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Criminalizing Condoms Puts Sex Workers -- and Everyone Else -- at Risk

For many workers in the sex trade, protecting their health on the job could land them in jail.

Photo Credit: Melissa Gira Grant


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

 If you worked a dangerous job, you’d expect the law to help protect you from workplace hazards. But for many workers in the sex trade, protecting their health on the job could land them in jail.

A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals how the criminalization of sex work in U.S. cities undermines civil rights and puts lives at risk.

Researchers say regressive prohibitionist policies make sex workers more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as well as mistreatment and violence, sometimes at the hands of the very authorities that are supposed to be protecting them. The report focuses on a controversial police practice for targeting prostitutes: profiling people who are “caught” carrying condoms.

Taking a human-rights centered approach that views the selling of sexual services as a form of work, HRW found that sex workers are often deterred from carrying condoms for fear of getting nabbed by the cops. In New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, an item that would in any other circumstance be seen as a reasonable—and responsible—protective measure against sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy becomes form of contraband in anti-prostitution crackdowns. As a result:

despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

In New York City, the anti-prostitution measures play on moldy stereotypes of moral turpitude. According to HRW, New York’s broad anti-prostitution laws enable police to consider condom possession as evidence when targeting suspected sex workers for arrest or sometimes prosecution in criminal court. Under a sweeping “loitering” statute, police have broad leeway to go after someone who “wanders about in a public place” and appears to be trying to solicit sex. People can be targeted based on where they’re standing or what they’re wearing. And some fear that what’s in their purse could lead to their incrimination.

Tanya B., a Latina transgender sex worker in Queens, testified in the report:

I was stopped and threatened. The cops said ‘empty your purse.’ I cleared out everything but left the condoms at the bottom—I got caught. They said ‘how come you didn’t pull out the condoms? I can arrest you because of this.’ I said ‘it’s not a problem, I have no weapons, no drugs’ and the police officer said ‘next time I will arrest you because this is evidence you are a prostitute.’

The war on prostitution is one of many controversial aspects of the city’s massive police apparatus, which has provoked public outrage over police profiling and abuse. Since sex workers are exposed not only to abuse but to racial, gender and sexual discrimination as well, the hostile climate police create  leaves them especially marginalized and stigmatized. In New York, D.C. and Los Angeles, HRW  documented harassment, sexual coercion and unjust imprisonment of sex workers as a tragically routine part of their work:

Transgender women described being “defaced” by police who removed their wigs, threw them on the ground, and stepped on them. Police subjected transgender women to a constant barrage of vulgar insults, mockery, and disrespect. Most disturbing were reports in both New York and Los Angeles that some police regularly demanded sex in order to drop charges or coerced women into sex while in detention.

Police are seen by many sex workers not as protectors but potential predators. Brenda D., a transgender sex worker, recounted a recent encounter with NYPD impunity:

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