Condoms as Evidence: Terrible for Sex Workers, Terrible for Public Health

Police have made sex workers—and people they suspect of being sex workers—afraid to carry condoms by harassing them and using condoms as evidence of crimes.

Police have made sex workers—and people they suspect of being sex workers—afraid to carry condoms by harassing them and using condoms as evidence of crimes. robertelyov / flickr

[A] 22‐year‐old respondent who identified as black, Puerto Rican and gender non‐conforming told the interviewer: “I was going for a walk in Prospect Park; the cops frisked me and asked me to remove stuff from my pockets.” The cops took two condoms without arresting the respondent or explaining why they had taken the condoms. The respondent then reported: “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.” This respondent reported that police had confiscated their condoms seven times in the last year. (Public Health Crisis, a report from the PROS Network)

This story is illustrative of the gender-based violence that police regularly commit against individuals who are in, or are thought to be in, the sex trades around the world. Oppositional sexism, the prejudice against femininity that affects women as well as gender non-conforming feminine people, is at the root of the policies that criminalize the actions of sex workers, at the expense of public health and safety.

Police around the world often target individuals in the sex trades and gender non-conforming people by using the possession of condoms as evidence of various prostitution-related crimes. The condoms-as-evidence practice leads to targeted populations being afraid to carry condoms, which is deeply concerning, since they are often most at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. To combat this violence and promote safer sex, we must stop the use of condoms as evidence by both police and prosecutors.

A study released last year by the Open Society Foundations found that 80 percent of South African sex workers reported police intimidation and harassment, while 45 percent said they were reluctant to carry condoms. In Zimbabwe, 85 percent of sex workers said they had been extorted by police. In Namibia, 50 percent of respondents said police destroyed their condoms, and 75 percent of those individuals who then engaged in sex work had unprotected sex. Though the problems vary in severity by country, the survey results demonstrate a pattern of state-based attacks on individuals in the sex trade via the use of condoms as evidence.

In 2011, the PROS Network conducted a survey of individuals in the sex trade in New York City to gather information on the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s use of condoms as evidence. Nearly 43 percent of respondents said they had had condoms confiscated, and an alarming 20 percent of those individuals later engaged in sex work without using a condom. “I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t,” said the same 22-year-old respondent quoted above. “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?” This respondent was just one of many gender non-conforming people and transgender women who reported being targeted for harassment by the NYPD, with condom possession used as justification. Seventy-five percent of transgender women and people with a gender identity other than female or male reported that fear of the police had caused them not to carry condoms.

But as a recent report from Make the Road New York demonstrates, the use of condoms as evidence affects more than just individuals in the sex trade. Although none of the transgender and gender non-conforming respondents in the Make the Road survey reported being sex workers, 59 percent of them said they were stopped by police because they were profiled as sex workers. Not only are transgender women at higher risk for being stopped—46 percent of transgender respondents said they had been physically abused by police in some manner. These respondents were mostly people of color and all lived in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, revealing how their class, race, and gender identity make them targets for police violence.

The Red Umbrella Project is working to expand the narrow, problematic focus on violence within the sex trade by showing how institutions and policies are often the cause of gender-based violence—a term that is preferable to “violence against women,” since many of the individuals who are most vulnerable to violence arising from oppositional sexism are not women-identifying. We need to change the discourse surrounding sex work from one in which we only acknowledge violence committed by promoters (traffickers and pimps) and clients to one that recognizes harassment and violence perpetrated by the police.

Individuals in the sex trades need liberation from policies that facilitate gender-based violence against them. To that end, the Red Umbrella Project is also working with a coalition of advocacy groups to promote legislation in New York that would prevent police and prosecutors from using condoms as evidence, helping curb state-sanctioned, gender-based violence.