New York City, that charming bastion of tolerance, apparently believes that if a woman is carrying condoms, that can be evidence that she is a prostitute. If a police officer thinks you look like a whore — watch out. A single Trojan might be enough to ensure your arrest.
Or if you're not carrying condoms but the police still think you're a sex worker, they might just plant one on you anyway, as Molly Crabapple reports at Vice:
Like most laughably cruel tricks of the justice system, you probably wouldn't know that you could be arrested for carrying condoms until it happened to you. Monica Gonzalez is a nurse and grandmother. In 2008, officer Sean Spencer arrested her for prostitution while she was on the way to the ER with an asthma attack. The condom he found on her turned out to be imaginary. Gonzalez sued the city after the charges were dropped. But [even] if the condom was real, why should she have been arrested at all?
Arrest is always violent. The NYPD may or may not break your ribs but the process of arrest in America is still a man tying your hands behind your back at gunpoint and locking you in a cage. Holding cells are shit-encrusted boxes, often too crowded to sit down. Police can leave you there for three days; long enough to lose your job. If this seems obvious, I say it because the polite middle classes trivialize arrest. They talk about "keeping people off the streets." They don't realize that the constant threat of arrest is traumatic, unless it happens to them or their kids.
Carrying condoms is not illegal in New York or any state. But if a police officer profiles you as a potential prostitute — if you're wearing the wrong thing, walking in the wrong neighborhood, talking to the wrong person, have the wrong gender identity or the wrong sexual orientation, if your skin is the wrong color, if you're carrying the wrong amount of cash in the wrong place or you have the wrong attitude — possession of condoms can lead to your arrest. Your condoms can be confiscated and used in court as evidence of your guilt. Prostitution and loitering for prostitution are only misdemeanor offenses in New York, but they are highly stigmatizing. Employers discriminate against people who have been convicted — or even just arrested — for prostitution. A conviction makes you ineligible for food stamps and will get you kicked out of Section 8 housing. Most people charged take a plea bargain. Condoms are sometimes the only "evidence" against them.
There are many instances of non-sex workers being mistakenly profiled, and even arrested for prostitution offenses, because of their race, dress, or gender identity. (Trans women seem to have it the worst: 59% have been stopped by the police, and there are numerous examples of trans women who have been arrested for prostitution after police refused to believe that their boyfriends were boyfriends, not clients.) An arrest under such circumstances is obviously traumatic and unfair. But it is sex workers who are left in a uniquely vulnerable position by this policy of using condoms as evidence. Do they carry condoms, knowing that if they are searched, a condom may be the difference between a warning and an arrest and charge? Or do they not carry condoms, knowing that their health and the health of their clients is consequently at risk?
Carrying condoms can also be considered "evidence" of prostitution in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and other United States cities. Internationally, the police harassment and arrest of suspected prostitutes found to be carrying condoms has been reported in the U.S., Russia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.
A bill that would have banned the use of condoms as evidence in prosecution of prostitution and related crimes died last year in a New York state legislative committee. The bill has been reintroduced for the new legislative session.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all about this situation is that New York City itself distributes over 40 million condoms per year. They have an iPhone app and everything. The city makes a special effort to target sex workers for public health reasons. So while one arm of the local government is encouraging condom use, another arm is penalizing condom possession. If you're a sex worker, you can stock up on free condoms at any of hundreds of clinics or community centers. And then you can be arrested for carrying those same condoms as soon as you leave the premises.
Crabapple also faults the mainstream feminist movement for largely ignoring this issue:
LGBT, civil rights and sex workers advocacy groups are fighting against the use of condoms as evidence. Mainstream feminism is not. A movement that rightly and vociferously fought pharmacists who refused to fill birth control prescriptions has remained largely silent about women jailed for carrying another contraceptive.
When you compare the outrage over Republican attempts to put limits on access to contraception by women who have health insurance — who are by definition a privileged group — to the outrage over the condoms-as-evidence issue, it's pretty clear we have a lot of work to do. Anyone who doesn't see this as connected to the broader problem of the social control of women's sexuality is sadly naïve. The N.Y.P.D.'s controversial stop-and-frisk program — under which the police can stop and search anyone they deem "suspicious" — has attracted lots of quality reporting on how it disproportionately impacts black and Latino men (who comprise 90% of those the police target for stop-and-frisks). If drugs are discovered during a stop-and-frisk, an arrest is made. Even though the circumstances are similar — police officer profiles a suspect based on race, age, and gender, police stop and search the suspect without probable cause, police use items discovered in search as the basis for an arrest and charge, the only dissimilarity being that condoms, unlike drugs, are actually legal — a lot less attention has been given to the unfairness of using condoms as evidence.