An international human rights group says that police confiscation of condoms from sex workers undermines HIV-prevention campaigns and fuels the epidemic.
The 12-page report comes from Human Rights Watch in advance of the International AIDS Conference about to take place in Washington, D.C..
The report examined police and prosecutorial practice in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where condoms are taken from sex workers during arrests and used as evidence in the legal cases against the defendents.
The practice, said HRW, makes sex workers reluctant to carry condoms, causes them to engage in sex without protection and puts them and others at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“Sex workers in each city asked us how many condoms it was legal to carry,” said HRW senior health researcher Megan McLemore. “One woman in Los Angeles told us she was afraid to carry condoms with her and sometimes had to use a plastic bag instead of a condom with clients to try to protect herself from HIV.”
HRW researchers interviewed more than 300 people for the report, including sex workers, former sex workers, outreach workers, police officers, prosecutors, public defenders and health officials.
One sex worker in Washington told the researchers, “Police always ask ‘why do you have so many condoms?’ No one walks around with a lot of condoms because of it.”
McLemore said public safety officials seem to be working against each other – the city health departments invest millions in distributing free condoms in high-risk populations, but those in at least one high-risk population are afraid to carry condoms.
“These cities gave out 50 million condoms last year,” McLemore said. “But the police are taking them out of the hands of those who need them the most.” Police and prosecutors defended the use of condoms as evidence, saying that the practice was necessary to enforce anti-prostitution laws and that condoms are one tool that helps obtain convictions against prostitutes, their clients and those involved in sex trafficking.
The report also contains testimony from transgender women who said that police, as a routine, stopped and searched them for condoms. “Broad loitering laws in these cities invite profiling and discrimination and should be reformed or repealed,” HRW said in the report.