The New York City Police Department frequently treats condoms as proof that the person carrying them is a prostitute, according to a report [pdf] issued yesterday by the Providers and Resources Offering Services to Sex Workers Network and The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. In 2008 and 2009, condoms were used as evidence in 39 Brooklyn prostitution cases, and one police form for reporting prostitution arrests includes a space for recording the number of condoms. Apparently even one is considered suspicious: a deposition by a Brooklyn officer describes an alleged prostitute as carrying "sexual paraphernalia, namely: One condom."
According to the report, this has made sex workers and non-sex-workers alike afraid to carry condoms. And it's made it harder to keep condoms if they do carry them — even if the police don't end up using them as evidence, they often confiscate them. The report's authors surveyed sex workers and others about this practice, and came up with some disturbing statistics:
• 42.8% of the 35 sex workers surveyed reported having condoms taken away by police at some point.
• 45.7% said they'd refrained from carrying condoms at some point because they were afraid of police.
• 22.9% had actually turned down free condoms from aid agencies out of fear of the police.
• Two out of 20 people surveyed who did not do sex work said they were also afraid to carry condoms. Explained one, “I had heard that they can lock you up for a certain number of condoms.”
The authors of the report acknowledge that their sample size is small. But their findings are in line with other data — a 2010 study by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that a full 57% of sex workers had had their condoms taken away by the NYPD.
Many find this practice questionable. One judge said, "In the age of AIDS and HIV, if people are sexually active at a certain age and they are not walking around with condoms, they are fools.” But even if you accept a single condom as evidence, that doesn't explain why police would throw them away. Which is what usually happened — two-thirds of the sex workers who'd had their condoms confiscated said police just took their condoms without arresting them. And one sex worker in an earlier study said police would “open her condoms and drop them into the sewer, all the time.”
Police apparently think confiscating condoms will discourage prostitution — one sex worker surveyed in the report says an officer told her, “if you don’t have this, you won’t have sex.” This doesn't appear to work particularly well — six of the 15 respondents who had their condoms confiscated still engaged in sex work the same day their condoms were taken. Three of those had unprotected sex; the other three managed to get more condoms. Said one respondent, "luckily I had condoms in my Altoids box or I’d have to have raw sex. [...] I have to make money regardless.”
Audacia Ray of sex workers' rights organization The Red Umbrella Project says confiscating condoms is not only ineffective at preventing prostitution — it's also a bizarre waste of state resources, because the Dept. of Health actually gives out free condoms to sex workers, only to have police take them away. And it's dangerous: she says taking condoms creates a "public health disaster" because sex workers are at high risk of transmitting HIV.
Ray's one of several sex workers' advocates pushing for a state law called the No Condoms for Evidence Bill, which would keep police from using condoms as proof of prostitution. It's currently in committee, but she hopes the report will "light a fire under" state legislators and convince them to pass it.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Hayley Gorenburg, Deputy Legal Director of Lambda Legal, told me the bill had been "forcibly parked" in committee, and might not be moving any time soon. Lambda Legal supports the bill, and has sent a memorandum to legislators to that effect, but she says they can't necessarily count on the legislative process to fix the problem.
Another option: getting the NYPD to voluntarily change its behavior. But the NYPD has not responded to my request for comment, and the wheels of the department tend to turn slowly — years of pressure on them to treat transgender detainees better, for instance, have yet to produce real change.
For now, the best news for sex workers' rights advocates may be that most people in power at the state level seem to agree that taking away people's condoms is a bad idea. Gorenburg says she's encountered "no principled opposition" from anyone in government to the idea of ending condom confiscation. But of course, a lack of opposition isn't the same as support.