Condoms shouldn’t be a crime

In New York, rubbers are used as evidence of prostitution -- which only discourages people from using them

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Prostitution, Sex Work, Condoms, AIDS, HIV,

Condoms shouldn't be a crime (Credit: andipantz via iStock)

New York City loves condoms. The municipality has its very own brand of rubbers. Every month, the Department of Health hands out more than 3 million of them. But the NYPD considers those same city-issued condoms, along with your run-of-the-mill Trojan, to be evidence of a crime: prostitution. (Some have suggested that this is a blatant attempt by law enforcement to meet quotas.)

The health impact is clear: As Human Rights Watch reported,”Police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution has the same effect everywhere: despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection … are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment.” What’s more, “Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.”

Who knew your tax dollars could be used to both encourage and discourage the use of condoms with such magnificent inefficiency! Today, activists are lobbying in Albany to change all that. Their goal is to pass S1379, which prohibits the “possession of contraceptive devices” from being used as evidence of prostitution in a criminal or civil proceeding. This, of course, is key to the health of sex workers and their clients. It’s perhaps especially poignant in cases of trafficking in which workers are presented with the “double whammy” of not only being forced into prostitution but are also prevented from using protection, says Audacia Ray, director of the sex worker rights organization Red Umbrella Project.

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But this policy doesn’t just impact sex workers. “One of the crimes you can be arrested for in New York state is loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” says Ray. “That, of course, leads to profiling based on what they’re wearing, what part of the city they’re in, what their gender presentation is.” The LGBT community is particularly at risk for such profiling. A study last year found that 59 percent of transgender respondents, none of whom identified as sex workers, reported having been stopped by police under the assumption that they were selling sex.

While lobbying around a similar bill last year, Ray tells me that she found politicians would frequently say things like, “I think that this practice is ridiculous … but I can’t speak out about it because I don’t want to be perceived as supporting prostitution.” This year’s bill has firm backing from advocates for public health and LGBT rights, as well as sex workers. That broader human rights foundation certainly can’t hurt: For nearly 15 years, activists have attempted to get similar legislation passed, but year after year, it fails to pass committee. Ray recently suggested, as reported by Vice’s Kristen Bahler, that the key to success might be in shifting the focus away from sex worker safety, which she said, “hurts a little.”

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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