It’s the first Thursday of the month, and as per tradition, a cadre of affable, semirowdy hos have filled every seat in the Lower East Side’s Happy Ending Lounge.
Shivering from the residual cold, the crowd—pretty, riot grrrl types in Daria bangs and Doc Martens—lets out a collective giggle as Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” floats through the loudspeakers. “Tonight, we’re playing ho anthems,” the host explains, drowning out Fiona’s molasses admission that she’s been a bad, baaad girl.
The evening’s theme is “Pretty Woman Redux.” The gathering is part of a monthly storytelling series from the sex-workers’ rights group, the Red Umbrella Project. For two hours, a handful of New York’s most articulate “hos” (as they endearingly call themselves), share intimate, industry tales.
As in past sessions, donations from the event will benefit a cause vital to every sex worker in the city: banning the New York Police Department’s well-documented practice of using condom possession as evidence of prostitution.
It’s a battle health rights advocates [including advocates from Make the Road New York] have fought for years. In every legislative session since 1999, proponents of a “No Condoms as Evidence” bill have asked state lawmakers to squelch the practice, citing evidence that it’s forced sex workers to stop carrying and using condoms altogether. In every session, the bill has died on the committee floor.
In recent months, however, efforts to engage lawmakers have accelerated, thanks to studies released in 2012 by the Pros Network and Human Rights Watch—two Manhattan-based organizations that say the policy has led to a serious public-health crisis.
In the Human Rights study, among a slew of other anecdotes, a sex worker named Anastasia L., claims she had unprotected sex “many times” to avoid the risk of arrest.
Likewise, in the Pros study, a “56-year-old participant in Brooklyn” describes a situation where a police officer took her condoms.
“No, these are for healthy people; hope you get killed tonight,” the officer told the participant, according to the report.
Soliciting, promoting, and patronizing prostitution are all illegal in the state of New York. Carrying a condom isnot illegal, but there’s no law that says the NYPD can’t confiscate a suspected sex worker’s condoms and use them as evidence in trial. The proposed bill would make that policy illegal.
Kate D’Adamo, an organizer with Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP) and Sex Workers Action New York (SWANK), has lobbied against condom confiscation for four years. Because suspected prostitutes are often targeted based on what they are wearing and where they are standing rather than overt illegal activity, she said, the policy is directly related to stop-and-frisk, another highly contested NYPD procedure.
“There are so many things that are so deep and so problematic about this policy,” D’Adamo said in a recent interview. “It’s about humiliation. It’s about stigmatization. It’s about not allowing people to make decisions on their own.”
Most importantly, she said, “It’s about telling an entire population that they don’t deserve health.”
Last April, in an attempt to push No Condoms as Evidence legislation, a group of about 50 sex workers and allies met with lawmakers at the New York State Assembly in Albany. Though advocates succeeded in gaining support—most notably from State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who agreed to sponsor the bill—nothing passed.
The group will try again. This year, they’re taking a different approach: turning the spotlight on those affected by condom confiscation who aren’t part of the sex industry.
Led by Audacia Ray, a former sex worker and director of the Red Umbrella Project, organizers recently met at Bluestockings bookstore in Manhattan to discuss the new strategy. Having to shift attention away from the safety of sex workers “hurts a little,” Ray told the group, but doing so might be the only way to engage lawmakers.
Until very recently, my own preconceived idea of sex work stemmed almost exclusively from well-worn Hollywood tropes (see: emaciated Anne Hathaways and giggling pretty women). The ladies of Happy Endings Lounge changed that. So did one of their clients… I’ll call him Nate.
When Nate moved to Brooklyn a few years ago (from the West Coast, on a whim), he snagged the first living arrangement he could find: a dark apartment in a Bushwick basement. At the time, Nate said, he only had a few friends in the city, and his only source of income came from hanging Christmas lights around the neighborhood. He was lonely, and in hindsight, probably depressed.
A search for Craigslist “acquaintances,” led to a search for casual, sexual hookups. Curiosity eventually lured Nate to the sex ads of the Backpage section, and before long, he started hiring women for sex. A lot of women.
I met Nate about six months ago, shortly after he started dating a good friend (Leslie, I’ll call her). In short, the pair split up after Leslie stumbled upon a series of email exchanges that indicated her boyfriend was addicted to paying for sex, and had been doing so for the entirety of their relationship. Leslie was, predictably, devastated by the discovery, and as is routine when something terrible happens to a good friend, so was I.
As traumatic as the experience was for my sweet friend, she is thankfully, remarkably, blessedly STD free. This, I am convinced, is a testament to the diligence of New York’s sex workers.
Nate, who withheld his embarrassment to speak with me for the sake of this story, said that every woman from whom he solicited sex always had condoms on her person, and always, always made clear from the get-go that he would wear one.
If lawmakers can’t be bothered to legislate on behalf of the health of sex workers (and history indicates that they can’t), perhaps they can consider my friend, and others unwillingly in her position, when listening to constituents.
There’s a quote in A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, a 1985 book that is a transcript of the First Whores Congress, the earliest international meeting of prostitutes’ rights groups, that captures the heart of this issue far better than I ever could. It also displays a regard for public health that New York lawmakers and police seem to lack.
Speaking in front of a crowd of her peers, an American sex worker suggests a line to feed would-be clients who object to using protection: “The fuck is for you,” she says. “The condom is for your wife.”
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