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Stopping Police and DAs from Using Condoms to Convict Sex Workers

by Crystal DeBoise

November 10, 2011

Last winter, "Sheila,"a sex worker in her early 20s, had just finished her counseling session with me at the Sex Workers Project, and was heading out the door. Sheila was seeking counseling from the Sex Workers Project to help her make a career change, but had no financial support and was still working in the sex industry. I gestured towards our colorful shoebox of condoms, lube and pamphlets about safe sex and reminded her to take whatever she needed. She looked at me as if I were suggesting she walk into the January snow barefoot and said, "Are you crazy? I'm not carrying those things around! You want me to get arrested or something?"

Sheila was referring to a situation in New York that permits the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution, resulting in their collection and confiscation from women who are detained by the police. This practice is an outright slap in the face to the decades of hard work that public health advocates have undertaken to increase safe sex, decrease HIV and create a positive shift in the cultural acceptance of condom use. This policy discourages a stigmatized and marginalized group of sexually active people from carrying the tools they need to be healthy and safe. And this occurs despite the fact that the New York City itself runs a free condom distribution program because "Using a condom every time you have anal, oral or vaginal sex protects you and your partners from getting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases … and prevents unplanned pregnancies."

Staff at the Sex Workers Project had been seeing police reports of arrested sex workers that listed the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution for some time. Many of the arrests were not of even sex workers, but, rather, incidents of profiling transgender individuals as sex workers -- their personal condoms were confiscated and used as "evidence" of prostitution.

Sentiments like the one Sheila shared have become more prevalent among sex workers, and for good reason. Prostitution convictions have an extremely negative impact on the lives of sex workers.

Arrests themselves are often abusive and traumatic, as well as costly. A criminal record is a major hurdle to joining the mainstream job force. Many jobs require disclosure of crimes or out-and-out disqualify people who have such records. When hired despite their records, those with prostitution-related crimes on their record often face discrimination on the job; others encounter sexual harassment when arrests for prostitution are disclosed. If carrying condoms increases the chance that a sex worker will have to experience these consequences, there's a difficult decision to be made.

New York State Bill A1008/S323, cosponsored by more than a dozen state senators, would stop police and prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution in specified criminal or civil proceedings. According to the summary of the bill, it "provides that possession of a condom may not be received in evidence in any trial, hearing or proceeding as evidence of prostitution, patronizing a prostitute, promoting prostitution, permitting prostitution, maintaining a premises for prostitution, lewdness or assignation, or maintaining a bawdy house."

The explanation for the bill says, "It does not promote public health and welfare if the law discourages prostitutes from carrying condoms. If anything, their use by prostitutes should be encouraged by public policy ...." As of fall 2011, the bill was sitting in Judiciary Committee of the NY State Senate and the Codes Committee of the NY Assembly.

The Sex Workers Project is participating in an active campaign to support the passage of the bill this legislative session. Our online public service announcement explains its importance, and we have an ongoing petition with over 5,600 signatures at Thirteen organizations have signed statements in support of the bill, and our staff holds legislative advocacy sessions for sex workers and allies where supporters can join our "pink postcard" campaign to send a message to state senators and assembly members.

Our activism is needed to make sure that this simple health and safety measure is put into place. If the bill passes, sex workers and the general public will be able to feel confident that the condoms they have in their pockets will not be used to assist law enforcement in accusing them of committing crimes.

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Crystal DeBoise, LMSW is the Co-Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. She founded one of the longest running human trafficking services programs in the United States and has worked with survivors of gender-based violence since 1998.

Also see "Sexual Rights: Advocating for Vibrant Reframing" by Juhu Thukral in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Engaged Activism: Two Women Challenge Global Sex Trafficking" by Gabrielle Korn in the Cafe of this edition of On the Issues Magazine.


macimay posted: 2011-11-15 16:59:33

fyi-New York legislators have introduced this bill for many many years in a row from what I understand from speaking to their legislators last year about this same bill. The reality is that if this type of bill passes it won’t stop the police from taking our condoms and a) throwing them on the ground before they arrest us and take us to jail, b) throwing our condoms in the trash at the jail, c) arresting us for loitering or something else besides prostitution upon which our condoms will be confiscated and end up who knows where. Or even if the condoms end up with our clothes and other possessions of which we get back when we get out of jail, I wouldn’t use condoms that have been out of my control and in the control of the police for my own health and safety. As someone who has been arrested for prostitution many times and has been through the court system, I believe they’ll still be taken away from us…And I disagree that activism towards this end is the best use of time, but then again, the non profits supporting this legislation, are using paid staff to do it. Go for it! Or is it the lazy sex worker activism in play here? On a political level this route is not good for us because its not decriminalization of our occupation. Any prostitute will tell you that health and safety are not her primary concern. Getting arrested and suffering the hell of having an arrest on a google search let alone being a defendant in our flawed criminal unjust system only ever leads to the life long sentence of negative stigma; the basis for discrimination in housing, education, employment, child custody....and sexual harassment. For a look at 'our' priorities-just look at the amount of providers offering GFE, exchanging body fluids….I’d say catching something isn’t that big of a concern. Additionally, the condom thing is leverage. Its leverage used in the court of public opinion. Just look at how quick you all are hoping on the ban wagon. It makes no sense to give away this leverage when we, the actual prostitutes, need it to fight the larger fights. This kind of legislation misdirects our volunteer time towards an outcome that will just make the politicos look good; like they did something for us when really they haven’t. The non profits will get a feather in their cap and probably more funding. This type of effort falls short. And why are non prostitutes setting our political agenda for us..again? Keep your eyes on the prize. An actual real live prostitute- not a sex worker

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