California Forum

Condoms are not a crime. Let’s help protect sex workers from becoming victims

A health educator with the County of Sacramento opens a packet that includes condoms and information to get tested for SDTs during a public health fair at Sacramento State on April 12, 2011
A health educator with the County of Sacramento opens a packet that includes condoms and information to get tested for SDTs during a public health fair at Sacramento State on April 12, 2011 lsterling@sacbee.com

In cities across California, public health departments, clinics and HIV prevention programs distribute and encourage the use of condoms.

In many of those cities, police and district attorneys use those very same condoms as evidence to arrest and prosecute persons they suspect of engaging in prostitution.

Nearly 5,000 people are diagnosed with HIV in California each year. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch found that half of LGBTQ youth engaged in the sex trade feared carrying condoms because they could lead to trouble with the police. One-third said they’d had condoms confiscated by law enforcement.

Police who use condoms as evidence often rely on profiling and gender stereotypes. White men stocking up on condoms for a weekend of hookups generally need not fear being arrested. But transgender women of color get profiled regularly.

Fear of arrest discourages marginalized populations from carrying condoms, leading to negative public health impacts for all. This is why, in 2013, the city and county of San Francisco passed local policies to prohibit police and prosecutors from using condoms as evidence in prostitution cases.

Opinion

Last year the city went a step further. San Francisco police will no longer make arrests on prostitution or minor drug charges when a witness or victim is reporting a violent crime, including rape and trafficking.

Recently, a sex worker was violently stabbed on a sidewalk in San Francisco. She only accepted help from authorities after she was shown a copy of the city’s new policy and assured that detectives cared more about apprehending her assailant than arresting her for any prostitution-related misdemeanors. With her help, police were able to charge a suspect.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is collaborating with trafficking survivors and public health advocates to implement similar policies statewide.

Senate Bill 233 will increase health and safety for those most at risk of being trafficked in two important ways. First, it will prevent condoms from being used as evidence to arrest or prosecute for prostitution. And it will protect victims and witnesses of violent crime from being arrested for prostitution.

SB 233 will help all Californians, but especially persons who are trafficked into commercial sex. Interactions with police often leave victims traumatized or incarcerated, with far fewer options than they had before the arrest. This allows traffickers to maintain control over victims by leveraging fear of arrest or deportation should they go to the police. Once a victim has a record, it’s harder for them to escape their exploitative situation.

Because our work is criminalized, many sexual assault survivors face difficult choices when deciding whether to report a crime. Like most sex workers, I fear arrest – or worse – if I call the police. The stakes are much higher for sex workers of color, street-based sex workers and transgender women who face a disproportionate amount of harassment, arrests and violence – especially at the hands of police.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, workplaces are grappling with how to respond to sexual violence, but sex workers remain incredibly vulnerable. Sixty percent of sex workers in a 2014 study reported experiencing some form of violence while working. Thirty percent reported a physical attack and 29 percent reported being sexually assaulted.

When I was assaulted last year, I didn’t file a police report because I had seen cops scrutinize members of my community in the past. I thought my chances of achieving justice were slim, and the likelihood that reporting the violence would turn into more trouble for me seemed too high to risk.

SB 233 would change that. It’s good policy for survivors, workers and all Californians.

Condoms should be evidence that someone wants to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections – nothing more. Everyone must be able to carry condoms without fear that they will be confiscated or used to criminalize them.

SB 233 will create a much-needed pathway for sex workers to feel safe to say “me too.” It’s time for California to prioritize health and safety its most vulnerable communities.

Siouxsie Q. James has engaged in sex work and is an advocate for the sex worker community.

  Comments