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Know Your Rights
Source: The Village Voice
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

Is New York on the Verge of Ending Its Condom Bait-and-Switch?

Over 100 advocates, including public health groups, LGBTQ organizations [including Make the Road New York], civil and human rights nonprofits, and former sex workers, headed to Albany yesterday to encourage lawmakers to call on the New York State Senate and Assembly to passlegislation that would stop the confiscation and use of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses.

The New York City Department of Health has been giving away free condoms since 1971, and condom distribution has been a centerpiece of its public-health program since the city created its very own condom in 2007. You can get free NYC Condoms virtually anywhere in New York City (there’s even an app that uses GPS technology to find the closest distribution venue), and the Department of Health reports that it distributed 35.5 million condoms last year alone. Yet, as the Voice reported last month, police officers consistently confiscate condoms — often times those very same NYC Condoms — and prosecutors routinely use them as evidence to justify prostitution-related charges.

“If condoms continue to be cited as evidence of prostitution-related offenses, if police continue to question youth about how many condoms they have on them during stops and frisks, HIV rates will continue to rise, and our ability to protect ourselves from STI’s and pregnancy will continue to be undermined,” said Mitchyll Mora, a youth leader and researcher with Streetwise and Safe, an organization working with LGBTQ youth in New York. As the Voice reported in another article in March, LGBTQ populations face a particularly high risk of being arrested for carrying condoms.

According to Audacia Ray, a former sex worker and founder of the Red Umbrella Project, a support and advocacy group for sex workers in New York City, there is no outspoken opposition to No Condoms as Evidence. Rather, legislators are raising quiet concerns about the bill’s impact on human trafficking. Their fear is that if police are no longer permitted to use the possession of condoms as arrest of prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution, it might be harder to track down sex trafficking in the city.

Supporters of the bill stress that this is not the case. “In places where people have been forced into sex work, who are basically being trafficked, their traffickers either won’t allow condoms or will limit the number of condoms workers can use,” Ray explained. “It creates a situation of coercion where workers are not allowed to protect themselves.” Moran seconded this, saying the dangers of condoms as evidence are “especially true for people whose access to condoms is controlled by a person who is exploiting them. Using the presence of condoms on people or premises to arrest or prosecute anyone puts everyone’s lives at risk.”

Meanwhile, other cities and states are catching on to the issue. Last month, the DC Metropolitan Police Department began distributing cards asserting that condoms are not a crime. And in February, the California state legislature introduced a bill to prevent condoms from being used as evidence as prostitution.

Will the bill pass in New York? Advocates have two years to push No Condoms as Evidence through the State Senate before the current session ends. However, the bill has been reintroduced every year since 1999 to no avail.

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