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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.

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I went into a car with a person. He said he was a police officer and said ‘if you help me I’ll help you.’ He said he wanted oral sex. He showed me a badge. He said if I didn’t have oral sex with him he would call the police and arrest me for prostitution.

For undocumented immigrants, the danger of sex work is aggravated by an immigration system that could turn an arrest into grounds for deportation:

Barbie M., an undocumented sex worker, described it, “I pled guilty to prostitution, my lawyer said to plead guilty, I had no other option because if I didn’t plead guilty I would stay in jail and be deported.”

HRW researcher Megan McLemore told In These Times, “Lawyers for women like Barbie told us that their clients were in an untenable dilemma—plead guilty or go to jail where ICE screens incoming inmates for immigration violations.” The threat of deportation may soon expand dramatically, now that the city is participating in Secure Communities, a federal program that expands police powers to screen people for immigration violations. 

Noting that the cities in the study had all launched major public health campaigns to prevent HIV/AIDS, especially among vulnerable populations like transgender women, McLemore remarked on the irony that city authorities shower the general public with condoms but confiscate them from sex workers: "In each of these cities condom distribution is a highly visible campaign on the part of public health officials… Yet on the other hand the police are taking the condoms (often with the city logo on them!) out of the hands of those who need them most.” 

In the report, published to coincide with the 19th International AIDS Conference, HRW calls on law enforcement authorities of New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to “Immediately cease using the possession of condoms as evidence” to apprehend, detain and prosecute people on sex work-related charges, and in New York, to enact legislation  against discriminatory policing. Advocates also want police to be trained on why carrying condoms should be seen as, in fact, a wise thing for sex workers to do and not grounds for arrest. 

"No matter what the NYPD or any other police department does, this is the oldest profession, it's not going nowhere,” said Tiffany, trans former sex worker who now aids sex workers at the  Positive Health Project. New York City should follow countries that have moved toward  decriminalizing sex work, she said, by focusing on monitoring and providing health services to people in the sex trades. "Here, you're taking condoms from these girls. These girls are homeless, they're addicted, they need their hormones, they're trying to get surgery, and they're taking chances. Because the client says listen, 'I'll give you more money if you don't use a condom.' And a lot of them get tempted. And it's horrifying. It breaks my heart, ‘cause I've been there."

While the debate rages over government’s role in policing prostitution, the government undoubtedly has a duty to protect public health and worker safety, and sex work entails risks that affect all communities. Andrea Ritchie, co-coordinator of the New York-based advocacy project  Streetwise and Safe, told ITT, “There should be no question that every individual has the right to health and safety—and eliminating a practice that deters or penalizes the use of condoms is essential to protecting the rights of all people involved in the sex trades.” 

If the government refuses to protect sex workers from brutality and exploitation, at the very least, it has no business taking away one of the only tools they have to protect themselves.

 
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