely to victimize, rob or assault them.” If a sex worker is arrested for prostitution, his or her chance of finding a “legitimate” job upon release is slim.

HIPS represents a complex collision of human rights and law enforcement: how much should harm reduction play into the justice system? If severe policing causes harm to individuals in the sex industry, is it necessary and valuable to society? It’s time we stopped ignoring the struggles of the sex workers in our communities and treating these real, complex individuals as one-dimensional criminals. As DC residents and members of a university community that prides itself on a commitment to social justice, Georgetown students have a responsibility to engage with their own biases and explore the issues facing sex workers in the DC area.

HIPS has no official position on sex work legalization, stating that any conversation to that end must start within the sex worker community. Jeff chuckles when asked for his opinion on the prohibition of prostitution. “We’re not out here to encourage or discourage sex work. Our goal is to help people where they’re at. For most of our clients, legalization is the last thing on their minds. They’re just trying to survive.”

Cauterucci is an American Studies senior.

Original at The Georgetown Independent

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