According to a recent Feministe article, the New York City Police Department is engaged in a practice which may be counter-intuitive to public safety. Current law enforcement policy allows for the use of condoms as evidence in the prosecution of prostitutes. This is deeply problematic for several reasons, mainly that it is a major disincentive for sex workers (and a disincentive for folks, in general) to carry prophylactics. As reporter Crystal DeBoise notes:
This practice is an outright slap in the face to the decades of hard work that public health advocates have undertaken to increase safe sex, decrease HIV and create a positive shift in the cultural acceptance of condom use. This policy discourages a stigmatized and marginalized group of sexually active people from carrying the tools they need to be healthy and safe.
I could not agree more that this practice actively encourages dangerous health choices. It also discriminates against an extremely high-risk, vulnerable, and ignored population.
However, on top of the public health aspect, I believe this situation also exposes the problematic ways in which society views sex workers. Regarding this, I want to discuss two interrelated issues:
First, this situation shows how our society criminalizes the marginalized. It has been shown repeatedly that most sex workers do not choose their profession-- a profession that involves a constant cycle of violence, economic insecurity, fear, and degradation. Many prostitutes (almost 80% according to some reports) are former victims of abuse, while others are physically coerced into their work by boyfriends, relatives, or “johns.” Most begin at a horrifyingly young age (the average age of entry is 13)-- an age too young to truly advocate for one's own freedom. As a country, we are stuck in a punitive mindset, where prostitution = illegal = worthy of severe punishment. Instead of providing the resources to help sex workers leave their situation, we make it even harder for them to regain entry into “normal” society, or, as seen in the case mentioned above, actively contribute to their health risks.*
This brings me to my second point: the criminalization of prostitutes (note, I say prostitutes, not prostitution) does not effect the scope of the illegal sex industry. Locking up prostitutes does not decrease prostitution, plain and simple (especially given that they are back on the streets generally within days after their prosecution after a plea bargain that leaves them in a more desperate economic situation than the one in which they began). Therefore, conducting some witch hunt for condoms is a pretty futile endeavor. The way to stop prostitution is to stop the demand for prostitution. This is where law enforcement needs to focus their efforts. If we're going to criminalize anyone, let it be those who are soliciting prostitutes, or those who are making money from the solicitation of others' bodies.
However, while this is an immediate and worthy place to start, the change needs to go beyond law enforcement. This needs to be a cultural change. We need to shift our perception of prostitution and its acceptance in modern society. We need to hear the voices of those who are victimized by this industry. Most importantly, we need to insist that soliciting persons for sex is not acceptable.
* See here for a list of resources and facts on prostitution.