For years now, the New York Police Department has used condoms as evidence of prostitution while the New York Health Department passed out condoms at the same time. Safe sex advocates and sex industry activists have recently won a major victory in an ongoing battle with the NYPD against this hypocritical policy.
Brooklyn prosecutors recently told police to stop collecting and using condoms as evidence of prostitution:
“In a letter sent last week to Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, said his office would not use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution or loitering for the purpose of prostitution.
‘Accordingly,’ Mr. Hynes wrote in the letter, dated Friday, ‘the collection and vouchering of condoms as evidence by members of your department’ in such cases in Brooklyn ‘should immediately cease.’”
It’s about time!
This policy is not only confusing and antithetical to the health department’s safe sex advocacy, but proposes an extremely problematic question that the NYPD is not equipped to sufficiently answer: What do prostitutes look like? How do they even figure out who is carrying condoms in the first place?
Well, they can't without operating on a few pre-existing biases.
The NYPD is not known for being particularly aware of their own prejudices. Unsurprisingly, this means that people of color and trans* people are disproportionately more likely to be targeted by this policy, and streetwalkers are the most likely to suffer as a result of this policy. Whether they are arrested or not, this creates an additional vulnerability for those who are some of the most vulnerable in our society.
To avoid giving the NYPD fodder if they do get frisked, streetwalkers may avoid using condoms in their services, thus putting themselves (and their clients) at considerable risk. Individuals targeted by the NYPD also may be inclined to avoid carrying condoms for fear it will be used against them, even if they aren’t escorts or involved in the sex industry. This policy, combined with Stop and Frisk, gives the NYPD additional power to harass and abuse those who “don’t look right,” meaning they don’t look white, well-off, and “appropriately dressed.” It’s a perfect way for police to continue justifying their already corrupt approach to vice, and operating on a perfect storm of slut-shaming, whorephobia, racism, and transphobia.
The change in this approach to how prostitution is prosecuted is far from perfect, though; Brooklyn’s District Attorneys state that they will still may use condoms as evidence in human trafficking cases, which are usually brought against pimps. Nassau County district attorney Kathleen M. Rice disagreed with this approach, stating, “It was very important to me to also extend the ban to traffickers...[If it doesn’t] traffickers will refuse to hand out condoms to their workers and in fact prohibit their use.” Continuing to use condoms as evidence against pimps leaves those they exploit defenseless, the very thing that prosecuting them is supposed to prevent.
Despite the remaining issues that need to be dismantled, this is still a huge victory for everyone working to make the sex industry, and the streets in general a safer place. Whether this change in policy will have an immediate effect remains to be seen; it may be too much to hope that the Brooklyn streets will see direct results. This is still a step in the right direction. The less we, as a society, put our already vulnerable members of the population in precarious dilemmas, and the more we value their input on their complex experiences, the better off we’ll be.