After many years of advocacy from sex-worker rights groups, the NYPD is finally relenting and will stop seizing condoms from suspected sex workers to be used as evidence of prostitution. Police Commissioner William Bratton offered the official reason: “The NYPD heard from community health advocates and took a serious look at making changes to our current policy as it relates to our broader public safety mission.” The fact that New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is an outspoken critic of confiscating condoms couldn’t have hurt, either.
That the NYPD seized condoms in the first place was always kind of surprising. Condoms are not only legal but actually distributed by the city—for good reason!—and the fact that you can get in legal trouble for walking around having them on your person is baffling. Such a policy might discourage people, whether they are sex workers or simply people concerned about being mistaken for sex workers by the cops, from carrying condoms around, raising the chances that they are going to have unsafe sex.
In fact, that’s exactly what was happening: In a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch found that around 5 percent of sex workers had unprotected sex rather than run the risk of having the cops shake them down and arrest them for carrying condoms. The policy created a general sense that having condoms was criminally suspect behavior, and sex workers reported that police would shake them down and confiscate any condoms they had before sending them on their way. Around half of the sex workers interviewed by the Red Umbrella Project said this happened to them.
While this change is a welcome one, it seems that the cops carved out some loopholes that may make it a little toothless. The NYPD will still be able to seize condoms as evidence of sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution cases, even if they aren’t allowed to seize them as evidence that an individual is selling sex. Andrea Ritchie of Streetwise and Safe told the Huffington Post that she fears this “creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.” Will the NYPD still be frisking people and taking their condoms, and just using “trafficking” as an excuse instead of “prostitution”? Let’s hope not. Regardless of your opinions on the legalization of prostitution, we should all be able to agree that if you’re a sex worker, it’s best that you use a condom. The NYPD shouldn’t be making it harder for people to prevent the transmission of disease, full stop.