Shocking: Sex Workers Are Being Prosecuted for Carrying Condoms
At Lafayette Avenue and Barretto Street, a young man slowly navigated a maroon van past empty warehouses in search of street sex workers. The woman seated next to him remained silent, staring out the passenger side window. When he saw a familiar woman walking alone, he pulled over and decided to wait as she solicited a black Nissan. Less than two minutes after getting in the car, she exited and approached the van to get condoms and food. She nervously told the woman in the passenger seat that she turned the Nissan down after realizing it was an undercover cop.
When the van circled the block five minutes later, the same woman was caught between two grey and black vans. Her wrists were cuffed and a stained canvas bag lay at her feet, its contents -- the newly acquired condoms and food -- were spilled on the street.
Ricardo “Pichi” Canales, 33, and Lana Rosas, 25, drive around the Bronx and Harlem every Friday evening doing outreach for Citiwide, a harm-reduction organization in the South Bronx that provides free condoms and other miscellaneous health supplies to intravenous drug users and sex workers. New York City started distributing free male condoms in 1971 to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Today, these condoms are used as evidence in prostitution arrests. In January, a bill that would prohibit police from submitting condoms as evidence of prostitution or intent to solicit will be introduced in Albany. The “No Condoms As Evidence” bill, co-sponsored by N.Y. Senator Velmanette Montgomery, has been reintroduced every year since 1999 but has yet to make it to the floor for a vote. On March 24, the N.Y. Senate Codes Committee passed the bill and sent it to the Judiciary Committee for consideration.
Far from Albany, the Citiwide van door slid open to reveal four large storage containers perched behind the driver and passenger seats. The middle seat had been removed to make room for the bins containing condoms, hygiene supplies, bleach kits and 15 food packages prepared by Bailey’s House, a homeless shelter in New York City.
After ordering off the dollar menu, Rosas, Canales and Kobrak planned the night’s outreach strategy as they quickly ate their sandwiches in the McDonald’s parking lot.
Canales warned that the streets would be quiet and explained that sex workers don’t go out as much at the beginning of the month. “A lot of girls are in the clubs,” he said. “Soldiers get their pension checks and come here to the clubs, rent a girl, go to the house and spend the whole night getting high.”
The first woman they spotted was Sue, a bleached blonde in her late 40s. She stood in the shadows of an abandoned Hunts Point warehouse with two older black men. One of the men approached Rosas to ask for food, condoms and a hygiene kit. Canales identified him as Sue’s pimp, Thaddeus. According to Rosas, Thaddeus runs a couple of shooting galleries, abandoned houses where people go to shoot up drugs. Shooting galleries also provide space where sex workers can sleep and dealers can sell drugs. “It’s crazy. You see people sleeping in the bathroom, in the living room, in the bedroom and in the hall,” Canales said.
A dark sedan pulled up to the opposite corner, one of Sue’s regulars. As she hurried to open the passenger-side door, Thaddeus called out to let her know he would wait for her to return.
According to Canales, most of the sex workers he sees have pimps. Sometimes, it is a very beneficial relationship and other times it can be exploitative. Age and addiction are two major factors that determine how much autonomy and equality sex workers have in their relationships with their pimps. Some women derive most of their emotional support from their pimps, while others just look for someone who won’t beat them and will bail them out of jail if they’re arrested.
One of Rosas’ clients put it succinctly when she defined her standards for a good pimp. “My man is a real man,” she said. “He don’t put me out on the street when it’s cold or rainy. But he will rob a motherfucker so we can eat.”
The cops are a big obstacle to Citiwide’s outreach work. Rosas described how cops frequently followed women after they stopped at the van and arrested them. Many times, cops would use the very condoms sex workers obtained from Canales and Rosas as evidence of their intent to solicit.
As the night progressed, four separate arrests occurred within sight of the van. Two took place immediately after sex workers accessed services from Citiwide.
“The issue is the criminalization of carrying condoms,” said Johanna Westmacott of the Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Program. She works with trafficked minors who end up on the streets of New York. Westmacott is also a member of the PROS Network, a group of service providers and activists who are working to pass the No Condoms As Evidence bill.
A lot of sex workers said they were afraid to carry condoms because of police behavior but many face the chance of arrest because they don’t want to put themselves at risk of contracting HIV. They frequently described having their bags dumped onto the sidewalk and condoms confiscated by police.
Court records often list condoms as evidence of prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Some supporting deposition forms list as few as one or two “NYC” condoms, distributed for free by the health department. Attorney Melissa Sontag Broudo of the Urban Justice Center warned against the public health consequences of criminalizing condoms. “It's really a public health concern for sex workers,” she said. “And for people in general, for the right to be able to protect your bodily integrity and be able to protect yourself.”
Back on the streets of Hunts Point, Canales directed the van onto the Grand Concourse and headed toward 192 Street and Jerome Avenue, a well-known transgender stroll. He was forced to halt the van when a fight erupted in the middle of Mt Eden Avenue near Townsend Avenue. Thirty teenagers blocked traffic while five women attacked one another, jeered on by their peers. According to Rosas, violence is a given.
“You see some pretty heinous shit at night,” she said. “I’ve definitely, during outreach, seen one of the girls get stabbed.”
Canales recalled feeling helpless when he saw violent pimps on the street and described one instance when he saw a pimp punch a woman in the face. Rosas carries a knife when she performs outreach, just in case.
Around 2am, Canales spotted another familiar face at 128 Street and Third Avenue in Harlem and pulled the van over. The young Latina woman looked stricken as she shook her head no and waved the van off. As Canales drove away, Rosas pointed out the woman’s pimp, who was standing nearby in the shadows, as well as two cop cars, which were parked halfway down the block.
Canales circled the block. When he passed the intersection again, the cop cars had moved to the corner. The flashing red and blue lights lit up the street as the policemen handcuffed the couple.