In countries around the world, police are in the habit of confiscating condoms from suspected prostitutes. These condoms are then used as evidence in criminal cases. This happens in places such as Russia, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. You might be surprised — though, really, you shouldn't be — that this even happens right here in the United States.
Recently the New York State Assembly took up a measure that would prohibit the practice of confiscating condoms from alleged prostitutes and using them as evidence. Not too surprisingly, the measure wasn't even voted on.
In doing so, the Assembly failed to take national (and dare we say, international) leadership on an issue that affects some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Let's be frank: Using condoms as evidence of prostitution or confiscating condoms from sex workers is the grown-up version of “pull and pray.” Everyone knows that some adults patronize prostitutes. Everyone knows that prostitution is a high-risk job where the risk of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are the least of your worries. So in essence, taking condoms away from prostitutes as a means to combat sex work is like fighting greenhouse emissions by taking respirators away from coal miners.
Ready for another shocker? The overwhelming majority of prostitutes who have their condoms confiscated go ahead and have unprotected sex. That's right. Taking condoms away from kids in America and HIV sufferers in the developing world doesn't prevent them from getting pregnant or spreading HIV. Nor does taking condoms away from sex workers lead them to head home for a quiet night of knitting instead.
Further, there's an extra layer of hypocrisy involved. Often times, public health departments provide free condoms to sex workers in an attempt to control the spread of sexually transmitted infection. The police can then use these same condoms as evidence of illegal activity.
A close-to-home example? New York City gave away more than 37 million condoms last year alone. Out of 63 sex workers surveyed, 36 had condoms confiscated either as a form of harassment or as a pretext for arrest.
Another survey conducted by a sex worker advocacy group found that 42.8 percent of sex workers had condoms confiscated or destroyed, while 46 percent didn't carry them sometimes for fear of arrest and harassment.
The significant human rights issues aside, this is a massive waste of public resources at a time when state budgets are in crisis. On the one hand, governments are promoting safe sex and condom use to prevent the spread of STIs. On the other hand, local police forces are undermining these efforts.
The cost isn't just in misplaced resources. This dissonance also sends mixed messages about safe sex. Either condom use is an effective weapon at preventing the spread of STIs — which we know that it is — or it's not. These protections should exist for everyone having sex. One need not be a proponent of legalizing sex work to see the harm done.