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The NY Anti-Trafficking Network and its members have been working to raise awareness about a little known issue: the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. Our clients routinely tell us that they have had condoms confiscated in the course of arrests. Many share a misunderstanding that it is a crime to carry a certain number of condoms. Transgender women in particular are afraid to carry condoms, as they are frequently profiled and arrested as prostitutes even if they are not. Even some legal businesses have declined to be a provider of city-sponsored free condoms, for fear of being shut down as houses of prostitution. We have been pushing for a bill in New York State, S1379, sponsored by Senator Montgomery, which would eliminate condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses. Over time, we have been joined by a large coalition of human rights, civil liberties, LGBTQ, human trafficking, and sex workers’ organizations, advocating for this common sense approach to public health and safety.
There is mounting evidence that the confiscation and use of condoms as evidence of prostitution is bad public health policy. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the PROS Network, the Open Society Foundations, and Human Rights Watch have all researched this issue in New York City, and around the world. These studies document a real problem – that condoms are being confiscated, and that people are scared to carry condoms as a result. In fact, in Kings County, there is a specific field on a form where officers are expected to note how many condoms are found on individuals in these cases. In the age of HIV, discouraging the use of condoms, particularly among high-risk and vulnerable groups, can have disastrous public health consequences. Anyone who is stopped and searched on suspicion of prostitution-related activities may be inhibited. For example, transgender women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that when police stop them, they frequently confiscate condoms. LGBTQ youth of color report that police assume that they intend to engage in prostitution-related offenses or “lewd conduct” if they find condoms on them during stops, frisks, or consent searches.
What does this have to do with human trafficking? Traffickers sometimes prevent trafficking victims from carrying or using condoms because traffickers are afraid that condoms will be used as evidence against them. We should be especially concerned that the most vulnerable people – those who are coerced or forced to engage in prostitution – have access to condoms and at the minimum do not contract life-threatening infections during their exploitation. It is estimated that over 4,000 minors are engaged in commercial sex in New York City alone, many of whom are homeless and have no other means of survival. When police arrest and prosecutors prosecute these young people for prostitution-related offenses, under current law they may consider them cases of human trafficking. We support a broad bill that includes all prostitution-related crimes, because of its implications for young people and trafficking victims.
Momentum is gaining across the country for policy change. Sex workers and allies headed to Albany, New York in April 2012 to campaign for the No Condoms as Evidence bill, resulting in more co-sponsors and endorsements from the New York Times and Albany Times-Union. This past October, The San Francisco Police Department implemented a trial program to stop using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. That same month, the Nassau County District Attorney announced a similar policy, citing public health concerns.
What can you do to support? Support the No Condoms as Evidence bill (S1379) by writing your Senator and asking him or her to co-sponsor this important legislation. Join us for our upcoming advocacy day this April – email the Sex Workers Project to find out how. Get your organization to write a memo in support telling elected officials why this legislation could save lives. New York’s bill could lead the way for other states to tackle the issue.