Condoms As Evidence of Police Endangering Public Health

Currently in the state of New York, police and prosecutors use condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses, including the murky crime of “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.” Even when they don’t use condoms as evidence to aid them in making arrests and convictions, in the process of doing their stop-and-frisks police often confiscate and destroy condoms.

When I tell people about this practice, they’re usually shocked. It makes no sense whatsoever. New York City has distributed ample free condoms in clinics since 1971; in 2007, New York City was the first city in the U.S. to launch a city-branded condom initiative. So there’s this: New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene distributes free condoms to people who are at risk for STIs, including HIV, and unplanned pregnancy, and the New York Police Department takes them away.

When this issue first started getting media attention, a lot of people were up in arms about it because, to paraphrase, “This could happen to anyone carrying condoms!” But let’s be clear: The use of condoms as evidence of prostitution and the confiscation of condoms is very much an issue of profiling. It’s an issue of who the police think might be trading sex: poor people of color, especially trans women, who police perceive as loitering in public space. The use of condoms as evidence of prostitution affects not just people who are trading sex, but also people profiled as trading sex.

But a coalition of sex worker rights groups, harm reduction agencies, reproductive rights groups and other allies are organizing to get New York State Assembly bill A1008/S323, which bars condoms from being used as evidence of prostitution, passed into law. This bill, commonly referred to as the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill, has been reintroduced in every legislative session for more than a decade, so it has a depressing history of not getting passed. This time, however, there’s more organizing around the issue.

Today, the PROS (Providers and Resources Offering Services to Sex Workers) Network and Sex Workers Project, in partnership with the Open Society Foundations’ Sexual Health and Rights Program (SHARP), released a community-based research report revealing the impact of this NYPD practice.

Here are some highlights of the research:

• Nearly 43 percent of respondents involved in sex trade reported that police had confiscated, damaged or destroyed their condoms.

• Forty percent of the people who had condoms confiscated went on to engage in sex work that same day or night. Of those, half engaged in sex work without a condom as a result of condom confiscation.

• Close to half of the respondents (45.7 percent) reported they did not carry condoms at some point out of fear of police repercussions.

• The most common reason given by respondents for not carrying condoms was fear of police. Close to 23 percent reported having turned down free condoms from outreach workers out of fear of getting in trouble with the police.

• Seventy-five percent of transgender women and people who identified with a gender identity other than female or male reported that fear of the police had caused them not to carry condoms. For sex workers who identify as women, 37.5 percent reported not carrying condoms out of fear.

• Many survey participants expressed confusion about the number of condoms that they are legally allowed to carry, even though carrying condoms is itself not a crime. The study revealed that people believed, based either on their own experiences or those of people they knew, that they could be harassed or arrested for possessing even one condom, and that they were aware that condoms were being introduced as evidence against them by district attorneys.

People need to be able to protect their own health, and it is a human rights violation for the police to get in the way. If you live in New York, please look up your senator and assembly member and ask them to support bill A1008/S323 to help protect the rights of vulnerable people.

Photo from Flickr user victoriapeckham from Creative Commons 3.0.



Audacia Ray is the director of the Red Umbrella Project, where she hosts a monthly live sex worker storytelling series in New York, which is documented as a weekly podcast, available for free on iTunes. She also leads storytelling and media training workshops and provides support for those who wish to tell their stories. Audacia is a former sex worker, the author of Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In on Internet Sexploration, and has been blogging about sexuality and culture since 2004. Additionally, Audacia is the Program Officer for Online Communications and Campaigns at the International Women’s Health Coalition, has consulted on information and communications technologies for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, and was an executive editor at the Utne Reader award-winning $pread magazine for three years. She is based in Brooklyn.