Last week, without fanfare or media attention, California became the first state in the nation to adopt a law aiming to protect sex workers from being prosecuted as prostitutes merely because they're carrying condoms. The police practice of targeting for arrest those in possession of multiple condoms undermines critical efforts to help this vulnerable population avoid sexually transmitted diseases, advocates for sex workers argue.
The advocates applauded California's legislation as a step in the right direction, but they said the measure as written doesn’t go far enough.
"It's great that the California Legislature has contemplated this issue and taken it seriously," Sienna Baskin, managing director of the New York-based Sex Worker Project at the Urban Justice Center, told The Huffington Post. "That said, I do think a more comprehensive bill would be more effective."
The California legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law on Sept. 19, requires a court to state explicitly that the presence of condoms is relevant to the individual case before prosecutors can use them as evidence of prostitution. The original bill, authored by California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would have banned the use of condoms entirely as evidence of prostitution, but it didn’t have the votes to pass.
"Right now, there’s no process, and condoms are admitted into court even when they aren’t actual evidence," Wendy Hill, Ammiano’s senior legislative assistant, said to HuffPost. "There are very few cases [against sex workers] in which an actual condom is listed as a valid piece of evidence."
A report released by Human Rights Watch in 2012 looked at prostitution cases in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington. It found that in all four cities, police officers frequently seized condoms from sex workers and used them as justification for arrest. "The practice makes sex workers and transgender women reluctant to carry condoms for fear of arrest, causes them to engage in sex without protection, and puts them at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases," stated the 112-page report, published in advance of that year's International AIDS Conference.
Advocates for sex workers hope the additional legal requirement under California’s new law will act as a deterrent against specifically targeting those sex workers who carry condoms. "We believe that the process of having to seek a court’s permission on a repeated basis will ultimately prove too burdensome for many district attorneys to pursue," Whitney Engeran-Cordova, senior director of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s public health division, said in a statement. "As a result, sex workers, prostitutes and others may now possess more than one condom without the current -- and rational -- fear of incriminating themselves."
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s public health division supported Ammiano’s broader measure.
Last year, San Francisco banned the practice of confiscating condoms to use as evidence against sex workers outright. But according to Hill, incidents similar to those chronicled in the Human Rights Watch study are still commonplace in Los Angeles.
"There are cases where HIV health outreach workers would go out and distribute condoms, and then law enforcement will follow up right behind them as a means of 'cleaning up the streets,'" Hill said. "[Police officers] would threaten [the sex workers], arrest them or just scare the crap out of them."
According to the Human Rights Watch report, such police actions do nothing to “clean up the streets” and only lead to more unprotected sex. Hill argues that the only way to reduce prostitution is to "provide services and alternatives to the folks who are engaging in that kind of work."
She noted that in California, prostitution is usually considered a misdemeanor, resulting in the offender spending a night or two, if any, in jail. "It ends up costing the public in tax money, and it ends up being harder for [the sex worker] to get a job," Hill said. "And so the cycle repeats itself."
Beyond the four cities featured in the Human Rights Watch report, Baskin said further research has found that the practice of police officers using condoms to intimidate sex workers is widespread not only across the United States but worldwide. "It’s an issue in many countries around the world," she said. "There’s a real need for this kind of documentation."
Although she believes the California law doesn’t go far enough, Baskin said she’s encouraged. "It takes one state to take the first step," she said. "I’m excited to see a piece of legislation pass. There’s been a slow and steady building movement."
Baskin’s organization, which provides legal and social services for sex workers, is currently rallying behind a bill pending in the New York state legislature that would bar the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. New York City adopted a similar ban earlier this year.
"Sex workers should have full access to human rights just like all other individuals," Baskin said. "The right to protect yourself and to protect your health is something we’ve spent a lot of resources ensuring everyone has. We shouldn’t take that right away from anyone."