Prostitutes are pushing New York lawmakers to make the state the first in the U.S. to ban police from using condoms as a reason to arrest them.
Condoms are considered probable cause by police when they make a prostitution arrest, according a report released today by the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. As a result, prostitutes sometimes don’t carry prophylactics when working, raising the risk they’ll get and spread HIV/AIDS, said the report, which was co-written by the PROS Network, a coalition of sex workers, organizers and service providers.
The groups gathered today in Albany, New York’s capital, to press lawmakers to pass a previously introduced bill that would ban the police practice. If it’s approved, New York would follow China, which stopped using condoms as evidence to jail prostitutes in 2007, the report said.
“We have heard from clients so often that they’re afraid to carry condoms because of police harassment that we know it’s having a public health impact,” Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “This would be New York taking a leadership role and addressing an issue other states haven’t yet addressed.”
Included in the report was a survey of 35 sex workers in New York City, where there were about 2,700 prostitution-related arrests in 2009, according to the report. Of the 35, 16 said there are times when they don’t carry condoms out of concern they’ll be used as evidence against them.
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” a 22-year-old city prostitute told a researcher, the report said. “I don’t want to get any disease, but I do want to make money.”
The proposed bill is too broad, said Rhonnie Jaus, the chief of sex crimes and crimes against children division in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. It would affect prosecution of human trafficking crimes, she said.
“Sometimes we need to use the evidence of condoms to prove cases particularly involving promoting and trafficking,” Jaus said in a telephone interview today. “To create a law that completely restricts our use of this evidence would undermine our ability to prosecute these cases.”
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, the Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the measure, said she gave condoms to her now 25-year-old son when he was in high school and college.
More Access Needed
“We should be requiring that any person engaged in any kind of sexual activity should have access to condoms,” Montgomery said today at a press conference in Albany. “A condom should not be viewed as an indicator of criminal activity.”
More than 107,000 New York City residents are living with HIV/AIDS, and the rate of infection in the city is three times the national average, the report said. AIDS is the third leading cause of death for city residents ages 35 to 54.
“Confiscation of condoms is clearly counterproductive from a health perspective and disrespectful of the rights of sex workers to protect themselves from HIV,” the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS wrote this year in a report.
New York City has been giving out condoms since 1971, and in 2007 the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began issuing its own brand. In 2009, the department distributed more than 40 million of the contraceptives, the Sex Workers Project report said.
“It’s a mixed message from the city,” said Julie Falchuk, program coordinator for FROST’D @ Harlem United, a member agency of the PROS Network that helped interview the sex workers for the survey. “It’s clear that public health is not being considered across all parties.”