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Condom searches are being used to profile sex workers

Condom dishYou may remember the feminist blogosphere talking about laws that said carrying condoms could get you arrestedA new report from Human Rights Watch examines the issue: sex workers and people profiled as sex workers, especially trans women, are being targeted by the cops with condom searches in Prostitution Free Zones. This puts sex workers at risk, as they’re then reluctant to carry condoms. From the report:

In four of the nation’s major cities—New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—police stop, search, and arrest sex workers using condoms as evidence to support prostitution charges. For many sex workers, particularly transgender women, arrest means facing degrading treatment and abuse at the hands of the police. For immigrants, arrest for prostitution offenses can mean detention and removal from the United States. Some women told Human Rights Watch that they continued to carry condoms despite the harsh consequences. For others, fear of arrest overwhelmed their need to protect themselves from HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Alexa L., a New York City sex worker, said, “I use condoms. I take a lot of care of myself. But I have not used them before because I was afraid of carrying them. I am very worried about my health.” Carol F., a sex worker in Los Angeles who had been arrested partly on the basis of carrying condoms, had a similar story: “After the arrest, I was always scared…There were times when I didn’t have a condom when I needed one, and I used a plastic bag.”

Much of the media attention has pushed a sensationalist frame in stories about how women could get arrested for carrying condoms that distract from the specifics of who’s being targeted and why. As Audacia Ray, a kick ass advocate for sex workers, told me:

Media wise, one of the things I’ve seen happening that, typically, reporters write that “women could be arrested for carrying condoms” – but actually it’s part of a profiling tactic, where people, especially trans women and gender nonconforming people, are stopped and searched by police. Condoms are sometimes used as evidence in prostitution arrests, but more often the police confiscate and or destroy condoms as an intimidation tactic.

In NY, people can be arrested for “prostitution” or “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”. So, condoms as evidence is often a gendered version of stop and frisk.

As the report argues:

The anti-prostitution loitering laws in New York, California, and Washington, DC are inconsistent with human rights principles prohibiting detention or punishment based on identity or status and should be reformed or repealed.

Human Rights Watch is calling for police departments to stop using condoms as evidence of sex work and for officers to get trained about HIV and STI prevention. They are also calling for legislation that prohibits the use of condoms as evidence, and for the Office of National AIDS Policy and the Department of Justice to look into this issue.

Open Society has also released a report about criminalizing condoms in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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