In a handful of major U.S. cities, police are criminalizing condom possession as a way to crack down on sex work. In New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., police routinely stop suspected sex workers and search them for condoms, which are used against them as evidence of prostitution, according to a Human Rights Watch report titled “Sex Workers at Risk.” The report chronicles the substantial barriers to preventing the spread of HIV among several of the most at-risk populations, including sex workers, immigrants, gay and bisexual youth, and transgender people.
“If I took a lot of condoms, they would arrest me,” Anastasia L., a sex worker in New York City, told Human Rights Watch. “If I took a few or only one, I would…not be able to protect myself. How many times have I had unprotected sex because I was afraid of carrying condoms? Many times.”
According to a 2012 report from Open Society Foundations, 52% of sex workers in the U.S. opted at times not to carry condoms because they were afraid doing so would cause problems with the police. These efforts undermine decades of work by HIV activists and countless public health campaigns that have worked to get free and affordable condoms into the hands of the most at-risk populations.
Even though condoms are legal in all 50 U.S. states, activists say police are using their mere presence as evidence of prostitution. These policies fly in the face of federal and international law, including a United Nations treaty.
According to police officers, however, condoms are not used as sole evidence of prostitution. “There’s got to be other associated factors involved that lead us to believe that this person is out there engaging in some type of solicitation,” says Officer Carlos Manfredi, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department. Manfredi says there is no department-wide directive indicating how many condoms are “too many”—a person carrying one condom is as likely see that fact used as evidence against them as someone with 60, if there is additional evidence implying prostitution. Manfredi says he is familiar with the Human Rights Watch report and understands the organization’s position, but adds that police officers find themselves in a catch-22 when it comes to reporting condoms as evidence.
“Being law enforcement officers, we cannot lie,” Manfredi says. “We have to give them all the facts that we see what’s presented to us. Say we don’t disclose that information in court, then the defense can use that against us.”
The Human Rights Watch report concludes that sex workers, immigrants, and transgender people are particularly hard-hit by the strategy. The report surveyed sex workers, advocates, lawyers, and police officers.