U.S.: Police Treat Condoms as Contraband, Rights Group Says
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch launched “Sex workers at risk: Condoms as evidence of prostitution” at a press conference in Washington. The report includes more than 300 interviews, with 200 current and former sex workers as well as outreach workers, advocates, prosecutors, public defenders, police, and health department officials.
The “criminalising” of condoms has left sex workers in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC and San Francisco wary of carrying condoms, and exposed them and their customers to the threat of HIV.
Tanya B, a Latina transgender sex worker from NYC, recounts her harrowing experience with the police.
“I was stopped and threatened. The cops said ‘empty your purse.’ I cleared out everything but left the condoms at the bottom – I got caught. They said ‘how come you didn’t pull out the condoms? I can arrest you because of this.’ I said ‘it’s not a problem, I have no weapons, no drugs’ and the police officer said ‘next time, I will arrest you because this is evidence you are a prostitute’.”
Andrea Ritchie, coordinator of AT Streetwise and Safe (SAS), and a lawyer specialising in police misconduct, gave insight into this unofficial but prevalent practice. The most common victims in New York are women of colour and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, she said.
Between 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and many turn to “survival sex” to earn enough money to eat and get a place to sleep.
“The police believe it is doing their job. The order to confiscate condoms, though unofficial, comes from district attorneys,” Richie told IPS. “NYC is the epicentre for AIDS, and these practices put countless women, LGBTs and men at risk.”
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) launched a safe sex campaign in 2007, ultimately distributing more than 40 million free condoms across the city.
The actions of the police directly counteract the city’s initiative to protect people from disease, and can be seen as a huge waste of resources, rights advocates say.
In Washington DC, the AIDS epidemic is one of the most widespread in the United States. Of the 17,000 people with HIV, 75 percent were African American males. African American women in DC are 14 times more likely to be infected than their white counterparts.
Groups such as Rubber Revolution in DC and Get Some! in NYC are taking the fight for condom use to the media, using popular social media platforms. They worry that the “condom as evidence” practice is seriously undermining these efforts.
If bills such as one pending in the New York State Assembly are passed, condoms will not be allowed to be used as evidence of prostitution. The bill specifically states, “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.”
For Megan McLemore, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the issue at hand is clear. If someone has to be arrested for prostitution, it should be because law enforcement officials saw them agreeing to a sexual act for money. Condoms should not figure into the debate.
At the launch of the report, all the speakers stressed that criminalising condoms is a public health issue. It endangers the general public, and exposes them to diseases which can be easily prevented.
The report provides insight into the ordeals faced by sex workers, which include police harassment of transgender people such as vulgar insults, mockery, and disrespect. In one case, a police officer grabbed a woman’s wig, threw it to the ground and stepped on it. Such behaviour points to a pattern of discrimination that goes beyond simple stop and search tactics.
“We have a saying in NYC. If on one side of the West Village a frat boy is standing with 10 condoms in his pocket, he is hopeful and practicing safe public health. If on the other side stands a gay man with condoms in his pocket, he is obviously engaging in prostitution,” says Ritchie.