California made headlines over the weekend after Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation to change the state's definition of sexual consent, along with several other laws to promote the rights of LGBT citizens. But the governor also signed another key law earlier in the month, to significantly less fanfare: On Sept. 18, California quietly adopted AB 336, a law to protect sex workers from prosecution for carrying condoms.
The new law, which originally would have banned condoms as evidence of prostitution entirely, requires courts to confirm explicitly the relevance of condoms as evidence, adding an important potential legal deterrent that could prevent law enforcement officials from targeting sex workers who carry them. According to a Huffington Post report, police frequently use the presence of condoms as justification for arrest, making both sex workers and many transgender women reluctant to carry (and, as a result, use) the contraceptives. As a result, these groups become disproportionately more susceptible to contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, posing a serious public health concern.
"Right now, there’s no process, and condoms are admitted into court even when they aren’t actual evidence," Wendy Hill, senior legislative assistant to the bill's sponsor, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, told HuffPost. "There are very few cases [against sex workers] in which an actual condom is listed as a valid piece of evidence. ... There are cases where HIV health outreach workers would go out and distribute condoms, and then law enforcement will follow up right behind them as a means of 'cleaning up the streets.'"
While many public health and sex worker advocates have lauded the bill as an important step toward protecting sex workers and transgender people, some say the measure does not go far enough. Another bill, currently pending in the New York state legislature, would ban the use of condoms as evidence in sex worker cases, and embodies what many proponents of sex worker rights would like to see. The California law, however, is still crucial, according to Sienna Baskin, managing director of the Sex Worker Project at the Urban Justice Center.
"It takes one state to take the first step," Baskin told HuffPost. "I’m excited to see a piece of legislation pass. There’s been a slow and steady building movement."