There is a disturbing trend happening across the country,and we can now add one more casualty to the list of Things-That-Shouldn’t-Be-Illegal-But-Are: condoms. Though condoms themselves are not illegal,in many cities they can be used as the basis for police harassment and arrest or as evidence of prostitution in court. In New York City, Washington DC and San Francisco, police are using the number of condoms women are carrying to justify profiling them as prostitutes, and even to bolster an arrest on charges of sexual solicitation.
Megan McLemore, Senior Researcher with Human Rights Watch, became interested in the issue while on outreach with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) in East Durham, North Carolina last spring. Megan has been working on issues related to HIV and human rights in the South for the last two years. Part of her research has focused on harm reduction, pushing to expand access to syringe exchange, medication-assisted treatment (methadone and buprenorphine) and other responses to drug use that are based in public health rather than the criminal law. While visiting with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Megan accompanied the outreach workers as they distributed supplies in East Durham and was shocked when a Durham sex worker refused the offer of free condoms over fears of harassment or arrest from local police. Megan began investigating the practice and found the criminalization of condoms to be prevalent in many U.S. cities. She plans to complete a full investigative report for Human Rights Watch by next summer.To date, Megan hasn’t discovered any condom arrests in North Carolina, through there is ample evidence to prove that sex workers think they can get arrested for carrying rubbers, and the perception is just as harmful as the real thing.
The public health consequences of condom criminalization, or even the fear of it, are severe. Taking away condoms won’t put sex workers out of business, but it will put them, their clients and the community at large at greater risk of HIV and STD transmission.
“It’s a public health imperative that sex workers and their clients have access to condoms,” says Megan McLemore.She’s not alone. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health organizations have also denounced the practice as contributing to the spread of disease.
But, as Megan explains, her research is not all about condoms. “Thisreport will go beyond public health. It’s part of a growing advocacy movement among sex workers to stand up for their human rights. Other people don’t get arrested for protecting their health.”
The Human Rights Watch report on condom criminalization is set to be published in the summer of 2012. Until then, Megan will continue to contact and interview individuals and organizations who have seen or experienced police harassment or arrest for condom possession.
If you have any information about this practice, please contact Megan McLemore at firstname.lastname@example.org
with your story.