The woman asked Officer Hill why he was stopping her.
She wore jean shorts and a tight red shirt and had stood outdoors for half an hour. She’d had a conversation with a passing man. When Officer Hill searched her bag, he found a condom and $1.25.
He arrested her for “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” On the supporting deposition, he filled in the blanks for what she was wearing and how many condoms she had.
When I read over the deposition in the PROS Network’s Public Health Crisis (PDF), a study of how the NYPD arrests folks for carrying condoms, I thought of all the tight shirts I’d worn while idling outside on delicious spring days. I thought, She sounds like me. She sounds like my friends.
The NYPD will arrest you for carrying condoms, but that depends entirely on who you are. If you’re a middle-class white girl like me, you’re probably safe. But say you’re a sex worker or a queer kid kicked out of your home. Say you’re a trans woman out for dinner with your boyfriend. Maybe you’ve been arrested as a sex worker before. Maybe some quota-filling cop thinks you look like a whore.
Then you’re not safe at all.
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 a 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 if the condom were real, why should she have even 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.
Prostitution is only a misdemeanor in New York, but a conviction will knock you off food stamps and out of subsidized housing. While society feigns wanting sex workers to change their profession, it does everything it can to keep them where they are. Most prostitution defendants plea bargain. Too broke and scared to fight, men and women agree to charges that will follow them for life.
There are two types of prostitution arrests. For “prostitution,” the officer has to witness you making an offer, but “loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense” requires only circumstantial evidence. On the supporting depositions, officers answer a checklist. Were you standing in an area known for prostitution? According to Karina Claudio, a lead organizer at the community group Make the Road, these areas can be anywhere. Were you dressed provocatively? Did you speak to a guy? Were you standing next to someone who has been arrested for prostitution? Were you carrying condoms?
Claudio says, “There’s obviously a problem with a law so broad that if you are walking with a tight shirt in ‘a place where prostitution happens,’ you can be stopped. It’s like Russian roulette.”
And you’re far more likely to be stopped if you’re trans.
In a study conducted by Make the Road, 59 percent of their trans respondents had been stopped by the police. Cristina, a trans woman out clubbing with her boyfriend, was accused of prostitution when cops found condoms in her bra. Let’s just pause for a moment to imagine the groping that led to this discovery.
The cops refused to believe that her guy wasn’t a client. Claudio says, “This happens to our members for walking while trans. They’re going to stores, clubs, restaurants, and they get profiled as sex workers because of their gender identity and expression.”
That’s how you get arrested for carrying condoms when you’re not a sex worker. But, let’s say you are a sex worker. You’re carrying condoms to protect your health and that of your clients. You may have gotten the condoms from the city itself. New York distributes 40 million condoms a year. The city has its own condom brand, its logo spelled out in the bright letters they use to mark subway lines.
So, you’re arrested. The proof needed to lock you up is that you’re carrying one of these city-branded, city-distributed devices.
If the cops don’t arrest you, they have a habit of confiscating your condoms.
The PROS Network’s study is filled with gutting stories. A 37-year-old white woman in Coney Island says, “I was locked up because I had a condom. I wasn’t even prostituting. They took the condom.” A gender queer Puerto Rican sex worker, 22, says, “I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t. I don’t want to get any disease, but I do want to make my money. Why do they take our condoms? Do they want us to die?”
How does something so egregious keep happening? Because sex workers don’t matter.
Sex workers matter. They matter to their friends and partners, their kids, their parents, their communities. But sex workers don’t matter to power, even if power is paying a sex worker to dress it up in diapers every Wednesday.
Horrors are acceptable when they’re not happening to the dominant class.
NInety percent of people who are stopped and frisked are of color. Because of the work of community organizations, the mainstream media finally reports that the NYPD has been filling their arrest quotas by searching for weed under black teenagers’ testicles. They now report that, in a Clean Halls building, you could be slammed up against the wall, or even arrested, because you didn’t carry your ID when you were dumping the trash. If drugs and weapons provide an excuse to harass men of color, then condoms do the same for queer folks and women.
LGBT civil rights and sex worker 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 being jailed for carrying another contraceptive.
Mainstream feminism might remember that the war on women always starts with the war on whores. Then, that category expands to include everyone but the white virgin tying her knees together in church. Until 1996, Ireland locked up unmarried moms and rape victims in Magdalene Laundries, where nuns worked them to death to cleanse their imaginary sins. The nuns built those Magdalene Laundries to imprison sex workers. Tens of thousands of women died within their walls, of every walk of life except the very wealthiest.
A bill to end the use of condoms as evidence was introduced in 1999. Health and civil rights organizations have been fighting to pass it ever since. Audacia Ray, founder of the sex workers activist organization the Red Umbrella Project says that while many politicians are supportive of the bill in private, they’re afraid to champion it publicly. They don’t want to be seen as pro-prostitution.
If you’re a New Yorker who thinks it’s wrong that folks are locked in cages for trying to protect themselves and their partners from HIV, you might give your state senator a call. No Condoms as Evidence has more details.
With sex workers, as with anyone, charity doesn’t change things. Solidarity does. Have you ever been outside on a sunny day, wearing shorts, a condom in your purse? Were you afraid of being arrested? Or were you a good woman? A member of the privileged class? Do you look away from official violence, until maybe, one day, it happens to you?
Illustration by Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York. Her show Shell Game opens at Smart Clothes Gallery on April 14.