Carrying Condoms Is No Longer A Crime In NYC

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Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York city has revised policies regarding law enforcement using condom possession as proof of prostitution.

sex workers

Photo: REUTERS/Kimberly White

Sex workers and their supporters march in celebration of International Sex Workers' Rights Day in San Francisco, California. New York City has recently revised policies that penalized sex workers for carrying condoms.

Carrying condoms is no longer a crime in NYC

It has taken New York State almost 20 years in the Legislature, and the last year in the Assembly to finally change New York police officers’ practices of detaining women carrying multiple condoms (4+, usually) on charges of prostitution. For years it was standard for law enforcement to use possession of multiple condoms (which is totally legal in and of itself) as “evidence” to justify arresting and questioning women they believe to be involved in  prostitution or sex trafficking. In many cases, police officers confiscate and dispose of safer sex supplies carried by sex workers and other women found to be carrying multiple condoms. The Department of Health in New York conducted a survey of 60 sex workers and found out that more than half have had condoms confiscated from police officers and around one third admitted that they avoided carrying condoms due to fears of being targeted by police.

According to the Human Rights Watch interview with a public defender: “The expansive grounds for suspicion under New York’s loitering for the purposes of prostitution statute permit police to stop and search individuals for a wide variety of reasons and it is during these searches that condoms may be discovered and seized. Condoms may also be seized as evidence of non-loitering prostitution charges such as those based on solicitation of an undercover police officer or other grounds.”

At long last, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Long Island have stopped using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases as of May 14, 2014. As part of a campaign to prevent HIV/AIDS and other STIs, NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the new policy of not confiscating condoms in cases involving prostitution, prostitution in a school zone and loitering for the purpose of prostitution. “A policy that actually inhibits people from safe sex is a mistake and is dangerous,” said Mayor de Blasio.

Additionally, The New York Department of Health’s AIDS Institute is pushing for safer sex through its NYSCondom program, which increases the availability of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs. This program provides free male and female condoms, dental dams and finger cots to non-for-profit organizations, government and health care facilities around the city.

Hopefully with these new policies in place,  sex workers will be less afraid to carry and use condoms? And if so, will providing free condoms help prevent new HIV/ STI infections in this population?

Condom use reduces HIV transmission in sex workers and why this is important

Latex condoms when used correctly and consistently can dramatically reduce risk of STI and HIV transmission a fact that has been consistently supported through research and real life evidence. Both the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization promote condom distribution programs and safer sex education for their efficacy in preventing HIV and other STIS in high-risk populations like sex workers (as well as the general public).

Why targeting sex workers for condom possession is a public health problem

This quote from a Human Rights Watch report shows how penalizing sex workers for carrying condoms puts sex workers, their clients, and their partners at risk for HIV and other STIs:

“If I took a lot of condoms, they would arrest me. If I took a few or only one, I would run out and not be able to protect myself. How many times have I had unprotected sex because I was afraid of carrying condoms? Many times.” –Anastasia L., sex worker, New York City, March 22, 2012.

Human Rights Watch conducted research in 4 major cities in the United States: New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sex workers, police officers, public health officials and outreach workers were surveyed for this report, and interviewees cited how condoms possession was frequently used as evidence of prostitution in arrests and trials in all four cities.

Unfortunately, the NYPD still frequently performs “Stop-and-Frisk” searches that put sex workers at risk. These searches have raised human rights concerns on the basis on racial and gender profiling. Outreach workers have been working hard to educate sex workers about their rights, and distribute free safer sex supplies to reduce the risk of HIV and STIs in this population.

Organizations helping with sex education and condom rights:

Street Wise & Safe is a project in New York that helps educate LGBTQ youth about the do’s and don’ts of how to stay safe on the streets and handle police encounters in NYC by understanding their legal rights.

The Anti-Violence Project “AVP empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy.” They offer a 24 hour hotline in English and Spanish.

Act Against Aids is a CDC-sponsored program committed to raising awareness through fighting HIV stigma and promoting HIV testing and other HIV prevention measures.

Sasha Aurand has a BA in psychology from Indiana University, with a minor in Human Development and Family Studies. Her research includes work with Alan Roberts’ attraction studies.

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