The Criminalization of Condoms

By: Anai Lopez

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For many of us, carrying a condom in our wallets or purses is not a big deal. It’s not uncommon for us to have a random condom or two on our person “just in case.” However, for many sex workers around the world, the simple act of carrying a condom around could put a sex worker at risk of being arrested. Fearing getting arrested, sex workers are then less likely to carry condoms while working, which then puts them at greater risk of HIV infection, pregnancy, and/or sexually transmitted infections. For this reason, I am advocating for the decriminalization of condoms because it would greatly benefit the lives of sex workers, and my goal is to persuade others to think the same. In order to do so, I must begin by giving a bit of background information.

In the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, many U.S. cities including San Francisco and New York have since began distributing free condoms to their residents as a way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. As we discussed in class, condoms are the most effective form of contraception when it comes to STI and HIV protection (April 25 lecture). Cities taking measures to protect the health of their residents sounds great until you begin to realize that the same condoms that New York and San Francisco are giving out can later be used as evidence of prostitution against a sex worker and lead to their arrest. The thing is, the act of carrying a condom is not illegal in these cities but if you are profiled as a potential sex worker by a police officer, chances are that if you have condoms on you, they’ll be seen as evidence of prostitution. According to Jenna Sauers on, the reasons why a person may be profiled as a sex worker are “…if you’re wearing the wrong thing, walking in the wrong neighborhood, talking to the wrong person, have the wrong gender identity or the wrong sexual orientation, if your skin is the wrong color, if you’re carrying the wrong amount of cash in the wrong place or you have the wrong attitude — possession of condoms can lead to your arrest.” Police profiling is clearly harassment and discrimination, but it can also be interpreted as cissexist in the case of transgender sex workers. As we discussed in class, gender attribution and other discriminatory practices occur when a person makes assumptions of another gender expression (April 9 & 11 lecture).

The effect of police profiling of sex workers has thus led to a decrease in sex workers carrying condoms. Julie Turkewitz of The Atlantic explains that this phenomenon is due to “…the fact that condoms can be used in court as evidence of prostitution means that police will sometimes confiscate condoms, interrogate those carrying several, and use them as part of the basis for arrest.” Marc Krupanski from Open Society Foundations reports of one example in which a transgender woman in China who works as a sex worker named Shasha was stopped by police and was arrested after condoms were found in her purse. Afterwards, those condoms were used against her as evidence in court and she was sent to a detention center. Fearing what happened to Shasha will also happen to them, many sex workers instead choose to simply not carry condoms at all. This means that sex workers are put into a vulnerable position where not carrying condoms while they work has put them at risk and has had a devastating effect on the sex worker community.

The Human Rights Watch states that the effects of decreased usage of condoms in the sex worker community are as follows: ”Police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution has the same effect everywhere: despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment.” Not carrying condoms means that many sex workers are having unprotected sex, which put them in a vulnerable position as this could lead to the spreading of HIV. It is alarming to think that sex workers, one of the groups most at risk for HIV infection with an 11.8% HIV prevalence worldwide according to the US National Library of Medicine, is being put even more at risk due to police harassment.

It is for the reasons I previously gave that I am strongly opposed to the practice of using condoms as evidence against sex workers. I believe that the usage of condoms as evidence against prostitution is a clear example of society trying to control what they see as deviant. As we had previously discussed in class, society views sex work as deviant and thus tries to control it through social control (April 30 & May 2 lecture). Sex workers worldwide are already one of the most at-risk groups when it comes to HIV infection and the decrease of condom usage due to police harassment is only putting them more at risk.



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