The Policy That Keeps Prostitutes From Carrying and Using Condoms

New York isn't the only place where cops can use condom possession to justify arrest, but sex worker advocates there are pushing a new bill.

A Red Cross volunteer on World AIDS Day Oleg Popov/Reuters

Among New York's most contradictory sets of policies is this: Since 1971, the city has pushed aggressively for condom use, distributing more than 200 million free condoms, turning the NYC condom into an icon with its own tag line (NYC Condom: Get some!), even creating an iPhone application that helps users locate the nearest distribution site. In the same time frame, however, city police have destroyed or confiscated thousands of condoms found in the possession of suspected sex workers, using condom possession to justify arrest.

Sex workers and their advocates say this practice has had a dangerous, chilling effect, causing many who engage in prostitution to stop carrying and using condoms. A bill written by State Senator Velmanette Montgomery would change that, barring the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution in criminal cases. Since the bill's introduction in 1999, it is has languished, orphan-like, in the state legislature. Recently, though, it has received a wave of media attention -- and advocates like Sienna Baskin think this could be the year it passes.

"There are organizations that may not on a daily basis think about sex workers that are now putting their lobbying machines into motion for it," said Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the New York City-based Urban Justice Center.

Sixteen of 35 sex workers said they have not carried condoms when working because they feared they would get in trouble with the police.

What few realize, however, is that New York is not the only state where condom possession is used to target and arrest people suspected of engaging in prostitution. If passed, the New York bill would be a first-of-its-kind law, according to bill sponsors and sex worker advocates across the nation, perhaps paving the way for similar policies in other places.

"Prostitution is a scary issue for politicians to take up," said Stephany Ashley, programs director at St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco non-profit that helps about 6,000 former and current sex workers a year. "I think this would open up the doors for a lot of other cities and states to do the same."

A former sex worker herself, Ashley oversees all of St. James' services and frequently counsels the men and women who come through its doors. Over and over, she speaks with clients who say they limit the number of condoms they'll carry, for fear of arrest. Others hide condoms in sanitarily questionable places -- think used bleach bottles -- to conceal them from cops. "Nobody should ever have to make a choice to put themselves at that kind of risk," she said.

In 1994, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, San Francisco's legislative body passed a non-binding resolution that urged the police to stop confiscating condoms, and the district attorney to stop using them as evidence of prostitution. Both parties initially implemented the policy, but over time they have stopped honoring it, according to Naomi Akers, the executive director at St. James. "We need to have our own legislation," said Ashley. "We need to follow the lead of New York."

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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