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Sex Work and the City: Police Confiscate and Destroy Condoms in an Attempt to Rid Prostitution in NYC

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First Posted: Jan 23, 2014 01:41 PM EST
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(Photo : Flickr/_Fidileo_)

The New York City sex industry isn't glamorous. It's dark, seedy, lurid, and the sex work that the women and, to a lesser degree, men engage in carries the risk of danger, disease, sexual violence, and abduction. There aren't many tools that the sexually exploited demographic can use, but one tool that is at their disposal is condoms. With 50 percent of streetwalkers being African American and 25 percent being Latino, and the average age of a prostitute in the United States being between the ages of 12-14 years old, it's ethnic teenagers who continue to suffer HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases at a high rate -- particularly when police confiscate their condoms, a form harassment that's orchestrated in order to prevent sex workers from turning tricks.

The Sex Workers Project created a report that was investigated and written by the PROS Network (Providers and Resources Offering Services to Sex Workers) and Leigh Tomppert of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. That report was entitled Public Health Crisis: The Impact of Using Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in New York City, and it took a look at the confiscation of condoms by the police, the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offence, and the public health issues this incites because it leaves sex workers and their clients vulnerable to diseases. The study, which reported that 40 percent of its 35 participants were Latino, also showed that the importance of condom usage for the prevention HIV is negated by the fact that police take those tools away in order to regulate sex trade and criminalize sex workers. 

New York City has been distributing condoms in clinics since 1971; since 2007, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) generated its own brand of NYC condoms which are free and available to clinics, individuals, non-profit organizations and businesses. On average, 3 million NYC condoms are dispensed per month. Those condoms reach millions of New Yorkers, including the 107,000 people living with the HIV virus -- many unaware -- and it disproportionately affects the city's Black and Latino communities, as well as the LGBT community.

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The NYPD regulates prostitution in a way that's illegal. The possession of condoms is not a crime in New York, and there's no law that prohibits possessing a condom with the intent of "exchanging conduct for a fee." Yet the police believe that it's probable cause to arrest someone for prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution, depending on whether they're carrying condoms. Arrest is not the only concern that prostitutes face during near-daily police-initiated interactions -- even when they are not engaging in criminal activity (i.e. shopping, eating or walking). They face "verbal humiliation, threats, false arrests and sexual harassment, ranging from extortion of sex and inappropriate touching to rape." Many women reported that they were stopped and searched; one sex worker stated that police asked her to "open her condoms and drop them into the sewer, all the time."

Discrimination also plays a part in police harassment of suspected prostitutes. Though "known prostitutes" (depending on clothing, conducts, location, conversations and associates) of any race are likely to be harassed, women of color tend to be suspected of prostitution and searched for condoms or drugs. The 42.8 percent of sex workers who participated in the study said that police confiscated their condoms. Nonetheless, 40 percent of sex workers engaged in sex work after having condoms taken. Many sex workers don't even carry condoms, fearing that it will get them in trouble.

"I was going for a walk in Prospect Park; the cops frisked me and asked me to remove stuff from my pockets. I went about my business. Luckily, I had condoms in my Altoids box or I'd have to have raw sex. [...] I have to make money regardless," said a 22-year-old respondent who identified as Black, Puerto Rican and gender non-conforming. The police took two condoms without arresting the respondent or explaining why they had taken the condoms. "I'm damned if I do, I'm damned if I don't. I don't want to get any disease but I do want to make my money ... Why do they take your condoms, do they want us to die, do they want us to get something?"

While police claim that a good deed is being done when they arrange sweeps and stings, "good" things don't always transpire. Police don't necessarily do anything to help improve the conditions for prostitutes, nor help to rehabilitate them. Instead, the women are shamed and shackled, and then released back onto the street where they will continue to turn tricks and will continue to be a harassed. After all, prostitution isn't a choice for many of the streetwalkers, it's a necessity. It is perhaps their only means for survival; they are indebted, or they are limited by their circumstances. The absence of "beyond reasonable doubt" proof upon arrest and seizure of condoms is systematic attack on the sex industry and will cost a great deal of women their lives. The Human Rights Watch confirmed through a study, Sex Workers at Risk, the numerous risks that prostitutes face when they are simply trying to protect themselves. More work should be done to improve life for these individuals, not make their lives more difficult.

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