Carrying Condoms Now Apparently an Arrestable Offense…and Other Ways the U.S. Is Hurting Sex Workers

Posted on 7.20.2012 by Amy

Authorities in major U.S. cities are confiscating condoms from sex workers and using them as evidence at trial, leading sex workers to ask researchers how many condoms they're legally allowed to carry, exactly?

This from Human Rights Watch, which released a report Thursday saying sex workers and transgender women are regularly harassed, threatened and even arrested for carrying condoms. (Transgender women are reportedly targeted by police whether or not they are actually performing sex work because of the assumption that they must, of course, be performing sex work.)

Wait, let me repeat that. Police are arresting people for carrying condoms.

Researchers who interviewed hundreds of people in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco found police are forcing sex workers to throw their best means of protection into the garbage. Literally. This despite cities receiving millions of dollars in funding to help protect those most at risk for HIV/AIDS, like, you know, sex workers. Some sex workers are reportedly having unprotected sex or using plastic bags as substitutes for condoms because they are too afraid to carry them. The four cities included in the study reportedly received 50 million condoms last year. It only takes one condom to protect a sex worker from contracting HIV/AIDS. So how many of those condoms ended up in trash cans or police custody? And how many sex workers got HIV as a result?

In New York City, young African-American and Latino men are targeted for "stop-and-frisk" searches in hugely disproportionate numbers by police ostensibly searching for weapons, but not generally finding them. It appears transgender women are being stopped and profiled by police for condom searches. Guns kill people. Condoms save people. Targeting people for random searches because of their race, gender presentation, ethnicity or clothing doesn't make anybody safer. In fact, it's putting lives at risks.

Unfortunately, condom confiscation is the least of what sex workers and transgender people are facing at the hands of police. Researchers found some police in New York and Los Angeles were regularly demanding sex in exchange for dropping charges or coercing women into sex while they were detained. If that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what is. Actually it's worse than hypocrisy. It's rape.

In similar news, many international sex workers are being prevented from attending the International AIDS Conference in the United States because of a U.S. policy that categorically bans them from entering the country. A few years ago the Obama administration lifted the ban preventing people infected with HIV/AIDS from coming to the United States. But bans remain against sex workers and drug users. That means in a few days, when tens of thousands of people converge in Washington, D.C. to discuss ways of ending the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, they'll do so without many of the sex workers most affected. Sex workers and their allies have launched their own conference in Kolkata, India. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival will focus on a series of key freedoms. Perhaps police and policymakers in the United States should take note:

  • Freedom of movement and to migrate;
  • Freedom to access quality health services;
  • Freedom to work and choose occupation;
  • Freedom to associate and unionise;
  • Freedom to be protected by the law;
  • Freedom from abuse and violence; and
  • Freedom from stigma and discrimination.