Last Tuesday, advocates of the NY Senate Bill 1379 gathered in Albany to lobby on its behalf. The bill would ban the use of condoms as evidence in criminal or civil prostitution cases. The bill would entail a new section being added to an existing law to prohibit “the introduction of possession of a condom or other contraceptive device in any trail, hearing or proceeding“ relating to prostitution. Currently, possession of condoms may be introduced as evidence of prostitution.
If passed, the bill would not effect New York State’s right to treat prostitution as a crime. It would, however, reframe the debate surrounding prostitution from one of criminal justice to one of public health. In the case of New York, the health New York Health Department hands condoms out by the truckload, only to have the NYPD confiscate them in a misguided attempt to discourage prostitution (rather than charge every suspected prostitute they just confiscate the condoms, much as they just take a beer away from a minor without charging them). In reality, this just encourages unsafe sex. Confiscating condoms doesn’t stop prostitution, it just removes a safeguard for everyone involved. Sex workers and their customers have the same right to be protected from unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and HIV as everyone else, and prohibiting the usage of condoms as evidence would be a major step towards that, and a major step towards recognizing the public health consequences of prostitution.
The New York Senate Bill comes on the heels of an agreement announced in San Francisco between SFPD and the SF Human Rights Commission. The agreement ensures that no condoms will be used as evidence in prostitution cases for a six-month, trial basis in the city of San Francisco. This agreement is actually an attempt to reaffirm a 1994 law that is already in place forbidding the usage of contraceptive devices as evidence. When it became clear that condoms had been used as evidence in prostitution cases, a commission was selected to re-establish the policy. The legislation matches the city’s longstanding commitment to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Other than San Francisco, (and hopefully NY), Washington D.C. is the only other city in the country with a similar policy.
Why is this important? Because protection from sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and pregnancy is important for everyone. Because the current laws fail to protect sex workers, and fail to protect their customers. Because this law, and laws like it, take a huge step towards treating prostitution as an issue that is a health risk rather than something that is a conscious, criminal choice. Because, according the Red Umbrella Project, condom “friskings” are a gendered version of a stop-and-frisk, and are predominantly targeted at individuals who are trans, cis, or otherwise gender non-conforming and/or of color. Condom “friskings” contribute to discriminatory practices. They contribute to unsafe sex. They abridge fundamental rights to privacy, and give police an incredible amount of leeway with regards to what looks “sex worker-ey” without any actual evidence. This law would be a step towards changing that, a step towards more equitable streets and more equitable policies. Regardless of your views on prostitution, this policy would encourage safer sex, and everyone should be able to get behind that.
Written by Samantha Jaffe