I MET her at 2 a.m. on a cold and windy morning in Washington, when she ran over to the outreach van to get a warm cup of coffee. Volunteers were offering condoms and health information to sex workers. She took only two condoms, and I urged her to take more. She told me that although she was worried about H.I.V., she was more afraid of the police. A month earlier, she had been harassed by officers for carrying several condoms. They told her to throw them out. She thought if they picked her up with more than a couple of condoms again, she might be taken to jail on prostitution charges.
Her story is not unique. Over the last eight months, Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 200 current and former sex workers in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. The interviews were part of an investigation into barriers to H.I.V. prevention for sex workers, who, worldwide, are more than 10 times as likely to be infected as the general population. What we found was shocking: While public health departments spend millions of dollars promoting and distributing condoms, police departments are harassing sex workers for carrying them and using them as evidence to support arrests.
Many of the women we interviewed asked, “How many condoms is it legal to carry?” One wondered, “Why is the city giving me condoms when I can’t carry them without going to jail?” Some women said they continued to carry condoms despite the consequences. For others, fear of arrest trumped fears of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Most of those we interviewed told us they were afraid to carry the number of condoms they needed, and some — about 5 percent — told us they had unprotected sex with clients as a result.
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. An act of the legislature (like one bill pending in the New York State Assembly), or even a directive from a police chief or district attorney, could end the practice immediately. 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.
Later this month, the 19th International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington. The United States’ response to the epidemic will be in the spotlight; it is an opportunity for our government to announce new policies that protect those at risk of H.I.V. infection and to eliminate those that undermine prevention. Police and public health officials both seek to protect individuals and make our communities safer. They can — and should — work together to keep condoms in the hands of those who need them the most.
Arrested for Carrying Condoms?
NCHRC Interviews Megan McLemore
Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch
There is a disturbing trend happening across the country and we can now add one more casualty to the list of Things-That-Shouldn’t-Be-Illegal-But-Are: CONDOMS. Though condoms themselves are not illegal, in many cities they can be used as the basis for police harassment and arrest or as evidence of prostitution in court. In New York City, Washington DC and San Francisco, police are using the number of condoms women are carrying to justify profiling them as prostitutes, and even to bolster an arrest on charges of sexual solicitation.
Megan McLemore, Senior Researcher with Human Rights Watch, became interested in the issue while on outreach with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) in East Durham, North Carolina last spring. Megan has been working on issues related to HIV and human rights in the South for the last two years. Part of her research has focused on harm reduction, pushing to expand access to syringe exchange, medication-assisted treatment (methadone and buprenorphine) and other responses to drug use that are based in public health rather than the criminal law. While visiting with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Megan accompanied the outreach workers as they distributed supplies in East Durham and was shocked when a Durham sex worker refused the offer of free condoms over fears of harassment or arrest from local police. Megan began investigating the practice and found the criminalization of condoms to be prevalent in many U.S. cities. She plans to complete a full investigative report for Human Rights Watch by next summer. To date, Megan hasn’t discovered any condom arrests in North Carolina, through there is ample evidence to prove that sex workers think they can get arrested for carrying rubbers, and the perception is just as harmful as the real thing.
The public health consequences of condom criminalization, or even the fear of it, are severe. Taking away condoms won’t put sex workers out of business, but it will put them, their clients and the community at large at greater risk of HIV and STD transmission.
“It’s a public health imperative that sex workers and their clients have access to condoms,” says Megan McLemore.She’s not alone. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health organizations have also denounced the practice as contributing to the spread of disease.
But, as Megan explains, her research is not all about condoms. “This report will go beyond public health. It’s part of a growing advocacy movement among sex workers to stand up for their human rights. Other people don’t get arrested for protecting their health.”
The Human Rights Watch report on condom criminalization is set to be published in the summer of 2012. Until then, Megan will continue to contact and interview individuals and organizations who have seen or experienced police harassment or arrest for condom possession.
If you have any information about this practice, please contact Megan McLemore at firstname.lastname@example.org with your story.