In New York, it’s a common practice for police to confiscate condoms as evidence in cases of alleged prostitution. Unfortunately, that means that sex workers, who are already at risk of sexual violence and who often don’t have health care and who really, really need on-the-job protection in the form of condoms, are faced with a dangerous choice: continue to work (because they need to make a living) and put themselves at greater risk of HIV and other STIs, or stop working, go hungry, and possibly risk abuse from their pimp. But lawmakers in the state are trying to end the practice–not because they condone prostitution, but because they understand that HIV is a public health crisis, and because sex workers are still humans.
According to the Sex Workers Project, who have police frequently stop and frisk working women along popular prostitution tracks. And even when these stops don’t end in arrest (they usually don’t), the police will still take any and all condoms that they may find on the women and destroy them or render them useless.
But it doesn’t appear to be working–in a large-scale survey released yesterday, the SWP (along with several other sex work advocacy groups) found that 40% of workers who had had condoms confiscated went on to continue to work without them, putting them at risk of disease. The most common reason given by respondents for not carrying condoms was fear of police. Indeed, if the practice has any impact at all, it’s keeping sex workers from carrying condoms–over 22% reported having turned down free condoms from outreach workers for fear of arrest or other police action.
Lawmakers in New York have introduced a bill to end the practice–A1008/S323 will make condoms no longer admissible in court as proof of prostitution.
Sex work may be illegal, but it’s also a reality of just about every culture since the beginning of time. And while you can condemn the job all you want (plenty of people do), the fact is that taking away a sex worker’s most critical form of protection is like stopping a motorcyclist for speeding, and taking away her helmet as evidence in the case. It doesn’t really prove anything–plenty of non-prostitutes carry condoms, and they are called “women who are taking responsibility for their sexual health”–and it leaves the women in greater danger than the police found them. And it does not, as some advocates for the practice argue, help anyone make a case against pimps or johns (how could it? By finding the pimp’s fingerprints on the condom wrapper? Please.) It really only hurts sex workers.
Additionally, many of the condoms which are being destroyed are given out for free by various public health organizations, including the City of New York itself, who have spent millions to distribute the inexpensive contraceptive. Which means that condoms, which are being paid for by tax dollars, and also getting destroyed by public officials who are also paid by tax dollars. It’s hugely wasteful from a financial standpoint–and if it results in the spread of diseases like HIV and AIDS (which it will, because that’s how sex works), the cost is even higher.
Sex workers already have it rough; they’re generally looked down upon by just about everyone, they’re the punchline of every tasteless joke, they’re at huge risk of violence and abuse (both at work and after arrest), and are some of the women and men who are most impacted by the anti-sexual health bills that are being passed in states like Arizona and Texas. In today’s financially-strapped, sex-negative, shame-based climate, this kind of legislature is a common-sense, money-saving move–and an important step toward protecting the rights and health of all women (no matter what their profession).
Image: NYC Condoms