New York City health workers distributed over 32.7 million free condoms last year in attempt to encourage safer sex. However, the NYPD actively works against the benefits of promoting tools to ensure safer sex by targeting sex workers who have condoms in their possession, using condoms as evidence to arrest people on prostitution charges.
In light of the 19th International AIDS Conference that will be held in Washington, DC later this month, activists are calling on legislators to take concrete steps toward addressing HIV infection. Decriminalizing carrying condoms is part of this initiative, since sex workers are 10 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population. Furthermore, sex work is more likely to become a tool of economic survival for disenfranchised populations, such as the estimated 43 percent of trans people who have worked in the sex industry at some point in their lives.
Advocacy groups like the Human Rights Watch (HRW) say it is imperative to promote condom use among this community, rather than aggressively deterring it with threats of arrest:
Police officers confiscate condoms and prosecutors try to enter them as evidence not because it is official policy to do so, but simply because they have not been trained to do otherwise…Categories of evidence — like testimony regarding the sexual history of rape victims — are excluded as a matter of public policy in many legal systems. In this case, the value of condoms for H.I.V. and disease prevention far outweighs any utility they might have in the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. Law enforcement efforts should not interfere with the right of anyone, including sex workers, to protect his or her own health.
According to HRW’s recent survey on sex workers and condom use, 45.7% of respondents have, at one point or another, decided against carrying condoms for fear that they might get in trouble with the police. In U.S. cities where rates of HIV are close to the rates in some African countries, this is a dangerous precedent.
State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn) introduced legislation in April that would make New York to be the first state to ban police officers from confiscating condoms as evidence for prostitution cases. Montgomery explained that her bill is not meant to endorse prostitution, but rather address the high rates of HIV infection in New York. The bill is currently pending in the New York State Assembly.